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The “Cost” of Pentecost

Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  Acts 2:21 NRSV

The Holy Day of Pentecost has been often overlooked or ignored as not that important, but it is important in that it recognized and signifies the birth of the church and issues a challenge to the church in all time.

We most often associate the powerful wind that roared into town and tongues resembling fire resting on the heads of the apostles.  In our churches we wear red, maybe bring in geraniums (for the red), have fans blowing to remind us of the wind, and retell the story with an emphasis on the first 13 verses of Acts 2.

Interestingly, the scripture readers for the day (sometimes including clergy) are terrified about all the names that are listed in those first 13 verses, so they miss emphasizing the remainder of the passage which contains Peter’s sermon and invitation to the assembly.

Just to back up a little, the apostles were given the ability to speak in different languages so that the ethnically diverse group of people in Jerusalem could understand the good news of the gospel in their own tongue.  This wasn’t a moment of what is known as glossolalia where people are filled with the Holy Spirit and speak in an entirely unknown language that has to be interpreted.  This is a gift of speaking in another language so that those who didn’t speak Aramaic would be able to hear the message in their own language.

Peter’s sermon reminded the listeners that the prophet Joel had envisioned this day when everyone – EVERYONE – would be able to praise and glorify God in Jesus Christ.  Peter’s boldness was nothing but a gift of the Spirit since he had denied Jesus after Jesus was arrested.  Peter’s newfound send of courage came from God and the church was born.

In our celebrations of Pentecost, we often concentrate on the church and the gift of the church.  Somehow it becomes all about us again, but the purpose of Pentecost and the birth of the church has to do with how the church points to God.  In the last verse of this section of Acts 2, which is written above, we are reminded that we are called to move outwardly – toward others, to invite others to know Jesus, to welcome him into their hearts and believe in him.

The United Methodist Church states that our work is to “go make disciples.”  So the church is not only called to nurture, teach, and grow together, but also to send each other forth in the name of Jesus, the Christ, in order to make disciples.  We open doors and plant seeds so that others can come to know Christ.  That is the purpose of the church.

Pentecost is a continuing event in the life of the church and in the world.  The Spirit is at work, and we are invited to partners with God through the Spirit’s work in the world.  May it be so!

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Heaven

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”  Revelation 21:22 NRSV

For the nation of Israel, the Temple was their core.  It was where they believed God resided, and where they would go for the most holy days and festivals.  Even today, the West Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem is an awesome and holy place.  I remember standing at the wall to place my tiny prayer in one of the crevices and weeping for joy at the privilege of being in such a wonderful place.  Israel continues to be a special place, but most of us agree that God doesn’t just reside in that country.

We believe that God resides everywhere and is accessible to all people.  In the Christian faith, we believe that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God was reconciled to humanity.  At Jesus’ death, the temple curtain separating the Holy of Holies was torn in two as a symbol of God’s love and forgiveness for all the earth, all people.

So, when we think of “heaven on earth” it could be anywhere, and I think it is individual in that sense.  For some, it may be at the birth of a child; others may experience God’s presence on a mountaintop or by the ocean; still others may find God in the midst of a noisy city or working in rural areas.  It varies for everyone which demonstrates that God can be found anywhere and everywhere.

There are some who say that the earth as it is now is actually hell, and the scripture from Revelation 21-22 could actually indicate such a possibility.  We can see the widespread pain, hurt, sorrow, fear, and anguish that so many experience in life.  Yet, as the Church of Jesus Christ, we believe that we can help to build the kingdom of God even in the midst of such challenges.  We believe that God has called us to help make this “Heaven on earth” by living in the ways of Jesus, loving and caring for and about others, bringing kindness, compassion, and care to places where people most need it.

We believe that we are called to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, minister to the poor, visit the sick and imprisoned, clothe the naked, and reach out to the disenfranchised or outcasts of society.  Sometimes we don’t succeed very well, but other times we actually do quite well.  “Heaven on earth” is God working through all of us, and the temple of God is in all regions of this world.  Our mission field is large, and often it begins right at home (which is often the most difficult!).

Heaven doesn’t need to be a place far away or look any particular way.  Heaven is where the people of God carry out the mission of Christ.  Heaven is where God’s presence is made manifest because of all God’s children working together to make this world a better place.  And some day, heaven will be perfected because of God’s complete presence.  May it be so.

I Once Was Lost – Or Was I?

“. . . you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Luke 15:31b-32 (NRSV)

Whenever I read the parable of the Lost Son, I am reminded of the gospel song, “Amazing Grace” written by John Newton who was a slave runner until he was brought to his senses and realized that his work in transporting African slaves was wrong in God’s eyes.  He realized the error of his ways, repented, and eventually became a minister.  John Newton related to the prodigal son in the parable that Jesus told in Luke 15.

There are many people who have turned their lives around as they recognized the hand of God in their lives, and there are also many who have grown up in the church, thinking that they are Christians by virtue of being part of a church.  Maybe we all are a little of each.  When I was growing up, my family went to church without fail – no excuses, no matter how hard we kids tried to get out of it.  The only time we missed church was if we were sick, and Mom would stay home with us while everyone else went.  We never missed.  Did that make us Christians automatically?  No.

At some point in our lives, we must turn our lives around, confess Jesus Christ as our Savior and really believe it.  Those who have been lost understand that.  John Newton certainly did.  I suspect many of us become lost throughout our lives and find our way back.  Does God reject us?  No.  That’s one of the points of this parable.  Another point is that the other brother, who would be a lot like those of us who have been in the church all our lives, was resentful of the welcome and reinstatement of the younger brother.  We may not reject someone who has “left the fold” and returned, but what about those who have been long time members who see younger folks or new folks becoming more involved in church activities and committee and resent their “new” ideas.  The death of a church begins with resistance to change and the statement, “We’ve never done it that way before.”

The older brother complained because the younger brother had not only disrespected their father and squandered all the money he was given, but then he was allowed to resume his position in the family as a full-fledged son.  We really can’t blame him.  It’s not fair, and we understand that “not fair” thing, don’t we?

But let’s face it:  God isn’t fair.  God is love.  God offers unconditional love.  God gives grace.  God welcomes us home again when we have strayed.  God welcomes us every moment of every day through the chance to start over, to repent of our sins, and to receive forgiveness of sins.  So, maybe we are all the prodigal as well as the other son.  Are we ever the father in this parable?  Do we offer grace, unconditional love, and do we watch for the newcomer, the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the lonely, the sick, the outcast?  Do we love them because they are God’s child?  Do we care for them because of that generous love of God that we have been given to share?  It’s something to think about.  God bless your day!

Wings of Love

Jesus said, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  Luke 13:34b (NRSV)

When I was growing up and in my teens, my mother used to try to hug each of the four of us:  me and my three siblings.  As children, we didn’t mind so much, but the teen years brought what most teens go through – rebellion and not wanting to hugged by your parents and maybe not even being seen with them.  Somehow that stuck as an adult, and I wasn’t much of a hugger for a long time.  But I had a few friends along the way who taught me that hugging helped me to feel loved and somehow like I wasn’t alone, especially when I moved 1500 miles from home to live and didn’t have family around.

I try to be aware that there are many people who don’t like to be hugged, and, as a pastor, I ask permission before I hug and watch body language and facial expressions.  On the other hand, there are some people who only receive a hug when they come to church because they have no one else.  In one of the churches I have served, there are several people who have no one else in the world – no other family and very few friends because they no longer drive or most of the people who were closest to them have passed away.  These folks want hugs and want to know the touch of a human being.

There is something comforting about Jesus’ imagery of the mother hen drawing her chicks under her wings to protect them.  Of course, I realize that the verses previous to the one quoted above talk about Herod, and Jesus refers to him as a “fox.”  I think Jesus uses the idea of a hen protecting her chicks to demonstrate his great love for all of us – a love so strong that he was willing to die for us.  He gave his life so that we might have life abundant in this world and in the world to come.

It seems to me that the church can provide the same sense of love and comfort to everyone who comes.  I would hope that people who come into our churches would feel the love of God through us, and that we would demonstrate what it means to be part of the life-giving and sharing qualities of our Savior.  If we aren’t offering that, we might want to take a look at what is going on in our congregations.  It’s all about Christ, and that’s where we begin and continue to offer Christ to the world.

Many people have had conversations with me about the “structure” of the church and the hierarchy of the United Methodist Church.  It is constructed in human minds and something that needs to be in place to give organization and order to our church lives.  I agree that sometimes it gets muddy and cumbersome and downright frustrating.  But if it’s the structure and organization of the church that keeps us away, then we have missed the point.  The calling of all churches is to share Christ with the world, so Christ must be the center of all we do.

That is our calling – to the best of our ability.  Let us offer the wings of love – Christ’s wings – to all whom we encounter wherever we are in this world.  It isn’t always easy, and it isn’t even always safe, but it is honest and true.  It will make the world a better place.  Give it a try if you haven’t been doing it already!

Welcome Home?

“And [Jesus] said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.'” Luke 4:24

Next week I’ll be flying out to the Midwest to visit my family. My parents are elderly and having a few issues so my sister and two brothers and I will meet with them to talk about where to go from here. I’m not sure actually that it will go anywhere, but we’ll see.

The interesting thing about being a full-grown adult (not all that far from retirement at this point) and having parents who are still your parents, after all, is that they will often continue to see you as the little child they raised. I remember my grandmother (who lived to be 105 years old) telling everyone that her seventy-something son was her “baby” (that’s my dad).

When parents age, they often fight loss, and that is one of the things we will be talking about this coming week. It’s hard. All their friends are dying, their capacity and stamina has greatly diminished, and often memory and physical problems keep them from doing what they would really like to do. So, this passage really struck me. You really can’t go home again – not as the person you are now because you are different. You have changed. My little hometown hasn’t changed much except to lose businesses and population.

We’ll see how this next week goes. I suspect God has some wonderful things in store for us, and that may be the best way to approach the anxiety of not being heard or having to wrestle with the issues we face. More when I return!

Whose Baptism is This Anyway?

When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized.  While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove.  And there was a voice from heaven:  ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.‘”  Luke 3:21-22 (Common English Bible – CEB)

Seemingly, I have read this passage in one of the gospels much of my life – a long time.  Until this year, I never noticed that John the Baptist wasn’t involved in Jesus’ baptism in the Luke account.  If we read back a little, we find that John is actually in prison, being held by King Herod.  So the indication would be that followers of John were doing the baptizing, according to the Luke passage.

Another interesting thing that struck me as I was reading commentaries in preparation for my sermon is that we often move right from Jesus’ baptism to our own.  I know that has been my tendency because I feel the need to help people understand baptism and what a gift it is as well as a responsibility for living our lives following Christ.  But several writers reminded me that I need to remember that this is about Jesus.  Hmmm.  Today is Friday, and I’m still mulling the shift and meditating on God’s message for me to share with the congregations this Sunday.

Whose baptism is this anyway?  Well, obviously Jesus was the one who was baptized along with a bunch of other people.  Why?  Big question.  Why did Jesus feel that he needed to be baptized?  We believe that he was God in the flesh, so what was the purpose in his baptism?  There are several thoughts on the answers to this question.

In many ways, it was a symbol of his new life – his inauguration into fulfilling his mission and ministry.  As a faithful Jewish man, Jesus may have felt the need for the purification of the washing as he moved forward into the rest of his life.  But John’s baptism was the baptism of repentance and forgiveness, so why would Jesus feel the need to repent?  That may be an answer that eludes us for now, although I’m sure there are plenty of pastors and teachers out there who have written about it.

Somehow, I think that another idea is that it is Jesus’ way of connecting with us as humans.  He was, after all fully human and fully divine.  Being human means that he was vulnerable just as we are, that he felt love, joy, peace, happiness as well as anger, disappointment, pain, sadness.  He identified with us on every level of our humanity, and baptism was one more way of saying, “I connect.  I understand.  I’m with you.”

Part of that identifying with us was claiming his own identity.  Note that in every gospel, a voice comes from heaven along with the Holy Spirit, naming Jesus as God’s own Son and beloved by God.  The CEB translate the voice as saying:  “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”  Peterson’s The Message reads:  “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”  I like that.  “Pride of my life.”  Most loving and caring parents would say that about their children – You are the pride of my life.

God said it to Jesus.  I belive God says it to us every day – we are the pride of God’s life.  God loves us with an incomprehensible love.  Jesus’ baptism IS about our baptism and about our identity as Christians.  We are baptized into Christ and given the name “Christian.”  Some people have rejected the name, but that doesn’t stop God from loving them anyway.  They have been claimed and named.

So, yes this is truly about Jesus, AND is it also about what we as his followers do in order to faithfully follow him.  How are we doing?

God Knows

Now after they [the Magi] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’”  Matthew 2:13

Jesus was born into a violent and often evil world.  His earthly parents whisked him away, and they lived in Egypt until it was safe to return to Nazareth.  Jesus knew what it was like to be a refugee.  John the Baptist was beheaded; people were stoned to death; crucifixion was a common form of capital punishment during his day.  When Jesus was arrested, tried, beaten, and put to death, he experienced the violence and evil of the world full force.  Jesus knew what it was like to feel pain, heartache, anger, disgust, discouragement.  Because Jesus (Emmanuel:  God-With-Us) knew, God knew.  God still knows.

God knows our broken hearts, and I believe God’s heart is broken along with ours as we think of 26 people who died a week ago in Newtown, CT.  God knows the grief and horror of children being murdered senselessly, of the bravery of teachers and administrators who tried to protect them, of the fear they all felt, and the heart-wrenching feeling of no longer having your child with you physically.  God knows.  God walks with us.  We aren’t alone when we go through the struggles of life.  We haven’t been promised that everything will be “a bed of roses” but that we won’t be alone in the journey.  Even Jesus had to go through a horrible death.

When we raise our children, we can’t always interfere with their decisions, especially as they grow into their teenage and young adult years.  Sometimes, we have to wait for them to make mistakes and learn from them.  At least, we hope they learn from them.  It’s hard to watch, and if we could, we would change it, protect them, keep them from making mistakes that will negatively affect their lives.  But the reality of life is that bad things are going to happen.  God is with us in order to give us the strength to get through them.  Those who don’t know God’s love are separated from that love, and they make bad choices that hurt others – innocent others.

We can be part of offering a different way of making decisions when we choose love over hate, kindness over violence, compassion over revenge.  That is part of what loving our “enemies” is all about.  We choose to behave and react differently from the normal expectations.  We are part of offering hope to the world.  Look at all the good that has started to come out of these shootings.  Many people are beginning to do 26 acts of kindness – one for each person who was killed in Connecticut.  Many have offered prayers, sent cards of support, collected Christmas gifts, written e-mails, and done whatever they can in order to show their caring for the families and friends who have to deal with their loss.

God knows.  God understands.  God loves us.  God is with us.  That’s what Christmas all year looks like.  Let us be part of it each and every day!

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