Sunday, May 24, 2015

Where Pentecost Happens

Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27;16:4-15Romans 8:22-27 

Pentecost is one of the church’s great stories, isn’t it? 
Dramatic! People with fiery halos, out in the streets, preaching the gospel with enthusiasm and vigor. Traffic stops and people from all over the known world listen, and hear, and understand, and get involved!
The punch line of this story - one they leave out of the selection we hear today, but one I can’t forget - is that three thousand people were baptized in response to this dramatic witness. Three thousand people join in, and the church is born as the faithful believers grow by something like 2,000 percent.

This is amazing! Right?
So why doesn’t God keep doing it?  What should be happening to us

If the Holy Spirit is supposed to be among us too, why isn’t Calvary growing by the thousands?
Why aren’t we lit up like fireworks?
Why aren’t there more of us out and about telling the good news in the streets and on TV?
Why - instead - is our world’s religious news so often about how the church is failing?

Maybe those things don’t keep you up at night, but I confess that every time we read and hear this story,  I get preachers’ envy.
Because, you know, I’ve never stopped traffic with the gospel, never seen conversions in the thousands, and some weeks, it’s all I can do to wake up to preach, much less be fired up like those disciples were.

It’s a tough story to measure up to, especially if - as I suspect - this is God’s standard for all Christians, not just preachers; for all of us who know the gospel story, and know we’re not supposed to keep it to ourselves.

So I’m always a bit anxious preaching on Pentecost, and a little resentful that the Holy Spirit doesn’t light up the room or the street for us the way we hear about in the Bible.
Until I re-read the beginning of the story, and remember that these are the people who’ve spent much of the last seven weeks hiding out in locked rooms in Jerusalem: hiding out in fear of the temple authorities, huddling because they’re weirded out by Jesus coming back from the grave,
worrying about who’s going to serve on the vestry, and praying, because they haven’t got a clue what’s going to happen next, and they’re still not over Jesus leaving them (again).

I sit at my computer wishing for the dramatic appearance of the Holy Spirit - until I remember Jesus telling those disciples that the Spirit doesn’t come unless Jesus goes, until they’re left leaderless and grieving.
And I fantasize about God’s holy fire making church growth and evangelism easy, until I listen to Paul talking about labor pain, and how the Spirit helps us at our weakest, when we can’t even find the words to pray.

And then I’m a little less envious of Pentecost, and a little more cautious about how I pray, because the truth of these stories, the truth of the fire and the spectacle and of Jesus’ teaching, is that the Holy Spirit shows up not when we’re looking for something to happen, but when we are vulnerable, fragile, uncertain, lonely or afraid.

The amazing thing about that story of disciples preaching in the streets isn’t just the language miracle, or the conversions, or even the visible fire around their heads - the most amazing thing is that these are folks who were - perhaps still are - afraid to leave the safety of their rented room. These are mostly under-educated, marginal folks who have no business in the public forum, just as likely to get arrested for disturbing the peace as to get a fair hearing. Anxious and at risk at the same time they are alight with the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit is indeed among us now, as Jesus promised, but needs us to be that vulnerable, be risky, lonely, terrified or helpless, before we’re ready for the power and transformation that make miracles.

Perhaps the promise of Pentecost, the miracle of the Holy Spirit, is not about results: proclamation, publicity, and conversion. Perhaps it’s actually a reminder that God’s business is with our vulnerability, not our confidence, our pain, not just our work, our empty spaces, even more than our successes.

Some of the best preachers I’ve ever known weren’t professionals, but people at our prayer desk, who’ve heard God respond to a prayer they couldn’t even name, a pain they didn’t even know.
People telling stories of love and loss at funerals. 
People reacting - just reacting - to the experience of being vulnerable in the presence of God. 

I’ve seen God more clearly, more transformatively, when you have let me help you than when you’ve been strong; more powerfully in apologies than in competence; more vividly when you’ve asked for my prayers, when we’ve made mistakes together, than when we keep it all running on tracks.

That’s what Pentecost is like, you know:
that huddle of disciples, fretting, waiting, wondering, hiding, are just reacting to the sudden powerful experience of the presence of God in their time of uncertainty and loss, fragility and suspense, and because of that, thousands of people see that being foolish is grace-filled, 
and being vulnerable lets God act.

That sounds a little scary, but it sounds like good news to me.
Since, like those disciples in Jerusalem long ago, I’ve got a LOT more vulnerability than success in my life - despite how good this life truly is - and an ample stock of doubt, grief, and fear.
And I’ll bet I’m not the only one.

Is there some vulnerability in your life, right now?
Some very present pain or loss, or some lurking, barely conscious fear or anxiety?
Are there things that feel too risky, things you just won’t do, because you’d be embarrassed, or lonely? Things you avoid, in case you fail, or in case you just don’t really succeed?

Believe it or not, those are the places in which Pentecost happens.
The cracks in our lives and hearts where we’re afraid that pain can get in are the openings through which the Holy Spirit pours out grace for us and others.

So maybe what you and I are called to do for Pentecost isn’t necessarily to run out preaching in the streets (if you want to, please do! But) maybe we’re called to embrace those cracks and limits, not avoid them.
To make friends with the pains or the doubts you try not to dwell on - we don’t have to face them head on, just sidle up to them, and be present - and remember that the Spirit prays in you in those raw and helpless places, prays too deep for words.
And when you respond to that,
God is revealed in glorious, wonderful ways.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Luke 24:36-48

Do you have any favorite sayings of Jesus? Famous words, or ones you turn to?
Like: Be not afraid…Judge not, lest ye be judged…man does not live by bread alone…love your neighbor as yourself…
There are a lot of good ones: truths or instructions that have taken on a life of their own over the centuries since the gospel writers first shared them.

One of my favorite Jesus quotes is a lot more obscure than those - not likely to be in any top ten list - but it’s something we heard him say this morning: “Got anything here to eat?”
It is probably the most banal thing Jesus is ever recorded as saying.  

It’s a family kitchen question, not a church teaching, and it’s bizarrely disruptive. Every time I read or hear this story - a story of the disciples and Jesus in the first day of resurrection - I listen to the shock and doubt and confusion of the disciples, the initial reassuring, “really, it’s me” words of Jesus, and I come up short at the unexpected, oddly commonplace question right in the middle of awe and wonder: “Got anything to eat?”
It makes me laugh, every time, and sometimes it triggers a bit of tears.
Because that bizarrely normal moment is so familiar.
It’s what we do, after death, after the world ends: We eat. And we grapple with normal.

It’s not just that the casserole brigades spring into action around a tragedy. It’s the way life somehow goes on, requires our attention to boring everyday detail, even when going on feels wrong. And that’s grace.
In the face of death and upheaval, the dog still needs to be walked, the kids need to be fed, laundry doesn’t do itself, you still have to bring in the mail and pay the bills…
and that’s grace.

Because it is, in some way, the assurance that life does go on, that you are real, normal, in spite of how dislocated grief can make you feel.
It’s the ordinary that makes the impossible possible, and brings the extraordinary within reach.
Not just in loss, grief, and death, but in any deeply emotional upheaval, including joy - including resurrection.

On that long ago day in Jerusalem, when the recently buried and freshly risen Jesus stood among his friends, trying to reassure them and encourage them, no one actually believes he’s real.

The grief is more real - and it’s still grief even if Jesus is risen; we’ve still lost something tremendous by his death.
The fear is more real - after all, someone you see again after death is a ghost, or a zombie.
And even joy contributes to the sense of unreality, to the below-consciousness conviction that this is a hallucination, a dream, too good to be true, even with Jesus inviting you to touch him and feel the living flesh.

So Jesus asks for lunch. And he eats.
Common, ordinary, broiled fish: for common, ordinary hunger.
And suddenly, finally, he’s real again in the face of his friends’ astonished disbelief.

Has that ever happened to you?
Has Jesus ever been made real in your life by ordinary details?

I’ve been assured of Jesus’ presence by the offer of a midnight snack in a night of grief and turmoil. I’ve been moved from anxiety to trust in God when a stranger, unexpectedly, made me laugh. And I think I began to believe that I would really achieve my longing to be a priest when I realized how much paperwork I was doing for the cause.

It’s the sheer banality of it that works,
that makes it real,
that makes it grace,
that cracks the unbelievability of the extraordinary and anchors the impossible in the possible.
It makes you laugh, breaks the tension,
and lets us cope, even a little,
with death and resurrection.

When Jesus suddenly requested lunch, the atmosphere in that room full of disciples must have gone suddenly from trauma waiting room to family kitchen - and that, after all, is where most of the work gets done, right?
Jesus doesn’t come back just to make his friends feel better, or even to make them believe.
He comes - and eats - because there’s work to be done.

Resurrection needs witnesses. 
People who’ve experienced the reality of Jesus, found it powerful and believable, and will share their stories and do something about that experience.

Two thousand years ago, that’s a handful of recently traumatized disciples, suddenly grappling with the miraculous, made real by the need to grill more fish.
And when the impossible becomes possible to them, they go out and change the world.

Here and now, that’s you and me.
Few of us have to deal with resurrection every day, and if we’re lucky, the times when we have to grapple with death are far between, but our faith makes other demands on us, too, and some of those can be nearly as overwhelming.

We face a world where the news is full of war and oppression, where hunger and homelessness are on our doorstep - and God calls us to change things that can feel far beyond our reach.
Or in our private lives, illness and injury can devastate us. Small injustices happen at work and school, family challenges - “little” things - but they can be overwhelming when they are vivid and fresh in your own life.
So you, too, have probably felt something like the anxiety, doubt, hope, and sense of sheer impossible scope the disciples grappled with at the resurrection.

And when that happens in our lives, perhaps we should start with lunch.
With one action — ordinary, commonplace — one step that makes the impossible possible.

Last spring, Navy Admiral William McRaven spoke to the gradating class of the University of Texas - a speech that’s cropped up in my Facebook feed often - viral and persistent because of one thing he said:
“If you want to change the world, start by making your bed.”

Start with one task. One ordinary, commonplace thing.
Because one accomplishment leads to another.
And if it doesn’t, if nothing goes right and you have a miserable day, “you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”

He learned it in Navy SEAL training. Six solid months of the impossible: of strain and doubt, facing challenges that you know are just impossible, but that ultimately become real, and make it possible to change the world.

So make your bed.
Eat lunch.
Make a pot of coffee…

In the Navy, as in the gospel, it’s the sheer banality of it that works, that makes it grace, and makes the impossible possible,
just enough, at least, that we, too, might change the world.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

To Practice Joy

Mark 16:1-8 (Acts 10:34-43, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11)

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!

That proclamation and response should just spill off your lips today, automatically, joyfully, proudly. Peter and Paul both remind us today of just how important it is to proclaim Easter: to publicly, confidently announce the news that Jesus, dead and buried, is alive again; that we have seen that life, full of God’s power, and that this news saves both us and the world from all that we could ever fear.
It’s our job today to revel in the celebration and to share the joyful news as far and wide and positively as possible, so we surround ourselves with flowers and feasting and fanfares and chocolate.
Alleluia indeed!

But Mark tells a different story.
Mark’s story is about Easter when we are not confident, not proud, not joyful. Because Easter happens that way sometimes, even if you wouldn’t guess it from this cheerful, festive morning.

It’s sunrise on that other morning, early and sleepless, as Mary and Mary and Salome go to the tomb where their dear friend — their leader and their link to God on earth — has been buried, sealed away after the most painful and shameful death the occupying Romans can impose. 
Their task is neither peaceful or pleasant, but full of anxiety and obstacles:
How will we get past the great stone sealing Jesus in the tomb?
Will anyone help us? 
Will we hurt ourselves on that immovable rock?
They wonder as they go.  
They worry - until they see, suddenly, that the stone is already moved, and the dark tomb gapes open. Then the worry doubles. Nothing good can happen at an open grave.

The women creep cautiously to the entrance and peer in — or perhaps they rush inside on a surge of anger and adrenaline — to find Jesus vanished.  The one time they could count on his being where they left him - since death generally has that effect on bodies - and he’s absolutely gone.

There’s a man sitting there, though. Unmistakably a messenger of God, unusual and dazzling enough to throw you into awe and fear — if the women weren’t already reeling from enough shock and worry.  
He tries to soothe their alarm, offering the news that Jesus is not just gone, but risen, alive and ahead of them, not dead and lost - and gives them a message inviting Peter and the rest of the disciples to meet Jesus - to see him living and at work - in Galilee.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!

Mary and Mary and Salome are sent out to proclaim their experience of Easter, and to invite others to share it, just as you and I and all the church are reminded to do this morning.
But they don’t.

Mark’s last words in the story leave them - and us - hanging on the cliff: “They fled from the tomb in terror and amazement, and said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.”
Fear. Shock and awe. Speechless trauma. The emotions of Mark’s story are out of place in our bright celebration this morning, but they are right for Easter, too.

When resurrection happens to us, we don't always know it. 
When it's happening to us, resurrection often feels more like grief and fear that a bright and cheerful Easter morning. When God works life-giving transformation on the world and on us, the shock and anxiety may come first and strongest — even feel endless — but those sharp-edged moments are often the holiest Easter times, just as it was that long ago sunrise at an empty tomb.

Has that happened - is it happening - to you?
Are there dead ends in your life? Immovable stones blocking your way? Help you need, but can’t think where to find? 
That’s where God is already at work.
The promise of Mark’s Easter story is that where we are stuck and helpless, like the women on their way to the tomb, God is most stunningly and powerfully at work. 

When we are stunned by absence like the women at the empty grave — where there is loss, grief, emptiness and loneliness and betrayal in our lives — there too is the promise of Easter, like the message given to the women: 
Where we cannot see God, where we have lost our connection, God is reaching out to invite us to reunion, to meet again where Christ has gone ahead.

When we are voiceless, when change or shock or paralyzing fear or even unrealistic hope  robs you of your ability to choose your way, well, perhaps then your story is in God’s hands, not your own, just like the story of the women fleeing speechless from the tomb.

Mark’s story of anxious women, of resurrection washed in loss and fear, is the promise we need when God is actually bringing Easter into our lives in the same messy, anxious, disruptive way.

That’s why we practice joy this morning, and surround the story of shock and awe with festivity and flowers. We practice joy - we celebrate and feast and proclaim it now - because when resurrection is actually happening to us, joy can feel so far away.  
We practice joy now for the sake of the times we need it most.

So plunge in to this morning’s exultant jubilation. Rejoice in chocolate and bunnies and simple pleasures, in praise and thanksgiving and favorite foods. Laugh, weep with joy, have fun. 
This is our faithful obligation, our holy training, each Easter morning: to practice joy in all its forms as we remember Christ’s resurrection.

Exercise those muscles of celebration, because the world needs them — and you may need them — in those times when God is at work but the story isn’t finished, and we’re hanging on the cliff in terror and amazement.

Today we step off the cliff into light and joy, into the glory of Christ’s triumph.
Today we remember the promise and the truth that God can work resurrection even in our deepest pain.

So let’s throw ourselves into the joyful proclamation today: that Christ is risen, risen indeed. Throw our hearts into it so we can proclaim it with confidence and joy even in the face of dead ends, loss and fear.

Say it once more with me now:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!