Come, Holy Spirit!

“Come, Holy Spirit!”

Acts 2-3 pentecost

Acts 2:1-4 (2:4) – May 31, 2020

My parents grew up in the 1920’s and 1930’s. That was the golden age of radio. When I was young, my mother used to tell me about radio serials she used to follow. Serials like the Lone Ranger, Little Orphan Annie, Buck Rogers, and the Cinnamon Bear. I know many people all across the country followed these programs closely every week, and listened to even more.

I think of our friends, the followers of Jesus on that hilltop. Like in the radio serials, when last we left our intrepid heroes, we saw them with heads toward the sky. They watched the risen Lord Jesus ascend into heaven. Fast forward to this week. Thank you, Levi, for reading our Scripture from chapter 2 of Acts.

Only a few days have passed since that miraculous happening. Jesus disappeared into heaven. Yes, Jesus gave His followers their orders. Marching orders! But—where are the disciples now? What are they doing? Are they fearlessly marching out into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the world? Come on, guys! What gives? What’s the matter? The followers of Jesus—both men and women—are waiting for something; something that Jesus foretold, something big that had not happened yet. Everyone was together in one place—waiting.

At least they all were in Jerusalem. After all, another religious festival was right around the corner. Fifty days after the Feast of Unleavened Bread (or Passover) the Festival of First Fruits, or First Harvest was celebrated. This festive day was also a glad ceremony in the Temple, and many Jews from hundreds of miles around were in Jerusalem to celebrate.

At least the Jews did not have a pandemic to worry about. No, Jerusalem and the surrounding area were packed with visitors ready to celebrate at the special worship services at the Temple, ex-pat Jews from all across the known world at that time.

And, where were the followers of Jesus? Up in that upper room, presumedly the same room where Jesus and the disciples had celebrated that Passover dinner the night before Jesus was crucified. They were there, but yes, they were shut away. Presumedly behind locked doors, for fear of what the authorities might do to them, even weeks after the crucifixion of their leader, the Rabbi Jesus. Or, is that the Messiah Jesus? Or, the risen, ascended Jesus?

The disciples of Jesus were all gathered together in one place. When, on that Harvest Festival morning, a noise like the rush of a mighty wind blew through that upper room. Apparently, it was loud enough—surprising enough—so that people on the street heard it, too!

The Holy Spirit came with full sound effects, with heavenly flames over each head and I suspect with some kind of noise, music or something that caught everyone’s attention for some distance. After the energizing of the Holy Spirit, the followers of Jesus couldn’t help themselves. They spilled out into the street, and started speaking other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them knowledge and utterance. Surprising? Amazing? Miraculous? Yes to all three!

I think the Holy Spirit moved mightily upon the disciples, and the very breath of the risen Jesus was felt by many—on that day of Pentecost, through the centuries, and to the present day.

The disciples of Jesus were all gathered together in one place. I envy them.

Because of the pandemic and the shelter-in-place order I have not been able to gather together with a number of other believers for almost three months. And, neither have you.

Sure, we have had online worship, Zoom bible studies and prayer meetings, and telephone conversations. Perhaps individual Christians have met each other in the neighborhood, taking their dogs for a walk or running into each other at the grocery store. We remain socially-distant, to be safe and caring for others who are elderly or in fragile health—but it is not the same as in-person worship, IRL. Not the same, at all.

However—do we depend on a structure, a building, a tall steeple to witness to the Resurrection? Or, is the Church something more, something much bigger than this building?

The COVID-19 pandemic did not surprise God. I am not here to tell you this is a judgement of God upon the earth, or upon one group of people or another. I do not believe a good, gracious, loving God works that way. But—I want to suggest something else. Is it possible that we, as followers of Jesus, can also serve God by being separate, socially-distant, apart and still caring for one another? Can we follow the final instructions of our Lord that He gave just before He ascended, to go to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth?

The newly-energized disciples spread the Good News of Jesus and His Resurrection, and of God’s reconciliation. Boy, did the Good News travel! The authorities in and around Jerusalem got seriously worried, so upset that they eventually started to crack down on anyone who called themselves a follower of the risen Jesus. The disciples needed to move out from Jerusalem, and started taking the message of the Good News out to the ends of the earth.

God did a new thing at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came with power! I wonder if God is doing a new thing now, today? It’s possible that “God will use such a time as this to blow new life through and among and into and upon us. For our own sakes, yes. But even more so for the sake of those to whom we are sent.” [1]

We, the Church, are on assignment—out among the people God wants us to minister to. Feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted, welcoming the stranger, taking care of the least of these. We can all tell people about the Good News—the wonderful news of God’s reconciliation and healing. Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://dancingwiththeword.com/all-together-in-one-place/

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Are We Fearful?

“Are We Fearful?”

John 20-28 st-thomas

John 20:19-29 (20:19, 26) – April 19, 2020

Have you ever been afraid? I mean, really scared? I am talking about so scared that you wanted to hide away from the people in charge, permanently? Maybe it was you, maybe it was some acquaintance or friend, but some people have really been scared so much that they stay holed up in some hiding place, some attic or some upper room—just like the disciples, after they watched their Rabbi Jesus get arrested, beaten and then crucified.

Two thousand years later, we all know the rest of the story. Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, that first Easter morning. What was it like for the disciples? I mean, the men disciples? Sure, they had heard from the women disciples that the tomb was empty. Peter and John had even checked things out at the tomb for themselves. It was true! The tomb was empty! I am sure that news caused a great deal of excitement, discussion, and wonder!

But, what about other feelings? What kinds of other emotions were happening to the disciples? How did they feel on the insides? Were their stomachs doing flips? Were their hearts in their mouths? Were they filled with amazement? Fear? Doubt? Or all of these emotions, all at once, or in stages? Could the disciples be hiding out behind locked doors because they were afraid, embarrassed and ashamed? What were they doing as Jesus died? They certainly were not with Jesus at the cross—except for John. Were they afraid of what Jesus would say to them about all their desertions if He really were alive again? [1]

John’s Gospel tells us, plainly, that the disciples were afraid. Fear is a legitimate emotion and reaction to a dangerous, scary experience.  Sure, the disciples knew that the tomb was empty, but that did not stop them from being afraid. I also suspect that they feared that the Roman authorities might come after them, as known associates of the Rabbi Jesus. The disciples did have good reason to be afraid and anxious of the people in charge.

And right into the middle of all this fear and anxiety—even though the disciples knew about the empty tomb—Jesus walked through a locked door into the upper room, greeted the disciples, and they were suddenly overjoyed! As if a modern switch were flipped, the disciples’ emotional expression flipped, too.

Except—for some reason, the disciple Thomas was not present in the upper room on that occasion. We don’t know why. The Gospel of John does not say. The other disciples told him, excitedly, “We have seen the Lord Jesus!”  But, Thomas was skeptical. He responded, “I need proof for myself. Unless I see the nail marks and put my hand in the wound in His side, I will not believe.” I can just see Thomas crossing his arms across his chest and turning his back to his friends. “Nope. No way. That is too big a whopper for me to swallow.”

Do you know someone who needs concrete proof in order to believe something? Different people’s minds work in different ways. Certain types of people need concrete evidence in order to convince them of the truth, or of the facts, or of someone’s honesty. Thomas was that sort of a person: a “show me” sort of guy. He needed that kind of proof in order to truly believe.

Whether we are talking about two thousand years ago, or about today, people have not changed. One type—one size does not fit all. Some people hear about the Gospel and believe right away. Other people hear about heavenly coincidences, or “God-incidences,” and then come to believe. We can compare Thomas’s skepticism before belief to Paul’s Road to Damascus experience, where the apostle Paul had a sudden “come to Jesus” moment. (Literally.) The New Testament holds up both of these very different experiences as valid.

I have heard sermons about “doubting Thomas.” As if there is something shameful or wrong with being skeptical! I suspect Thomas didn’t know whether to believe or not to believe; there is no shame in being skeptical! We can see that different people come to their own sense of belief in their own individual way, because God has created each of us as unique individuals. Is it any wonder that each of us comes to God in our own personal way?

When you and I think about this Gospel narrative in light of today’s events, there is indeed a great deal of fear and anxiety. Just as there was with the disciples, so it is right now. All over the nation, all over the world the virus COVID-19 makes all of us afraid and anxious. This virus is even more dangerous than the Roman authorities, forcing vast groups of people all over the world to curtail their travel, their interaction, even to the point of quarantine.

Yet, just as our risen Lord Jesus spoke to the disciples and declared, “Peace be with you!” He says the same thing to us. “Peace be with you!” Jesus has declared His peace to fearful people and to dreadful situations over and over again, throughout history. In times of serious illness, in times of conflict and war, in times of natural disaster—Jesus has these hopeful, heartening words for us: “Peace be with you!”

Jesus can come alongside of each of us, through fear, through anger, through desperation, and through grief. And if Jesus is at our sides, walking next to us even though we walk through dark valleys, that is peace, indeed. Jesus gives us His peace, no matter what.

Amen, alleluia!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/03/year-the-second-sunday-of-easter-april_13.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 2A, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

Who Are You, Lord?

“Who Are You, Lord?”

Acts 9 conversionofsaintpaul - ethiopian icon

Acts 9:1-20 – May 5, 2019

Once there was a recent college graduate named Martin. He had enrolled in a doctoral degree program at the University of Erfurt, but he went home for a few days before the class session started. On his way back, not far from the town of Erfurt, a huge thunderstorm broke over the countryside. Martin was trying his best to get to shelter when a sudden lightning bolt fell to earth. BOOM! It struck the ground immediately next to Martin—so close he could feel it singe his clothing! He was thrown to the earth with great force. Frightened almost to death—literally—Martin made the immediate, passionate vow that he would change course in his life, become a monk and devote his life to God. All this happened while Martin was traveling, on the road. A true “Road to Damascus” experience.

Has anyone here ever known someone who went through a radical transformation in an instant? Or, at least, in a relatively short time? That is what happened to Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus.

But, that comes after the end of our narrative, today. What is the beginning of the story? How did Saul of Tarsus get to this point?

The wonderful commentator Bob Deffinbaugh sets a vivid scene for us. He says, “Imagine for a moment that this is the week of Saul’s arrival at Damascus. By this time Saul has gained a reputation as the ringleader of the movement to make Christianity extinct. A devout Hellenistic Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, Saul did not agree with his teacher, Rabbi Gamaliel, on how the Christians should be dealt with. Rather, he sought the arrest, trial, conviction, and punishment (with imprisonment the norm and death the ideal, it would seem) of those in Jerusalem. Saul was not content to punish some and to drive the rest from the “holy city.” He did not want to merely contain Christianity or to drive it from Jerusalem; he wanted to rid the earth of Christianity and its followers. His opposition to Christ and His church took on a ‘missionary’ spirit. Saul went to other cities where he sought to arrest Christians and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. Damascus, a city 150 miles to the northeast of Jerusalem, was one such city. Word was out that Saul would soon be arriving.” [1]

I don’t know about you, but if I heard of such a bloodthirsty, vengeful person coming to my home town, I might be scared to death, too. What are the followers of Jesus going to do? Ethnic hatred blended with and heightened by religious hatred is corrosive and hurtful, and greatly to be feared.

This was not just a problem in bible times. Seriously, there are many places in the world today where determined, devout people want to eradicate people who do not believe like they do. Not just run them out of town, or out of the country, but instead, put them to death. I am not just speaking about devout Hindus, or devout Muslims, but sometimes devout Jews, or devout Christians or Catholics or Orthodox Christians.

This was the situation with Saul of Tarsus! He was a religious, observant Jew, an up-and-coming rabbi, a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” by his own account. And, he could not kill these “heretics” fast enough. He even had letters of recommendation to the heads of synagogues in Damascus, to let them know his official status as a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council.

This was early in the life of the Church, only a number of months after the great Pentecost happening in Acts chapter 2. And, the followers of “The Way” (as they were called) were spreading like wildfire!

But, similar to the situation with Martin in the scene I opened this sermon with, Saul was literally knocked off his feet. A heavenly light, brighter than bright, surrounded Saul. A shocking, out-of-this-world thing happened on the road to Damascus, indeed!

Just like Moses at the burning bush, just like Martin when the lightning struck, Saul had the presence of mind to realize that this was so huge, so stupendous, this could only be a God-moment! Have you ever had a God-moment? You, or someone you know? An instant when you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is present? Did you get an answer to that question, “Who are You, Lord?” up close and personal?

I did. I remember it vividly. Itp was early in my first chaplain internship, right out of seminary. In Cardiac Care, I held the hand of a tiny, very elderly woman as she transitioned from this world to the next. The woman had no one—no relatives, or friends, or any one else, except for a state-appointed medical power-of-attorney. I could feel the presence of God. And, yes, God was there with us, as she died.

Saul got that answer from God in plain language. From our reading today from Acts: “Saul fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” He replied.

How stupendous was that response! And, how crushing! All the orthodox theological and religious scaffolding Saul had painstakingly erected throughout his education and training was tumbling around his ears, in that one moment.

Dr. Luke continues with the risen Lord Jesus’s words: “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So, they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days Saul was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.”

“It was time for Saul to ponder what he had seen and heard. For now, he was told to proceed on to Damascus, where he would be given his next instructions.” [2] It was as if this revelation was going to come in several different pieces, or parts. Yes, his sudden conversion happened on the road to Damascus. However, Saul’s blindness allowed him the opportunity to think deeply about these events, and gave him the opportunity to wholeheartedly commit his life to the risen Lord Jesus Christ. How many of us would take something like this seriously?

Remember bloodthirsty Saul? Breathing fire and brimstone? Remember the shock and stunned reaction to the heavenly light, on the Road to Damascus? And, the follow-up question, “Who are You Lord?” Saul made a first-person testimony. We all can thank God for Saul’s—now, Paul’s—testimony and subsequent witness, too. Witness and Apostle to the world.

Remember Martin, almost struck by lightning? That was Martin Luther, and that was a true story. It really happened in 1505, and Martin’s life was forever changed, that day lightning just missed striking him. That was his Road to Damascus experience, sending Martin on the path to grapple with God’s presence and forgiveness in his personal life, and more.

It doesn’t matter whether you or I have had a Road to Damascus experience, or whether we more gradually become aware of God’s work in our lives, because there are countless ways to come close to God. These were the ways Saul (who changed his name to Paul) and Father Martin developed their relationships with the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus has His arms open. He wants us all to struggle out of blindness, like Saul, and come into His heavenly light, the light of a loving relationship and friendship with Him.

Come to Jesus, like Saul, like Martin. Jesus has His arms open wide.

Amen, alleluia.

[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/conversion-saul-acts-91-31

“The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-31),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/conversion-saul-acts-91-31

“The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-31),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

“We Must Obey God!”

“We Must Obey God!”

Acts 5-29 floral saying

Acts 5:12-29 – June 28, 2015

I remember an older documentary I saw on PBS about fifteen years ago, about classic comedy shorts. Tracing the history of comedy, I was introduced to a serious study of the silent comedy shorts of the teens and 1920’s. Including the Keystone Kops. I immediately recognized their wacky, incompetent ways as similar to other, more recent comedy acts I had seen. Running around, like chickens with their heads cut off. Bumbling, yet energetic, inevitably they would end up floundering around helplessly.

This reminded me so much of the Temple guards from our reading today.

You remember our Summer Sermon Series, from the book of Acts. Postcards from the Early Church. When last we left our intrepid heroes, Peter and the other apostles were regularly preaching in and around the Temple in Jerusalem. In the city center, getting lots of attention from all passersby. And especially getting negative attention from the Jewish leaders, the Sanhedrin.

Peter and his fellow apostles remind me of some modern-day radicals—I mean, street preachers. People like those calling for a living wage, or like those advocating for wider access to decent education for all people, or those clamoring for clergy accountability for hidden sexual abuse. Even though the Jewish authorities told Peter and company to pipe down! The disciples refused to do so. Just like the modern-day street preachers protesting today.

Remember, last week I talked about how those pesky, persistent disciples were like the carnival game Whack-a-Mole? How they kept popping up, all over the place, no matter how much the Jewish leaders whacked at them? Here they are again, those pesky, persistent preachers. This resistance was serious! This was major disruption!

Of course the Jewish leaders and Temple police needed to round up these pesky, disruptive upstarts!

We pick up the narrative at verse 17 of chapter 5 of Acts: “Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 “Go, stand in the temple courts,” the angel said, “and tell the people all about this new life.” 21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.”

You heard it again, right here. An angel of the Lord supernaturally went into the prison by night, and miraculously released this group of men. (They probably all were men, in prison. Although, there were women disciples of the Risen Jesus, too!)

Next thing you know, the angel of the Lord told the disciples to continue to preach, and to continue spreading the good news. If I had just had an angel perform a miracle especially for me, chances are that I would listen to that angel, too!

Moreover, the disciples did not hightail it for the hills. Instead, they stayed put, in Jerusalem, and got right back in the thick of things.

Even though the Sanhedrin specifically told them NOT to preach any more, what do you think they are doing? You guessed it. They are out in the Temple again, and on the downtown street corners, preaching away. Telling everyone who would listen about the Risen Lord Jesus, the resurrected miracle-working Rabbi who rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty.

Despite being sternly told not to say a word about what had happened in Jerusalem in the past few weeks.

Now, let’s look at the flip side. The side of the Jewish leaders. Starting at verse 21: “When the high priest and his associates arrived [in the morning], they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to. 25 Then someone came and said, ‘Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.’”

I can’t help but keep going back to the Keystone Kops! The Temple guards and Jewish leaders, who threw all these guys in prison. Even the bars and locked doors couldn’t hold the disciples! As one commentary said, the opposition—the priestly establishment—could not stop these determined preachers. The guards’ and leaders’ befuddled incompetence highlights how useless it is to oppose God and God’s purposes.

Rev. Daniel B. Clendenin preached a sermon on this text from Acts 5 a few years ago. He noted that “in July 2003, Dominican nuns Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert and Jackie Hudson, members of a peace community in Baltimore called Jonah House, were sentenced to 34 months each in federal prison for sabotaging the national defense and damaging government property. They had protested nuclear weapons by smearing a cross on a Minuteman silo with their own blood and pounding on it with hammers.”

Regardless of what anyone’s personal feelings about national defense may be, I can palpably feel how deeply these women believed in what they were doing. How they said, like Peter and the other apostles, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” How strongly theses nuns felt that these deadly nuclear bombs killed innocent civilians as well as opposition soldiers. Not just “collateral damage,” but individuals. Women, children, seniors, clergy, medical personnel. All creations of God, and all much loved by God. Just like all of us. Each one of us.

Did you hear? “We must obey God rather than human beings!” That’s how Peter and the other disciples responded to the Sanhedrin! That was their answer, and then they kept on preaching! They kept on spreading the Word of God!

The Jewish leaders desperately wanted to get these disrupters out of the way. But the public response and reaction to the outspoken disciples and their preaching—plus their very public miracles!—was overwhelming! The guards knew it very well, and they didn’t want to get hurt, or even stoned! Popular opinion? Very much in the disciples’ favor.

Looking at the present day, what is our situation? If we were to stand before a modern-day group of civic leaders, if we were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict us?

Are we telling people about the Risen Jesus? Are we witnessing to His mighty power? Are we telling people of Jesus’ awesome, affirming, welcoming acceptance? Do we let people know about Jesus’ all-inclusive love?

We can see, again and again in the Gospels, Jesus loves everyone! The loose-living Samaritan woman at the well. Nicodemus, member of the Sanhedrin. The thief on the cross. The chronically unclean woman with the flow of blood. That chiseling, tax collector-turncoat Zaccheus. I think that message of unconditional love and acceptance, told to each and every person the disciples met, changed people’s lives. Changed people’s hearts.

I ask again—what about you, and what about me? If we were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict us? Yes, we answer to God. And, yes, we offer each person Jesus Christ. His loving, welcoming embrace is ready, today! Are you? His life-changing message is here and now. Do you offer it freely, to everyone you meet?

God willing, I can. God willing, you can, too! Let us pray for the power, for the openness, for the willingness to share God’s good news. The Risen Jesus loves you. The Risen Jesus loves me. And He is ready to welcome all those who would come to the Family of God. In Jesus’ blessed, powerful name we pray, Amen!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)