Sermon for Sunday, November 17, 2019 || Proper 28C || Luke 21:5-19
Imagine with me the words of the Apostle Peter, spoken to his young cellmate on the eve of Peter’s death in the city of Rome around the year 64 A.D.
I heard about the great fire that swept through Rome, and I knew immediately that the authorities would blame us Christians. That’s why I came here – to support the community I knew would face persecution. And now here I am, arrested for arson – this is my fourth arrest, by the way – and I wasn’t even here at the time of the blaze. But facts don’t matter to those in power. Only keeping their power matters to them.
Sermon for Sunday, May 19, 2013 || Pentecost, Year C || John 14:8-17, 25-27
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes one of his biggest promises ever. He is in the middle of his discussion with the disciples, which takes place on the night of his arrest. You can tell from their questions that they are worried, anxious, and fearful. So Jesus promises them this: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth…[the Spirit] abides with you, and…will be with you.”
Jesus made this promise, and if there’s one thing I can believe in, one thing I can rest my weight on, it’s that Jesus never breaks a promise. The Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit, has been and will be active in the lives of God’s people forever. But the trouble for us followers of Jesus comes, rather paradoxically, in the very constancy of the Holy Spirit’s presence. We humans are so much better at noticing the things that change. The constant things tend to fade into the background of our lives.
Take breathing, for example. Breathing just happens. I’m breathing right now, and I’m not giving my breath a second thought. I can be unconscious all night, and yet my breath keeps going, independent of my control. For the better part of each day, I am completely unaware of my breathing, and yet my respiratory system continues to function with constant efficiency.
But in one of God’s marvels of human engineering, if I decide to, I can focus on my breath. I can choose to take in a deep lungful of air, or I can choose to hold my breath underwater, or I can choose to let my breath out slowly to calm myself down. Breathing is an unnoticed constant in our lives until we decide to focus on the air entering and exiting our lungs. Then the act of breathing becomes something that we consciously participate in.
Do you know what is the same word as “breath” in the ancient biblical languages? You guessed it. Spirit. Just like our breath, the Holy Spirit is a constant presence in our lives, active within and around us. Because of this constancy, we have a tendency to overlook the Spirit’s presence and to allow the Spirit to fade into the background. But also just like our breath, we have the opportunity to focus on the Holy Spirit’s presence, to breath in a deep lungful of the Spirit, so to speak. When we do this, we actively participate in the transformation that the Spirit is subtly working in our lives.
I’d like to spend the rest of this sermon speaking about several ways the Spirit moves. This won’t be an exhaustive list by any means, but I encourage you to listen for a way in which the Spirit has moved in your life, or a way you pray the Spirit will move.
If you’ve ever had the impulse to create, then you’ve felt the Holy Spirit move in your life. If you’ve ever penned a poem or sang a song or played an instrument or stepped a dance or planted a garden or written a love letter or experimented with ingredients or built an imaginary world or raised a child or made a dream a reality, then you’ve participated in the Holy Spirit’s movement.
The Spirit connects with us via the creative spark, which God implanted in each of us. Being made in the image of God means that God gave us the gift of imagining. The Creator made us to be creative. And just as the Holy Spirit was with God, brooding over the depths at the moment when God spoke creation into being, the Holy Spirit is also with us when we access our own creativity. In fact, the Spirit catalyzes the creative process in us. God has never stopped creating; therefore, one of the ways the Spirit keeps us in relationship with God is keeping us creating too. In my own life, whenever I sit down to write a song, I know the Spirit has prompted me to do so and will guide me as I create new music. So that’s number one: the creative impulse.
If you’ve ever sensed which direction to go, then you’ve felt the Holy Spirit move in your life. If you’ve ever been lost – not on the map, but in your heart – and then felt a subtle beckoning down a new path, and at the moment you took the first step in that new direction you felt your heart shine with the rightness of it all, then you’ve participated in the Holy Spirit’s movement.
The ancient biblical languages use the same word for breath and spirit and for another word: wind. The Holy Spirit is the unseen wind, which subtly pushes us in one direction or another. The wind is both constant and unpredictable, always blowing, but perhaps blowing in a direction we might not expect. When we are lost, the Holy Spirit is present, and we have the opportunity to trim our sails and catch the wind. In my own life, I’ve experienced the Spirit’s presence in this way at the rare times when I have actually been able to give up control. That’s number two: sense of direction to go along with the creative impulse.
If you’ve ever had a sudden sense of peace wash over you, then you’ve felt the Holy Spirit move in your life. If you’ve ever been rushing around, moving to and fro, trying to keep up, trying just to keep your feet in a maelstrom of activity, but then something prompted you just to stop, take a deep breath, then you’ve participated in the Holy Spirit’s movement.
Each time Jesus gives his friends the gift of the Spirit, he also gives them his own peace. Peace is not just the absence of conflict; rather, peace is the soil in which new wholeness grows out of old fragmentation. The Holy Spirit nurtures this growth in us, always pushing us away from brokenness and towards wholeness, towards peace. In my own life, the Spirit has encountered me in this way when I have stopped doing, stopped acting, and have just existed for a spell, just abided in the Spirit’s constant presence. That’s three: sense of peace. Sense of direction. Creative impulse.
Finally, if you’ve ever felt deeply connected to another person, then you’ve felt the Holy Spirit move in your life. If you’ve ever held another’s hand or embraced or laughed together and known in a place deeper than normal knowing that your two souls are connected, woven together, then you’ve participated in the Holy Spirit’s movement.
The Holy Trinity is the perfect relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — so perfect, in fact, that there is only one God, though we name God as three persons. There cannot be a Father without a Son, nor a Son without a Father. Nor can there be the perfect relationship without love. This love connecting Father and Son in perfect relationship is the Holy Spirit. Whenever we feel a deep connection to another person, we are participating in our own small way in the divine relationship of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit makes our loving connections possible. In my own life, I’ve felt this deep connection since the day I met Leah, and I expect I’ll feel it again when we have our own children. That’s four: deep connection.
The creative impulse. Sense of direction. Sense of peace. Deep connection. These are only four of the vast expanse of ways the Holy Spirit is moving in our lives. Like breathing, the Spirit is active whether or not we recognize the Spirit’s movement. But God engineered us to be capable of focusing on our breath and on the Holy Spirit. So I invite you this week to celebrate the Spirit’s movement in your life. Engage in an act of creation. Catch the wind blowing you in a new direction. Stop for a moment and embrace a sense of peace. Rejoice in the deep connections in your life. And know in the place deeper than normal knowing that God the Holy Spirit will abide with you forever.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can… (J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings)
During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?” (Acts 9:3-4; context)
When I began writing this week’s devotions, I didn’t realize how much of a link there is between blindness and stories that take place on roads. Here’s another one! Saul – who later becomes Paul – has been no friend to persons who “belonged to the Way.” (At this point, “Christianity” wasn’t a word yet, so Jesus’ followers were identified as those belonging to the “Way.” Remember, “way” and “road” are the same word.)
But while he is following the road to Damascus, Saul suddenly finds himself flat on his back. A blinding light flashes around him and he hears Jesus’ voice say, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?” When Saul’s companions, who are completely unaware of the light show, pick him, Saul opens his eyes and realizes he can’t see. After this, according to Acts, “they led him by the hand to Damascus.”
This detail is truly amazing. Saul had been so certain of the rightness of his cause of persecuting those who followed the Way of Jesus. Saul had been so certain. But when he encounters Christ, his certainty vanishes. He is unable to walk for himself and needs others to guide him. And so they take him by the hand and bring him to his destination.
Sometimes, we can be so certain of where we are going that we forget to look for Christ on the road. It’s a good thing, then, that, when we fall victim to spiritual blindness, there are others around us who can take our hands and guide us on the way.
Dear God, your encounter with Saul left him forever changed. Help me to recognize the changes that you have caused to happen in my life and be thankful for them. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.
I leave this moment with you, God, strengthened by your love and able to walk another day on weary feet
We say we read to “escape.” …A book so excites our imagination that we “consume” it… What would it feel like to consume the sacred book? Or to be consumed by it? To eat it, chew it, swallow it, digest it, to make it a part of you? (Roger Ferlo)
[The Ethiopian eunuch] was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his carriage. The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.” (Acts 8:28-29; context)
The second thing you should do when you read the Bible is to read it aloud. In the passage above, Philip knew that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading from the prophet Isaiah because the eunuch wasn’t reading silently to himself. He was reading aloud – to himself. This may seem strange to you and me, but this was the way people read in the ancient world. There was no such thing as “silent” reading.
So read your passage out loud. I know you are reading a translation, but the beauty and rhetorical power of the Biblical texts do not necessarily suffer in an English treatment. When you read aloud, you will notice oratorical patterns and cadences that the Biblical writers employed to make recitation easier and listening more captivating.
Besides appreciating the oratorical flair of Biblical writers, reading aloud gives you the opportunity to engage the drama of the Bible. A good chunk of the text is narrative and a good chunk of the narrative is dialogue. Now, we have no audiovisual documentation of the conversations recorded in the narrative, so it falls to us to interpret how the dialogue sounds.
A trained musician may be able to “hear the music” when she looks at a score, but most of us cannot comprehend music’s beauty and power without hearing it played. Similarly, the Biblical text soars when it is read aloud. In Genesis, God speaks creation into being. When we read the Bible aloud, we access that creative voice within ourselves and use the breath and the bodies that God created.
So, read the Bible, yes. But don’t just read it. Speak it. And don’t just speak the Bible. Proclaim it.
Dear God, you spoke and creation happened. Help me to breathe my life into the Bible just as you breathe your life into me. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.
I leave this moment with you, God, gladdened by the prospect of meeting you in the Bible.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say. (J.R.R. Tolkien)
During the journey, as [Saul] approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?” Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:3-6; context)
Do you want your life to change? When you find Jesus or when Jesus finds you, don’t expect him to hand you a pamphlet on Christianity and send you on your way. Expect him to knock your socks off. Expect God’s love to hit you hard and leave you breathless because the next breath you breathe in will be a breath of the Holy Spirit. The next step you take after that momentous, life-changing occasion will be a vaulting leap forward.
The apostle Paul was literally knocked to the ground. You remember him, right? His name was Saul first. It was changed when he was. Saul was railing against those upstart followers of Jesus of Nazareth. He was persecuting them. He was hunting them. He stood by and watched Stephen, the first martyr, as Stephen was stoned to death. And then on the road to Damascus, Jesus cried out to him. Jesus found him on the road. Jesus knocked down, and the brilliance of God blinded him. The next time Paul opened his eyes, he couldn’t see anything in front of him, but he could see a new road beginning at his feet. It was the road that Jesus set before him.
The road is long, but Christ is tireless. When we need rest, we will find it. When we need strength, it will be there. I began this week talking about things falling into place. I know that if we keep striving to find Jesus in all that we do, the pieces will continue to fall. They may not fall into the places that we expect them to or want them to, but they will fall into place.
The road goes ever on, and we follow it with weary feet, but the one who is the road, the one who walks with us on the road, the one to whom the road is leading – our God – will keep us from stumbling.
Dear God, you breath life into me with each breath and you pick me up off the ground when I fall down. Help me to rely on you as I journey down your road. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.
I leave this moment with you, God, rejoicing that you walk with me on the road, you stand at the end of the road, and you, indeed, are the road.
You know what the first rule of flyin’ is? …Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as a turn in the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells ya she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home. (Malcolm Reynolds, Serenity)
I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. (Acts 15:3-4; context)
Much of the time people worship the creation rather than the creator. This causes us to sin, to separate ourselves from God. But God did something about that. But let me back up just for a second: everything that God creates exists in Space and Time, which are simply two more things that God created. But because God created Space and Time, God exists outside of these constraints. However, since God loves this little universe of God’s making, God continues to move around and throughout and within it. Truly, God loved this little universe so much, that God the loving parent gave to Creation God’s beloved child.
This beloved child, this Word made flesh came to our little planet as a baby who grew up to be a man who said and did such wonderful things and who taught us about God’s love for all Creation and who expanded our hearts and minds so they could contain such wonderful thoughts and who was killed because of his vision of acceptance and love and who rose miraculously from the dead and who ascended once again to exist in the eternally perfect relationship with God and who showed us the way home to this relationship.
After Jesus Christ ascended, he sent the Holy Spirit to us, the same wind of God that swept across the face of the deep at the moment of Creation. Through the Holy Spirit, God continues to pour God’s love into our hearts so that they can expand to hold the Truth of Jesus’ message of hospitality, generosity, and service. Each member of the Trinity moves in our lives, a family perfectly unified as One, as One who yearns to bring us back home.
Dear God, you loved us so much that you sent you beloved child to be one of us and to show us the way back home to you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Amen.
I leave this moment with you, God, thankful that in you I find perfect love and a perfect home.
Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God. (Abraham Joshua Heschel)
The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. (Acts 2:42-44; context)
For the next two and a half weeks, we are going to look at what happens during a standard church service – well, at least a standard one in the Episcopal tradition, the one to which I belong. We are going to look at some of the whys behind our actions and our words. I think this is important because of the third function of our Sunday worship.
Wait. The “third” function, you say. Oh, right, now I have to tell you numbers One and Two. Well, the first function of our worship is to give glory to God. The actual act of worshiping our creator is central to our…well…worship. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but one of my favorite Greek words is the word for “worship.” It literally translates as “to bend toward.” When we worship God, we are like trees that bend toward the light in order more fully to drink in their nourishment. We praise God because God draws praise out of us, not because God needs the adoration. We praise because God’s very presence causes us to bend towards God.
The second function is the gathering of the community for support and building up of one another in the power of the Spirit. Again, I know you’ve heard this before, but it always bears repeating. “Church” is not a building. It’s a gathering of people who come together to worship God.
These first two functions of weekly worship are wonderful, but this third function of our liturgy is quite important, too. The third function is that the week in week out service gives us something around which to structure our lives. Each moment in the Eucharistic liturgy points to a way in which can live out each day. Over the next twelve days, we’ll look at these moments and see how they inform our daily walks with Christ.
Dear God, we are unworthy to praise you, but, even as our praise falls short, you lift it up and sanctify by your grace. Help me to continue to worship you all the days of my life, in both my words and deeds. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.
I leave this moment with you, God, ready to order my life around your movement in it and hopeful that you will continue to show me the way.
*I have integrated into my ministry much of the content of the following three weeks from a wonderful little book by my seminary dean, the Rev. Ian S. Markham, called Liturgical Life Principles, which I recommend to you.
Therefore, we pray you, Lord, forgive; so when our wanderings here shall cease, we may with you for ever live, in love and unity and peace. (Gregory the Great, from The Hymnal 1982)
Those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized. God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day. The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. (Acts 2:41-44; context)
This Lent, we are exploring our faith by running through the alphabet. Today, “R” is for religion. Finally, you say – a real word! Huzzah! So, the word “religion” gets a bad rap in modern parlance. The idea that it’s groovy to be “spiritual” but totally square to be “religious” is partially to blame. But also to blame are the things people do and say in the name of “religion.” In a recent book, Brian McLaren tries to reclaim the word religion by making up a new word – “de-ligion.” This new word tries to take up all the negative press that “religion” has been getting in recent years because of one thing or another. I think it’s a great new word – but, sadly, I don’t see it catching on.
And this is too bad, because “religion” is a great word for a pretty spectacular concept. (Fair warning: a lot of people have talked about what I’m going to say next, including McLaren, and me in this video. Sorry if this is repetitive.) “Religion” comes from the same Latin root as the word “ligament.” A ligament connects parts of a joint. I’m sure you’ve heard about football players tearing their ACLs – well, the L in ACL is “ligament.” The “lig” in the word comes from the Latin “ligare,” which means “to bind.”
Now look at “religion.” See the “Re-” at the beginning of the word? Yep – that means “again.” So, at the etymological level, religion is about reconnecting or connecting again. Now let’s bring God in. Religion isn’t just about connecting with God, but about re-connecting because God has always been connected with us. The church has discovered that the best way to reconnect with God is to do so in the company of other like-hearted people, thus the gathering of the church comes into being.
So let’s reclaim the word “religion” for its fundamental purpose – that of reconnecting with God. I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot like “spirituality” to me. Groovy.
Dear God, you have always been connected to me. Help me deepen my connection to you by reaching out for support from others who are also working to deepen their connections. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.
I leave this moment with you, God, counting myself blessed that you would choose to make me the person I am and love me into the person I am becoming.
So daily dying to the way of self, so daily living to your way of love, we walk the road, Lord Jesus, that you trod, knowing ourselves baptized into your death: so we are dead and live with you in God. (Thomas H. Cain, from The Hymnal 1982)
As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” Then he died. (Acts 7:59-60; context)
This Lent, we are exploring our faith by running through the alphabet. Today, “M” is for martyr. This is by far the most misunderstood word in our whole Lenten alphabet this year. Sadly, in our modern context, the word “martyr” crops up most often in connection with two other words: “suicide bomber.” The twisted version of Islam that produces these murderers claims them as “martyrs,” and the media picks up the language. But this is far from what a martyr is.
“Martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness” or “testimony.” Stephen, the first martyr of the nascent Christian religion talks for the better part of two chapters of the book of Acts before he dies. He tells the religious authorities their own story, he witnesses to Jesus, and he does it all knowing that he would be stoned for it. His death or “martyrdom” was a byproduct and extension of his witness. He was willing to die for what he believed in. And then he did.
Because the linkage with death has been grafted into the word “martyr,” we often forget that the witness in the face of all odds is what makes the martyr truly great. The courage to tell the truth, the faith that God gives strength, the endurance to see things through to the end – these are the marks that make a martyr.
Even we who may not be called to give what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” can learn from the example of the martyrs. In God, we can find the courage, the faith, and the endurance to see our trials through to the end.
In a wonderful episode of The West Wing, President Bartlet says, “We don’t need martyrs, we need heroes. A hero would die for his country, but he’d much rather live for it.” The sentiment is nice, but Bartlet has it wrong. A martyr would die for his faith, but he’d much rather live for it – live and continue to be a witness.
Dear God, your Son died and rose again to remove the sting of death. Help me to live my faith to the fullest so that, when I come to die, I find that I have served you all my days. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.
I leave this moment with you, God, thankful that you continue to shine your light in my heart and mind, that I may continue to know you better through every way that you choose to reveal yourself.