Spark. Fuel. Fire.

Sermon for Sunday, June 8, 2014 || Pentecost, Year A || Acts 2:1-21

sparkfuelfireBeing a creative type, I have found myself relating to the Holy Spirit more readily than most people do. Whenever I sit down to write or play my guitar, I try to acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s presence in that creative activity. I’ve always thought of the Holy Spirit as God’s creativity in the act of making and molding and speaking existence into being. And I’ve always thought of my own creativity as my response to the Holy Spirit moving in my life. The Holy Spirit, then, is the in-spir-ation for my creativity. The Spirit inspires. The two words even come from the same Latin root!

But after many, many conversations with parishioners across several churches, anecdotal evidence suggests that most people gravitate to God the Father or God the Son, rather than to God the Holy Spirit. For a long time, I’ve honestly felt a bit strange due to my affinity for the Holy Spirit. After all, so many people have told me they have real difficulty relating in any meaningful way to this creative force, this inspirer, the Holy Spirit.

But here I must confess something. I’ve come to realize that my process of anecdotal evidence gathering has been totally flawed. For years, I’ve been shortchanging the Holy Spirit when conversing with people about their relationships with God. I’ve been shortchanging the Holy Spirit because in those conversations, I’ve described how I relate to the Holy Spirit as if it’s the only viable option. If the other people didn’t relate to the Holy Spirit in the way I do – in the creative, inspirational way – then I failed to help them name the way the Holy Spirit was, in fact, relating to them. And they assumed they just had no share in the Holy Spirit.

So the rest of this sermon is the beginning of my own remedial training in how the Holy Spirit moves, apart from the raw creativity I’m used to. When I was in college, I often studied by recounting aloud to other people what I had learned, so consider the next several minutes a study session on the Holy Spirit’s movement. As this is a remedial course, I’m going to stick close to our textbook and even to the word “Spirit” itself.

Here goes. We’ve already talked about in-spir-ation, the creative spark that I mistakenly reduced the Holy Spirit to. But what about a-spir­-ation. Each and every one of us experiences the Holy Spirit because each and every one of us has aspirations – goals, dreams, hopes for the future. The Holy Spirit fires these aspirations within us, and gives us strength and support to realize our own potential.

The Holy Spirit was present at creation as the wind that swept over the face of the waters. In the tremulous moment before God said, “Let there be light,” there was nothing. But there was aspiration. There was God’s dream for creation. In that tremulous moment, the Holy Spirit gathered the potential energy of all that would be.

We are each of us small pieces of that potential energy. We are each of us small pieces of God’s aspirations. When we set goals, when we dream, when we aspire to accomplish all that God invites us to do, then we are resonating with the Holy Spirit’s movement. It’s no wonder then, that after the Spirit descends in the rushing wind and tongues of fire, the apostle Peter quotes from the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”

Are you beginning to see how much bigger the Spirit’s movement is than my pigeonholing it to simple creativity? We have inspiration. And we have aspiration. How about per-spir-ation? Each and every one of us experiences the Holy Spirit because each and every one us has worked hard to achieve something worthwhile. We’ve put our backs into it. We’ve used our elbow grease. We’ve sweated, perspired.

The Holy Spirit, as our constant companion, gives us the perseverance and endurance to see things through. Those tongues of fire that descended on the heads of the apostles didn’t vanish. No, they kept descending and lodged in their guts. Have you ever heard the expression “a fire in your belly?” The fire of the Holy Spirit catalyzed the apostles to spread the good news of Jesus Christ far and wide, and to be witnesses for the love and grace of God, come what may. It’s no secret that most of Jesus’ original followers came to untimely and grisly ends, but they did so with the fire un-extinguished. They kept perspiring for the sake of the Gospel because the Holy Spirit kept fueling their fire.

When we sweat for things, when we put our hearts and souls into a worthwhile project, then we are ever so much more invested in the outcome. Habitat for Humanity calls the work their homeowners put into their own homes “sweat equity.” Their perspiration gives them a deeper sense of ownership when the work is done. And so does ours when we partner with the Holy Spirit and perspire for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

We have inspiration. We have aspiration. We have perspiration. Finally, in our remedial course on the Holy Spirit’s movement, we have re-spir-ation. Each and every one of us experiences the Holy Spirit because each and every one of us breathes. It’s that simple. Each breath we take is a gift from God. We inhale this gift. The breath of the Holy Spirit infuses us; keeps our bodies, souls, and spirits intact and integrated; and animates us with the desire to serve God in our day-to-day lives. Then we exhale the gift of the Holy Spirit in our actions, in our service, in our love.

The Church calls the Holy Spirit the “sustainer” and the “comforter.” The “sustainer” evokes the constancy of the Spirit’s presence; the “comforter” evokes the peace that comes from breathing deeply. During the last supper, Jesus told his friends he would not leave them orphaned, but would provide them the Spirit to abide with them. After the resurrection, Jesus met them again in the upper room and breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Our constant respiration – whether we are conscious of our breath or not – links us to the Holy Spirit.

Inspiration. Aspiration. Perspiration. Respiration. We participate in the Holy Spirit’s movement in each of these ways. The Spirit sparks our creativity. The Spirit fuels our dreams. The Spirit fires our determination. And the Spirit breathes on our embers, rekindling us again and again. If you have never given your relationship with the Holy Spirit much thought, I invite you, I urge you, to pray about these things. Do not ask if the Spirit is moving in your life. Ask how.

The Expendable Crewman

(Sermon for Sunday, December 26, 2010 || Feast of St. Stephen ||Acts 6:8—7:2a, 51c-60)*

In 1999's Galaxy Quest, Guy Fleegman (far left) is an actor who once portrayed an expendable crewman on the show. When the cast finds themselves on a real space ship fighting real aliens, Guy is convinced he's going to die "to prove the situation is serious."

There’s an old joke about Star Trek concerning “expendable crewmen.” When members of the main cast beamed down to a planet, the away team always seemed to include one extra person whom the audience had never seen before. Predictably, the writers killed off this extra a few minutes later to show the dire urgency of the crew’s predicament. Seemingly, Luke (the writer of the Acts of the Apostles) and the writers of Star Trek have this in common. Luke introduces Stephen in chapter six, and he’s dead by the end of chapter seven. The patron saint of this church appears in all of two chapters of one book of the Bible. And his death shows that the situation for Jesus’ followers is, indeed, dire. Could the founders of this church have possibly named our parish after an expendable crewman?

At first glance, Stephen sure looks like a prime candidate for this expendable crewman status. We know nothing about him besides the fact that he was among the first seven deacons chosen by the apostles. Also, his feast day happens to be the day after Christmas, which is like having your birthday and Christmas right near each other and only getting one set of presents a year. And furthermore, the framers of our lectionary readings effectively gutted Stephen’s story. We just heard the beginning and the end, but we missed Stephen’s epic sermon in the middle. These three reasons all but confirm Stephen’s expendable condition. I might as well stop right now because Stephen was never part of the main crew anyway.

But wait just a minute. Let’s look a little bit closer at this by going backwards through my three reasons for Stephen’s supposed expendability. If you look at your bulletin, you’ll notice that we skipped from verse two to verse 51 of chapter seven of the Acts of the Apostles. The stitching up of the hole between these verses happens so seamlessly that you’d never ever notice. Here’s what I mean: “And Stephen replied, ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me. You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.’ ”

Did you catch the break between verse two and verse 51? Stephen says, “Brothers and fathers, listen to me,” and then he launches into a beautiful and concise summary of a sizable chunk of the Hebrew Scriptures. He recounts the stories of Abraham and Joseph and Moses. Finally, he arrives at David and Solomon and the building of the Temple. All the while, Stephen teaches about the history and traditions of Israel, and his audience is the very group of people, who are supposed to be the most knowledgeable about those topics.

Now, I can’t find hard data to support this, but I’m pretty sure that besides Jesus, Peter, and Paul, Stephen has more dialogue than any other person in the narratives of the New Testament. And all in the space of two chapters! He seems less expendable now for sure. Stephen’s epic sermon (which I’m assigning as homework for next week – just kidding) serves as a link between Stephen’s witness as a follower of Jesus and the oldest traditions of the Hebrew people. His accusers brought him to the council on trumped up charges of blasphemy against the very tradition that his speech confirms. But buried in his sermon is something that shows that Stephen, though a courageous Christian witness, doesn’t quite have everything figured out.

Nine times during the speech that we didn’t read this morning, Stephen refers to the folks in the old stories as  “our ancestors.” We all come from Abraham, our common ancestor, Stephen says. Our ancestors were enslaved in Egypt. Our ancestors made the golden calf. Our ancestors brought God’s holy tent into the land of promise. Nine times, he claims kinship with his accusers and with the angry council members.

But then, when the reading we heard this morning picks up again, Stephen switches. “You stiff-necked people,” he says, “uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” When Stephen accuses his accusers of persecution, he removes himself from the group. Because he is now being persecuted himself, he claims no complicity in the sins of “your” ancestors, who, of course, are his, as well.

With this switch from “our” to “your,” Stephen severs the connection he had with his accusers and the council. A few minutes later, they violently drag him out of the city and stone him to death. Of course, their act of murder is the greater sin. But by removing himself from the corporate sin of their common ancestors, Stephen ignores the negative effects, which that sin has on his life. He turns a blind eye to the fact that the sins of the ancestor have somehow shaped, or better yet, misshaped him.

And this is where we come back to reason number two for Stephen’s supposed expendability. His feast day is today, the day after Christmas. Many saints have their feast days on the anniversaries of their deaths, but we don’t know on what day Stephen died. There is, however, a blessing hidden in this seemingly unfortunate placement of Stephen’s feast. Stephen’s death and Jesus’ birth are linked by virtue of our calendar. In both Matthew and Luke, the Gospel writers take great pains through lengthy genealogies to plant Jesus squarely in the line of Israel’s succession going back to Abraham and beyond. And in his birth in that little town of Bethlehem, the town of king David, Jesus marks the culmination of the tradition of David, as well as the other folks Stephen mentions in his sermon.

Thus, Jesus’ Incarnation happens as part of Israel’s history in order to redeem Israel’s history. By removing himself through his judgment of the council from the negative pieces of that history, Stephen removes himself from the need for that redemption. Of course, no one, not even a man “full of grace and power” (as Luke names Stephen) is above the need for redemption. Even the first martyr of the church, for whom our parish is named, is misshapen by the corporate sin of this world.

The good news is this: through Jesus’ Incarnation as a flesh and blood person and through his death, which Stephen’s martyrdom recalls, Jesus accomplished that redemption and gives us the chance to be reshaped into new and better forms. And this is where we come back to reason number one for Stephen’s supposed expendability. We know next to nothing about this man who died for the love of his Lord. But we do know that, at the end of his life, he did not add to the world’s cycle of violence by wishing vengeance on his attackers. We do know that he loved and served people in need as one of the church’s first deacons. We do know that he was a man “full of faith and Holy Spirit.”

And finally, we do know, that whatever his misshapenness and his sin, whatever his success and his witness, Stephen’s life and death find redemption in the love of God, made known in the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.

* At church, I preached this text to three gracious and attentive women at the 8:00am service and decided it didn’t work read as a manuscript. So, at the 10:00am, I preached this content without the text and it worked so much better.

Viral papyri (Bible study #10)

In the middle of the second century, a guy named Marcion took his Bible and tore out most of the Gospel according to Luke and some of Paul’s letters. He stapled these together and chucked the rest in the dumpster. Marcion had decided that the “god” who created the world was evil because the world sure wasn’t doing him any favors. The other god, the real “God,” was Lord of the “spirit world,” totally alien from our world, except for that thing about sending his son here. The trouble was, that’s not what the Bible said. So, Marcion, with a stockpile of misplaced entrepreneurial zeal, made up a new one.

Well…that’s not actually what happened. You see, the “New Testament” as we now have it wasn’t compiled yet. Christians and various derivative groups had been writing letters and gospels and stories and strange things called “apocalypses” for a hundred years. Some circulated widely, like the ancient equivalent of viral YouTube videos. Others stayed put in the community which produced them. Some were attributed to Jesus’ apostles or their associates. Others were written by that guy with the hair and the thing. Some espoused doctrine that both created and helped support the emerging theological position of the “Church.” Others claimed “secret knowledge,” known only to the few who could get into the metaphysical country club.

papyrusThe viral papyri attributed to an associate of Jesus and espousing sound theological views eventually became what we now call the “New Testament.” The other stuff — the classified documents, location-specific texts, and the ones written by that guy — predictably faded into obscurity.*

Okay, let’s go back to Marcion. Since there was no list (or “canon”) of authoritative texts, Marcion felt entitled to make one up that suited his own viewpoints. When he threw the Hebrew Scriptures and many of the viral papyri into the rubbish bin, the leaders of the Church said something to the effect of, “Hey, you can’t do that!” And Marcion shot back, “Too bad, suckers.”

At that point, those leaders decided that a list of their own would probably be a good idea. But, things moved slowly in the ancient world, so the top 27 texts were not finalized until the end of the fourth century (and even then, there was still some dispute between the Eastern and Western churches). But, I get ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit.

With Marcion’s heresy forcing the Church to respond with its own canon of authoritative texts, scholars began compiling lists. Certain texts were shoe-ins. First and foremost, the Hebrew Scriptures (which became known as the “Old” Testament) were never in question because these texts were the Bible for the people who wrote the rest of the Bible. Second, the letters of Paul (the most virulent of all the viral papyri) and the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, along with the Acts of the Apostles (which is sort of the Godfather II of Luke’s Gospel). The Gospel of John was on the bubble at times because some of the heretical groups loved it. But, it made the cut partly because its “high Christology” helped the Church’s position on the divinity of Christ.

Over time, the New Testament canon solidified with 27 texts.** The four accounts of the Gospel came first, as they narrated the reason why the rest of the texts exist. Then the Acts of the Apostles propels the canon into the letters of Paul (strangely enough, appearing in descending order by length). After Paul, Hebrews begins the section of various texts addressed to a wider audience (the “catholic” epistles). Appropriately, the Revelation to John ends the canon.

The compilation of the New Testament from viral papyri to authoritative text speaks to us today of the value of various viewpoints within a larger structure. Unlike Marcion, who depleted the message until it said only what he wanted it to say, the 27 canonical texts present myriad experiences that coalesce into the great message of the love and grace of God. From an early time, the Church valued several different expressions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because it realized that one text could not contain such overwhelming truth and beauty. What is striking about the compilation of the canon is that the Church exhibited pretty startling ecumenism over a long period of time as the churches from both far-flung places and major cities shared their experience of the God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

I wonder when we Christians decided to stop valuing the experience of our fellows. The viral papyri tell a different story. Would that we could live that story again.


* Well, until a sensationalist media program digs up a “gnostic gospel” and decides that “everything we know about Christianity is about to change.” Honestly, give it a rest. That story lost the lead to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

** In the mid-1700s, an Italian named Ludovico Antonio Muratori stumbled upon an ancient fragment stuck in a book in a library in Milan. The “Muratorian fragment,” which could be dated anywhere from the second to the fourth centuries is the oldest extant list of the texts of the New Testament. What’s most interesting about the fragment is the short justifications it gives for why certain texts were either chosen or not.