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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Pentecost, June 6, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Exodus 3:1-12 and Acts 2:1-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

As I’ve contemplated flame this week, I’ve found my thoughts drifting to fire.  I like to light a candle to mark a time as sacred.  I have gotten lost in the single flame of a candle.  And who doesn’t like the candles on a birthday cake, even if there needs to be almost two-thousand of them?  But still, my thoughts kept drifting from flame to fire.

Twice in my life, fires in woodstoves have kept me warm in otherwise very cold conditions.  One winter when I was living in western Washington, there was a windstorm that brought down many branches and trees.  The branches and trees took down electrical lines.  And because I lived in a ruralish area, it took a full week before power was restored.  My furnace was a heat pump, so I moved into the family room of my home where there was a woodstove in the fireplace.  I dragged the mattress from the guest bed down there and made a little nest for myself.  And each night, I lit a fire, warmed up the room, then turned down the flow of air into the stove to keep the fire burning slowly through the night.

The other time happened when I was staying in my father’s cabin in New Hampshire during the first week of September.  Labor Day weekend, the temperature plummeted, as it can do in New Hampshire.  It got so cold I woke up in the middle of the night.  I got a fire going in the woodstove in the cabin and about an hour or two later the little cabin had warmed enough that I could get back to sleep.

When I think about fire, I think of it contained in a woodstove or a fireplace or a campfire.  I think of it warming me and comforting me and stilling my spirit.  I think of seasoned maple and pine logs snapping and popping as they burn.  The closest thing to a destructive fire I’ve experienced was a chimney fire I had that I didn’t find out about until I contemplated switching insurance companies and the new company insisted on a building inspection.  It had burned hot enough to crack the terracotta flue liner, but briefly enough I never knew it happened.

That’s fire’s paradox, isn’t it?  On one hand, fire gives warmth and light, and it lets us cook and read late into the night.  And on the other hand, fire destroys and consumes.  It devours whole towns, annihilates whole cities.  “Fire is essential for life and civilization, and fire is a threat to both.”[1]

The big challenge that cold night in the cabin was that I had to get out from under the pile of blankets to get a fire going.  Well, that was the first challenge.  The second challenge was that I needed more wood than was inside and I needed kindling.  So I had to go outside for those.  The third challenge was that my father and step-mother had recycled the newspaper, so I had to scrounge for something to light with the matches that would light the kindling that would light the logs.  The challenge the next day was getting things in the wood stove cool enough that I was comfortable leaving the cabin for a paddle around the lake.

“We could say the same of life with God – we cannot always summon a sense of God’s presence, even when we do the things we were taught in Sunday school would work; in other seasons, God roars into our lives in ways we wish we could avoid, tamp down, put out entirely.”[2]  It takes the match to get the newspaper burning, and it take the burning newspaper to light the kindling, and it takes the burning kindling to ignite the log.  It is the rare person who can burn for God without some external source of heat.  I know I didn’t get there on my own.  My mother and Sunday School teachers and friends helped lay the fire and ignite the newspaper.

And once the fires going, it takes tending.  I know I’ve built plenty of fires that were much more smoke than flame.  And I’ve tended fires that got burning so hot and fast that they consumed the fuel in no time at all.  And I’ve tended fires that weren’t sufficiently fed or that got too spread out and then cooled off and went out.  And so it is in my friendship with Jesus.  My zeal might burn too fast, or it might cool down and flicker out.  Either way, the flame is extinguished.  Sure, there are habits, practices, I can engage in to tend this fire, to keep the flame of God’s presence near.  Still, sometimes the flames leap and dance, not because of anything I did.  Sometimes the flames die, despite everything I did.[3]

“God appears as flame again and again in scripture.  God reveals God’s self to Moses in the burning bush, and then, centuries later, at the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples as flame.  Those two episodes might be the most familiar flames in scripture, but there are many other instances of God drawing near to people as or in fire:  God’s presence as a ‘flaming torch’ in the covenant [making] of Genesis 15; the pillar of fire that leads the Israelites through the wilderness [into freedom]; and God’s glory is ‘like a consuming fire’ on Sinai.…

“What might all these flames mean for our friendship with God?

“Often, in scripture, especially in the prophets, fire seems to stand principally for God’s anger, God’s jealousy.”[4]  But even there, it is not just the consuming fire, the destructive fire.  Even God’s anger and God’s jealousy need not be a conflagration.  According the Malachi, God is like a refiner’s fire, that burns off the impurities leaving only the precious metal.  Sometimes fire’s destructiveness is also regenerative.  “Fires can clear weaker trees from a forest and therefore allow the healthier, larger trees to flourish.  Soil nourished by burned vegetation becomes more nutritious for the trees the remain.  And some trees require fire to survive,”[5] like the lodgepole pine and several other conifers.

“Could the Bible’s fiery imagery suggest that God’s destruction is regenerative?  That God destroys not me but my sin, my hardness of heart, my fear, precisely so that I might be renewed? …

“Maybe, if God is fire, we are a grove of ponderosa pines.  Without the heat and burn of God’s flame, our pinecones would remain closed tight around the seeds that are needed for our thriving and growth and new life.”[6]

The rabbis note that it takes some time – five minutes, seven minutes, ten minutes – for a bush to burn.  But the miracle, they say, is not that the bush wasn’t consumed as it burned.  The miracle is the Moses paid attention, that he paid attention long enough to notice that the shrubbery was not being consumed.  “Only after God saw that Moses had stood still long enough to notice the bush in its unconsuming fire did God call out to him.…  Attentiveness, apparently, was the key attribute God needed for his chief prophet, deliverer, and friend.  God needed a prophet and friend who could stop and stay still and look with focus and concentration; God needed a prophet and friend who could really see.  God could have called to Moses in the form of a fellow shepherd, or in the form of a rock, or in the form of a breeze.  Instead, God arrested the attention of Moses as a flame.”[7]

This doesn’t surprise me.  As I said, I can get lost in the flame of a candle.  I can sit in silence as a fire crackles and hisses and flames curl around the logs.  At one point this week, I thought about playing the yule log during this sermon.  I thought it might be funny, and calming, and maybe even comforting.  I decided it would also be too distracting.  Like me, too many of you would just get lost in the flames.

But maybe that’s why the burning bush worked as a way to call to Moses.  “Fire captivates.  To encounter the blazing God is to encounter the God who can hold, and wants to hold, our gaze.”[8]

I suppose one invitation form the story of the burning bush is the invitation to notice how busy our lives are, to notice how hard it is to notice.  “We are all so distracted, rushing so hurriedly through the day that we barely notice our friends or ourselves,”[9] let alone God.  We get distracted, sending text messages, checking Facebook, worrying about children.

But this isn’t the only lesson.  God wants to hold our gaze.  “The God who wants to fix our attention and say, Here, look here, look at Me, don’t look away – that God is a lover.  That’s what lovers do, after all.  They gaze at each other utterly not distracted, utterly focused in their longing and their delight.”[10]

In her book, Wearing God, the book we’ve used as the basis of this sermon series, Lauren Winner tells a story[11] that is, unfortunately, too long, to simply read to you.  The story centers around two basins.  One basin is the basin she and her friend Isaac take every year on Maundy Thursday to what she says is “a small, ineffectual protest at an immigration detention center in Cary, North Carolina.  Every year, a stalwart band of Holy Week pilgrims gathers in a grocery parking lot in Cary, and … [they] process to the immigration detention center and set up two chairs.  One chair is occupied by whoever is having her feet washed, and the other chair is left empty, as a reminder of the people who are absent from us – from our families and our churches – because of current immigration law.”

On one particular Maundy Thursday, Winner’s thoughts wander to another basin, a basin carried my Nhat Chi Mai to a Buddhist temple in Saigon on May 16, 1967.  “Her friends assumed she was there for the traditional washing of the Buddha, but her basin was full of gasoline, not water.  Nhat Chi Mai poured the gasoline over herself and lit herself on fire.  She sat in the lotus position while she burned, and she prayed, and she died.”  She had written to the U.S. government, “I pray that the flame that is consuming my body will burn away all ambition and hatred which have been pushing many of us into Hell of the soul and creating so much suffering among human beings.  I pray that the human race will be able to inherit Buddha’s Compassion, Jesus’ love, and the legacy of man’s humaneness.”

Reflecting on the differences in their basins – Nhat’s held gasoline; Winner’s holds water – Winner writes, “It is a venerated thing in the Christian tradition to imitate Christ even to the point of death,…  I wonder what kind of faith one would have to have – in the resurrection, in the resurrected body, in setting your treasure by in heaven – in order to burn yourself to death in protest.  I am not alone in not knowing what to think:  even Buddhists and Christians in Vietnam in the 1960s did not know what to think about self-immolation.  Was this truly a nonviolent protest?  Was it worship or suicide?”

“There’s a relationship that I can’t quite pin down between Nhat Chi Mai’s body and the burning bush.  Here body’s being consumed and the bush’s refusal to be consumed – both command attention.

“It is not just attention to the truth about ourselves that God’s flame can direct.  God’s flame also wants to focus our attention on the world.…  Before you can act, first you have to see.”  In a way, it can be argued that prayer is not productive.  Prayer does not get God to change an immigration policy or to stop a war.  It is not a means to an end.  And yet, I know that my own halting history of prayer, that engaging various forms of prayer is forming me into a person with the capacity to attend to God and to God’s world.

As we move into a short time of reflection, I have a few questions for you to consider as we conclude this sermon series:
What sustains your spiritual fire?
How is God’s fire regenerative in your spiritual life?
How is God captivating your attention?
What situation in your life or in the world is God calling your attention to?

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God, (New York: HarperOne, 2015) 206.

[2] Ibid, 208.

[3] Ibid, 208-209.

[4] Ibid, 209-210.

[5] Ibid, 210.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 214-215.

[8] Ibid, 215.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 221-225.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 2:1-18 and John 3:1-18
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

[Because this worship service included confirmations, this sermon is shorter than usual.]

Today’s gospel lesson is one that has been used by some Christians as an impetus to evangelize and an argument to convince people to make a confession of faith in Jesus.  You might have missed it because the translation we used today is The Message, but today’s reading included the famous verse, John 3:16.  Some of you probably have it memorized, maybe even in the King James Version.  “God so love the world that he have his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not parish but have everlasting life.”

This gets used by some Christian to convince others to make a confession of faith in Jesus so they can have “everlasting life.”  It is also an impetus to do that form of evangelizing because they interpret it to imply that this is a matter of eternal life and death.  “We need to bring more people to believe in Jesus,” they would say, “because, if we do, they’ll go to heaven.”

I don’t believe that’s what John meant.  And I don’t think that’s what Jesus was about.  Jesus came that our live might be full – full of love, full of hope, full of completeness, full of direction and purpose.

That’s what Jesus was getting at as he Nicodemus spoke past each other in John’s narrative.  Because there’s a “this word has two meanings” thing going on in the Greek, we miss Nicodemus didn’t understand Jesus.  When Jesus talks about being born from above, Nicodemus hears Jesus talking about being born again – which is a pretty ridiculous idea.  Who can climb back into the womb and be born again.  You won’t fit.

Jesus tries to explain.  “I’m talking about the Spirit, Nicodemus.  The Spirit is moving!  You can’t see it, but you can see evidence of it.  You can see evidence of it in me, in my life, in my message.”

In fact, I would say that core to Jesus’ life and message was this good news:  “the Spirit of God, the Spirit of aliveness, the Wind-breath-fire-cloud-water-wine-dove Spirit who filled Jesus is on the move in our world.  And that gives us a choice:  do we dig in our heels, clench our fists, and live for our own agenda,  or do we let go, let be, and let come … and so be taken up into the Spirit’s movement?

“That was what the disciples experienced on the day of Pentecost, according to Luke, when the Spirit manifested as wind and fire.  Suddenly, the Spirit-filled disciples began speaking in languages they had never learned.  This strange sign is full of significance.  The Spirit of God, it tells us, is multilingual.  The Spirit isn’t restricted to one elite language or one superior culture, as almost everyone had assumed.  Instead, the Spirit speaks to everyone everywhere in his or her native language.”[1]

Our scripture lesson from Acts told the first part of the Pentecost story, but it didn’t include all of Peter’s testimony, and it didn’t include the result of that testimony.  So I’ll tell you about the result.  The crowd that heard Peter asked him what they should do.  Peter told them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”[2]

Yesterday, we set up our new baptistry and baptized Maddi Wagner.  And Grady Mahusay, Maddie Monkman, and Megan Keesis reaffirmed their baptisms.  We did this with lots of water.  We dunked them all the way under the water.  We buried them in the water and for a moment breath stopped.  And then they were born anew as they rose to new life.  In this sacrament of the church, they participated in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

In the Reformed tradition, we recognize two sacraments:  baptism and communion.  These two rituals of the church are considered sacraments because they are the only rituals of the church that Jesus participated in.  The Roman Catholic tradition recognizes seven sacraments among its rituals.  In addition to baptism and communion, they see confirmation, confession, anointing, marriage, and ordination as sacraments.  In the Reformed tradition, we call these other five rituals “rites,” sacred rituals, but not “sacraments,” because – as far as we know – Jesus was never married or ordained or …

I don’t think the distinction between sacraments and rites was part of the early church.  In fact, there was no separation between baptism and confirmation.  One was baptized and then blessed by the bishop, all in one ritual.  But as the church grew, the bishop couldn’t be there for every baptism, and so would make the rounds after the fact and confirm that the baptisms were legit.

Now, we don’t have bishops in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and – well, I don’t want to get lost in the weeds of church history and polity.  So, let me just get to how we see it now.  Now, we see confirmation as a choice that baptized person makes – whether baptized as an infant when their parents made baptismal promises or later when they made the baptismal promises themselves.  And in that choice, the baptized person is confirming that they are responsible for these baptismal promises.

Confirmation is much more a turning point than an ending.  Confirmation marks a shift of responsibility – from parents to child – for the spiritual journey.  I have yet to meet someone who had grown close enough to God to be able to say that the journey was complete.  So by confirming their faith, these young people are choosing the label ‘Christian’ and the responsibility of figuring out how to actually be a Christian.  And by blessing them, we are confirming that we have seen the evidence that the Holy Spirit is moving in their lives.

One of the places I turn to so I can be a little more open to how the Spirit is moving is to the just-about-daily reflection posted by Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston on Facebook.  Yesterday, he posted this:

“We are being transformed, each one of us, in our own way.  For some, this change comes gradually, unfolding over a lifetime, a process of growing nurtured by the slow acquisition of wisdom.  For others, the shift comes in a sudden rush, accelerated by some breakthrough experience, a burst of spiritual energy propelling the spirit forward.  For many, it is a combination of the two, years of steady search punctuated by moments of dazzling insight.  We are all being transformed.  No soul stays the same.”[3]

The Spirit is moving!  We are all being transformed.  None of us stays the same.

As we move into our time for quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on anything that caught your attention in our scripture readings or sermon, or to reflect on one of these:

  • Reflect on a time when you experienced the Holy Spirit in a powerful way.
  • Sit with and respond to the imagery of death, burial, and resurrection with Christ.
  • Hold the word “open” in God’s presence. Let images of openness come to you.  Direct this openness to God’s Spirit as a desire to be filled.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 40. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] Acts 2:38, NRSV.

[3] Steven Charleston, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1031287823622756 (posted and accessed 14 May 2016).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Pentecost Sunday, May 24, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 2:1-21 and Romans 8:22-27
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’ve been thinking about it, and hardhats may not be sufficient.  Hardhats offer some protection, but they aren’t strapped on.  Crash helmets would be better.  They offer more protection because they’re strapped on, buckled in.  The rubber gloves are still a good idea.  They might not be necessary, but they’re a good idea.  And not just to protect ourselves.
Did you ever notice that, with one exception, the resurrection stories in the gospels happen either at the empty tomb or in a locked room?  Sometimes, in the empty tomb stories, the resurrected Christ isn’t even there.  There’s just an empty tomb, maybe some angels.  When Jesus does show up, it is to appear to one or only a handful of people.  When the resurrected Christ appears to any sort of a group, it’s in a locked room.

The emphasis on the locked room isn’t about the “teleportive properties”[1] of the resurrected “body.”  Rather, it is symbolic of the “locked-door mentality of the disciples.  If I read properly the story immediately preceding Pentecost, there are 120 disciples packed into one dark room.  They have been re-gathered in the Easter event, but they’re still laying low, skulking about, looking over their shoulders, and [only] whispering the glad news.

“They have good reason to be afraid.”[2]  Their leader was arrested and executed.  And even though God conquered that execution, no one was eager to follow.  That’s the result the authorities were looking for, resurrection or not.  They wanted Jesus’ disciples to be afraid, to lock themselves away.  It started with Peter denying Jesus and then slinking away.  That’s the script the powerful had written.  “Caiaphas says that it would be better for one man to die than for this thing to get out of hand and bring the Roman heel down upon them all.  There is a fragile framework, a tenuous political arrangement that can’t afford to be upset.  They do away with Jesus in order to crush a budding movement.  Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will run for cover.

“The question is this:  Will the movement be ruled by fear?  Will the followers be contained and confined?  Rendered timid and silent?  Pentecost comes with a bold answer:  No.

“The story in Acts 2 begins presumably in the upper room and ends in the streets of Jerusalem.  For the life of me I can’t figure out how they got [from one place to the other.]  Carried by the big wind?  It’s as if the walls dissolve.  Or in a reversal of the resurrected Christ’s passage into their midst, they pass through the walls and out [into the world].  The disciples take the resurrection to the streets; they go public.

“To the authorities it must appear as political madness, an acute and, they hope, isolated case of sanctified anarchism.  Some people say they have had too much to drink.  Granted this refers in part to the inspired and ecstatic utterances, but even more so to their reckless courage.  After what’s been done to Jesus, you’d have to be either crazy or drunk to be shouting his name in the streets and pointing accusing fingers at the guilty executioners.”[3]

Up until this point in the story, the disciples have experienced the resurrected Christ personally.  It’s been much more of a spiritual experience, and awe-filled experience.  “Now they experience the concrete and practical freedom of the resurrection.  No political authority … can shut that down.”[4]

I don’t pretend to understand precisely what happened in the speeches that day.  But there are some characteristics that stand out for me.  For instance, they spoke without confusion.  They spoke clearly and boldly and they were understood.  “These were just plain Galileans.  There wasn’t a seminary degree among them, no studied rhetoriticians.  They couldn’t call a hermeneutic by name to save their souls.  They spoke rough, down-to-earth, fisherman’s-wharf Aramaic.  But on Pentecost they speak the truth with eloquent simplicity.”[5]

I wonder what would happen if disciples of Christ, or even a small group of disciples – say, our church – were to speak clearly and boldly without confusion on the issues of our day.  I wonder what would happen if we were to speak clearly on racial justice, or climate change, or local and global poverty and hunger.  On Pentecost, the Spirit compelled the disciples to speak not only about Jesus, not only about his death and resurrection, but about system that put Jesus to death.  If we were to allow the Spirit to compel us the way the Spirit compelled the disciples on Pentecost, how might the world change?

On that day of Pentecost, “the disciples spoke with a voice so loud and clear that never a doubt could arise in the heart of the simplest person.  They were understood.”[6]  And they did it under the tremendous pressure of the authorities listening in.

If we were to speak so clearly and boldly, would we become a threat to the powers that be?

Speaking with such clarity and boldness certainly made the disciples a threat to the powers in their day.  At first, the powers kept their cool.  “They exercised, at first, a prudent and calculated restraint.  … Perhaps the big wind of a movement will blow itself out (Acts 5:38).  The boldness of the disciples is relentless, however.  They are back day after day in the temple proclaiming the resurrection.  In the end, as the book of Acts attests, the consequence of Pentecost is arrest and imprisonment”[7]  In chapter 4 Peter and John are called before the Sanhedrin.  In chapter 9, they plot to kill Paul in Damascus and again in Jerusalem.  In chapter 13, Paul and Barnabas speak boldly in Antioch, where some “stirred up persecution against [them] and drove them out of their district.”  In chapter 14, the same thing happens in Iconium and Ephesus.  In chapter 28, while under house arrest in Rome, Paul is still going on about the gospel, talking away unhindered.  Nothing, it seems, can shut him up.

And don’t think that only the Pauls and Peters and Johns are worthy of such a power-infusion and boldness-infusion from the spirit.  The author of Acts “is careful to note that the flame rests upon each member, without exception, and that each person receives no more and no less than others – confirming that we are all equally blessed with the gifts and responsibilities of the Spirit.”[8]

The gospel lesson for today (we didn’t read it) is from John.  It’s a passage where Jesus promises the coming of the Spirit, only in chapter 15, John doesn’t use the word “pneuma,” the Greek for spirit, wind, and breath.  John uses the word “paraclete,” a word traditionally translated “Advocate” and “Comforter.”  David Dose says that these translations are insufficient.  He writes, “The Holy Spirit as Comforter eases our distress, encourages us, and comes to us in times of trouble to remind us of Jesus’ presence and promises.  And it’s just that kind of comfort, I imagine, that is at the heart of Jesus’ discourse to his disciples in the Fourth Gospel.  They were distressed, feeling orphaned and abandoned, and so needed that kind of comfort and advocacy.

“Why, then, do I think the Holy Spirit is misnamed?  Because everywhere I look in these familiar Pentecost texts, the Holy Spirit isn’t comforting anyone or anything but instead is shaking things up.

“[And] in Acts … there’s nothing particularly comforting about the rush of a ‘violent wind,’ let alone descending tongues of flame.  And once the disciples take their new multi-lingual ability into the streets of Jerusalem, pretty much everyone who witnesses their activity is described as ‘bewildered,’ ‘amazed,’ and ‘astonished.’  Again, the Spirit didn’t comfort anyone but instead prompted the disciples to make a very public scene with the troubling good news that the person the crowds had put to death was alive through the power of God. …

“The Holy Spirit is as much agitator as advocate, as much provocateur as comforter.”[9]

Dare we pray that God send the agitator and provocateur upon us?

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves,…” writes Paul in his letter to the Romans.  God is doing some massive transformational work here.  Something new is being birthed in all of creation, and not just creation out there, but creation in here, in our community and in each one of us.  Maybe the role of disciple and the role of midwife aren’t so far apart.  Maybe we should put on some rubber gloves so we would be ready for the delivery room.  The rubber gloves may not be necessary, but birth can be messy and if we believe that God really is doing something new, that creation is groaning in labor pains, it’s worth being ready.

When I came back to these familiar texts in my worship planning a month ago, an Annie Dillard quote popped into my head:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”[10]

I didn’t remember the quote quite right.  I thought she called for hard hats, but crash helmets are better.  They offer a little more protection because they get strapped on.  If we’re daring, we’ll ask God to send the Paraclete, we will ask God to send the one who walks along side us to defend and comfort and counsel, and to agitate and provoke.  If we’re daring, we’ll ask to be pushed beyond what we imagine is possible, knowing that we’ll end up stirring things up.  If we’re daring, we’ll let the Spirit create a new problem for us:  that we have a story to tell, mercy to share, love to spread, and we just can’t rest until we’ve done so!

If we’re daring, we’ll suit up with our hard hats (or crash helmets) and rubber gloves and let God draw us out to where we can never return.

Amen.

[1] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “In the Boldness of the Spirit,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/boldness-spirit (accessed 19 May 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Michaela Bruzzese, “Full Circle,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/full-circle (accessed 19 May 2015).

[9] David Dose, “Come Alongside, Holy Spirit,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/05/pentecost-b-come-alongside-holy-spirit/ (accessed 18 May 2015).

[10] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper and Row, 1982; quoted on “Annie Dillard,” Wikiquote, http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Annie_Dillard (accessed 23 May 2015).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 8, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 2:1-21
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Every year, we come to this story.  Every year, 50 days after Easter, we read from Acts 2 and we hear the story of the birth of the church.

The last chapters of the gospels and the first chapter of Acts tells us about the disciples having palpable experiences of the presence of Jesus even though he was dead.  They had experiences that were so concrete it was like he was physically present, even though they were locked away in rooms.  They had experiences that were so profound they were sure they were getting directions from him even though they knew the Roman government had killed him.

But then those experiences we call “resurrection experiences” stopped.  The sense of the presence of Jesus was no longer like he was physically present to them.  It was as if he had disappeared into the presence of God and since, given the cosmology of that time, God was in the heavens and the heavens are “up,” they talked about Jesus ascending into the heavens.

Last week, Pastor Brenda preached about what happened after this “ascension.”  She told us about how the disciples discerned a mission, a purpose.  They discerned that Jesus was calling them to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[1]  The line from Pastor Brenda’s sermon that stuck with me all week is that, after discerning this calling, the disciples (and I’m not just talking about the 12; this was a sizable group of men and women) formed a community, not a committee.  They devoted themselves to praying together and they selected an additional leader, someone to take the place of Judas Iscariot, and the community formed.

It was on one of those days, on Pentecost, the Jewish festival of new harvest, when this new community was gathered together in their upper room, praying together, that God acted.  The Holy Spirit blew through the community and they started sharing the good news.  Apparently they were speaking loudly enough that people outside, people from all around the Mediterranean world, could hear them – and not only hear them, but understand them.

“On a Jewish feast that celebrated new life and new crops by offering a gift of first fruits in gratitude and praise,… these Jewish ‘ignorant, backwater folks’ (a stereotype conveyed by the term ‘Galileans,’ but lost to us today as we read the text) become impassioned, eloquent spokespersons for the gift of new life, the beginning of a brand new era in which God is fulfilling promises and salvation is drawing near.”[2]

“According to Marcus Borg, the Spirit on this Pentecost undoes what happened on the Tower of Babel (in Genesis 11) as it brings back together the broken and divided community of humankind.”[3]  You’ll remember that the story of the Tower of Babel tells about the people taking advantage of all speaking one language and trying to “make a name for themselves” by building a tower to the heavens, to the thrown of God.  God dealt with this hubris by confusing the languages of the people, thus making communication impossible and scattering the people throughout the earth.  Pentecost reverses this, making people from across the earth understand each other.

Bringing back together the broken and divided community of the Tri-Cities is a big part of our vision for our church.  We proclaim that we are united – united – in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.  We are and are becoming a place of healing and wholeness for all God’s people, reaching in and reaching out with the gifts that we have to make manifest the radically inclusive love and extravagant welcome of God.  We do this in many ways – to name a few, we do it by creating a place of spiritual nurture in our worship service; by nurturing the faith journey of our children and adults; by creating a center for worship and mission (where it can take place and out of which it can take place); and by bringing the church to our members who can no longer come to church themselves.

That’s what we’re celebrating today.  Focusing on just a handful of the ministries of our church and letting them represent all the ministries of the church, we are showing how, together we build the house of God.  When I first started thinking about this sermon, I thought about how the Spirit is alive in our church.  Our ministries do show how the Spirit is blowing through our congregation, empowering our ability to live out the good news.  And as I thought more about the scripture reading, I realized the church is also alive in the Spirit.  It really is a both/and thing.  The Spirit empowers our ability to minister and our ministry is alive in the Spirit.  The importance of the story isn’t only, “Wow! Look at what the Spirit is doing in that church!”  It is also, “Wow! Look at what that church is doing in the Spirit!”

When the disciples gathered in the safety of the upper room, the Spirit came and the story moved forward.  Once again, God reignited the work of God’s people, gathering in God’s people in love and blessing.  In the mystery of fire and wind, language and understanding, the fearful disciples were converted to the work that God has always been doing:  loving, gathering and uniting, forgiving and raising up.  “The community gathered in that room could articulate every kind of reason not to go – lacking the right words or training or free time or money.  Yet they [were] suddenly and miraculously inspired, despite themselves, to act just like Jesus.  The Spirit embodied in Jesus now fill[ed] their bodies – the body of Christ.

“Today, our shifting cultural landscape creates fear about our future.  We might not be gathered in an upper room, but there is a lot of fear in [sanctuaries and social halls of the churches].  We wonder if our towers and our treasured belief[s] will survive the winds of this century.”[4]  We can let our fear keep us sheltered away or we can let the Spirit continue to blow through our lives and continue to find new ways to gather in God’s people in love and blessing.

We say that Pentecost is the church’s birthday, but it’s not the founding of an institution.  It’s the inauguration of a movement of people “who speak blessing and take back curses.”[5]

I read about “a Pentecost children’s sermon in which the pastor asked the children how many candles should be on the church’s birthday cake.  Eventually, one kid guessed the year – but she added that ‘you can’t blow out that many candles.’”[6]  Think about that.  “You can’t blow out that many candles.”  Whenever I fear about the future of the church, I remind myself that it is God’s church, that the Spirit is empowering the church and human beings can’t blow it out.

“Again and again, God promises to set us on fire with a promise that cannot be extinguished.  From the pinnacle of Pentecost, we hear that God is already at work filling the whole creation with blessing.…  If we’re [lucky and if we allow ourselves to be not too] careful, it’s going to carry us away, too – to the ends of the earth, or at least out the door and into the wideness of creation.”[7]

Amen.

__________________

[1] Acts 1:8

[2]  Matthew L. Skinner in New Proclamation Year B 2006, cited by Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/june-8-2014.html (5 June 2014).

[3] Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, cited by Huey, ibid.

[4] Bradley E. Schmeling, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, 28 May 2014, p 21.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
a new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Pentecost Sunday, May 19, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Revelation 22:1-5 and Acts 2:1-21
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In a way, today’s sermon (which concludes this sermon series on water) brings us back to the first sermon in the series.  In that sermon, I spoke about the spirituality inherent in the poetry of the first creation story in Genesis 1 and the spirituality inherent in the scientific explanations of creation.  But the major point was about the necessity of water for the creation of life as we know it.  Without a liquid of some sort, life would not have evolved, and without water, life would not have evolved as we know it.  And I concluded that therefore we have a duty to protect it.

Today we come back to the water of life, but rather than being the water that enabled life, this is the water of a renewed creation.  Have you ever heard someone described as, “So heavenly minded, he was no earthly good?”  Yeah, well this applies if you’re not careful to interpreting the book of Revelation.

Revelation is written in a style that is strange to us 21st century types – not a Gospel or a letter, but a work of “apocalyptic literature.”  Somebody suggested that we might think of Revelation’s genre as a cross between the satire of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and the scary imagery of a Stephen King novel.[1]  Such writing is meant to pull back the veil, to expose the truth, opening life up to a new and deeper understanding.  Revelation employs symbolism and satire to expose the great power of the time: the Roman Empire.  And, as we’ll see, much of that imagery comes from the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially Isaiah.

What John does with this imagery is challenge the imperialist view of the world by suggesting a lamb, rather than the emperor, is on the true throne.  By chapter 21, Revelation is describing a rejuvenated, holy city – the “new Jerusalem” – which proceeds from God.  Heaven descends to earth, renewing humanity and the earth with a bustling, holy city.  Rather than God plucking us off to some magical planet far away, God comes home to earth.

Unfortunately, too often this image is missed.  Some Christians have a tendency to think, “Well, if I’m off to heaven, I shouldn’t care much about this silly earth of ours.  It’s just a temporary home, after all.”  In fact, Revelation suggests the opposite:  the earth isn’t truly “left behind,” but is being renewed, becoming the very dwelling place of God.  The images from Revelation 21 and 22 call us to care for creation as part of God’s homecoming.  They speak of a new heaven and a new earth, but it’s not a replacement heaven and a replacement earth.

John the Revelator speaks about a renewal of heaven and earth.  And water plays an important part in this renewal.

This actually isn’t a new image in the Bible.  Isaiah speaks of the power of water to renew.  “Waters shall burst forth in the desert, streams in the wilderness; torrid earth shall become a pool; parched land, fountains of water.”[2]  And this is only one of many instances in the Hebrew Scriptures where divine salvation is articulated in terms of the renewal – not the destruction – of the earth.  With so much (dare I call it wrongheaded; I think it is) Christian theology and politics anticipating destruction, it is imperative that we recover the renewal vision.

The “streams in the desert” tradition suggests that Israel’s prophets understood that the arid climate of their Palestinian homeland was not natural.  Rather, their deep memory understood the desert to be the result of historic processes of desertification, the result of centuries of relentless economic exploitation of the land of the Middle East – much of it (probably most of it) at the hands of economic empire.  The same is true today:  desertification continues because of economic imperialism.[3]

Consider the specific prophetic lament about the clear-cutting of the forests of highlands in Lebanon.[4]  The mighty cedars of Lebanon were cut down by Israelite kings and the kings on conquering empires.  In one case, Isaiah railed against the king of Babylon for clear-cutting the forests.  Yet he holds out an image of Yahweh’s liberating plan portrayed in terms of reforestation, of arid lands once again hosting those cedars, “the glory of Lebanon.”[5]  What makes this “greening” of the desert possible is that water will flow again.

Isaiah says that these renewed streams will also quench the thirst of the “poor and needy” – those marginalized by violence and oppression.[6]  Just as Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the Exodus story, so in Isaiah, the imperial pillaging of natural resources and the ecological side effects of the pillaging disappear under water.  These are extraordinary visions of social and ecological redemption as rehydration.

Israel during the biblical period was indeed a dry place, with few perennial streams, inconsistent springs,[7] and just a handful of actual rivers, most of which were relatively far from populated areas like Jerusalem.  Those living in this arid climate were primarily familiar only with the stagnant water found in small ponds, seasonal wells, catchment tanks, ritual baths, or clay pots.  Domestic water quality was often poor (hence the advice of 1 Timothy 5:23 to stop drinking only water, and use a little wine to offset stomach illnesses).  In Palestine, water was – and is today – an issue of environmental sustainability and social justice.

John’s vision of the River of the Waters of Life that we hear about in today’s reading stands in stark contrast to the realities of his readers at the time.  It “shines like crystal.”  This is not a supernatural claim, but a poetic observation:  pure water indeed appears crystalline when it is flowing freely from its earth source.  Who hasn’t been mesmerized by the dancing silver strands of a mountain stream?

His phrase “river of the water of life” connotes exactly that – the running, bubbling, lively water of a spring or brook.   We hear echoes of the image Jesus used to describe himself in the Gospel of John, chapter 4 – “living water.”  It is a strong image precisely because experiences of living water were rare indeed for this desert people.  This river signals a dramatic restoration that brings life to the land and those dwelling on it.

John the Revelator acknowledges this ecology of grace: water is a divine “gift.”  “Let the one who thirsts come forward, and … receive the gift of living water,” he writes later in chapter 22.[8]  Here he appropriates another subversive promise of Isaiah, which envisioned an end to the commodification and privatization of water by the powerful.   As Isaiah put it, “All who are thirsty, come for water, even if you have no money.”[9]

The Revelator’s River of the Waters of Life runs “through the middle of the great street of the city.”  The Greek word used here connotes the main thoroughfare of a Hellenistic metropolis.  It’s used earlier in the book, but in this earlier case it is a space of political violence, where the bodies of two prophets murdered by the imperial Beast lay in public view for three and a half days as a spectacle of state terror.[10]  Here at the end of the Revelation, this street becomes “transparent as glass.”[11]  It is as if New Jerusalem’s Main Street dissolves into a purifying river that washes away the blood of empire.

These living waters of life “proceed from the throne of God and of the Lamb.”  Elsewhere in Revelation they are depicted as a spring.  The martyrs “will not thirst anymore” because they are led to God’s throne, from which flow “springs of living water.”[12]  This echoes Isaiah’s vision of liberation from empire in which prisoners are led to water.[13]

The notion of Yahweh as a cosmic fount is found in several places in the Hebrew Bible.   “With you is the spring of life,” sings the psalmist.[14]  Jeremiah laments that his people have abandoned “the fountain of living water” for their own stagnant and leaky cisterns.[15]  And there are others.

These biblical metaphors identify water tightly with God, so consider what water can teach us about the character of God.

  • As I talked about in my first sermon in this series, there can be no life without water.  Likewise, there can be no life without God.
  • Water exists in three forms – liquid, solid, and gas – and these forms may help us start to wrap our minds around the concept of the Trinity.  But more important than that, these different forms are part of a great cycle that may help us understand the renewing nature of God.  Water moves from the heavens (condensation, precipitation) to earth and beneath (infiltration), to the sea and other large bodies of water (surface runoff, groundwater discharge), and finally back to the heavens (evaporation).   The analogy is not exact, but there is something in that cycle and movement that connects with how God moves to renew all of the planet, including us.
  • Water can be patient and accommodating, flowing around obstacles.  Yeah, that’s God, patient and accommodating, flowing around me when I’m an obstacle.
  • Yet water also has the power to wear down the greatest physical structures (or burst them apart through expanding ice); it thus makes hard things smooth over time.  When I need busting open, God will do it.  And God smooths my rough edges.
  • Water is a symbol of justice.  When a fluid, it flows downward, seeking the level.  This is a poignant metaphor of God’s concern for the “lowest.”  No wonder Amos appeals for justice and righteousness to flow down like an every-flowing stream.[16]

Today is Pentecost, the day we remember God crashing down on a group of scared followers of Jesus.  Luke uses the metaphor of God coming as the rush of wind and as tongues of fire.  This was, I believe, the beginning of God’s new river, the beginning of the River of the Waters of Life.  The time for the new creation is now, both in our lives and in the whole created order.  The Spirit comes to transform our lives so that we can be part of the transforming of the world.

The time has come for the old ways of using up the earth, of treating creation as a trash can for waste, of trashing the atmosphere with carbon dioxide to end.  The time has come for a river flowing with the waters of life – waters that renew creation, that bring justice, that offer healing – to flow freely.

We can no long think that how we treat our fellow human beings is one matter, and how we treat our environment is another.  We can no longer consider right behavior toward a neighbor apart from the land, water, vineyard, crops – in short, the fruitfulness of creation which ensures our neighbor’s life.  And biblically, the definition of neighbor expands not only across geographical and racial boundaries, but through the boundaries of time, from the present into future generations.

The prophetic visions in scripture call us to be part of God’s restorative justice for society and for the environment.  Our lands are parched.  Our lands are parched by imperial hubris.  Let the waters of life flow, bringing redemptive rehydration, a quenching of every thirst.

Just as the Holy Spirit calls us into the church, the Spirit calls the church to be a river of life for the healing of the nations and the earth.

Amen.


ENDNOTES
[1] Adam Copeland was the one who suggested this.

[2] Isaiah 35:6-7.  This and the other quotes from scriptures are, I believe, Ched Myers’ own translations.

[3] See for instance, the documentary “Blue Gold: World Water Wars.” The documentary is available on DVD and has been posted on line in a few places, including https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjOn2THsQZg (14 May 2013).

[4] See, for instance, 1 King 5:6ff; Zechariah 11:1ff; Isaiah 14:3-8, 37:22-24.

[5] Isaiah 35:1ff.

[6] Isaiah 41:17ff.

[7] For examples, see James 3:12 and 2 Peter 2:17.

[8] Revelation 22:17.

[9] Isaiah 55:1.

[10] Revelation 11:8-9.

[11] Revelation 21:21.

[12] Revelation 7:16ff.

[13] Isaiah 49:9-10

[14] Psalm 36:9.

[15] Jeremiah 2:13; 17:13.

[16] Amos 5:24.

This sermon relies very heavily on Ched Meyers, “Everything Will Live Where the Water Goes,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/everything-will-live-where-water-goes, posted 26 April 2013 (downloaded 14 May 2013).  Also used as resources for this sermon:
Adam J. Copeland, “On Scripture: Earth Day, God, and the Apocalypse,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/04/24/scripture-earth-day-god-and-apocalypse, posted 24 April 2013 (downloaded 14 May 2013).
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, “Earthkeeping,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/earthkeeping, posted 15 April 2013 (downloaded 14 May 2013).

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