Wrestling With Doubt

Preacher: James Armstrong

Scripture: Psalm 22

How pleasant it would be to live in the paradise described in the 23rd Psalm:  green pastures, still waters and us anointed with oil and sitting at a table prepared for us by God.  Too often, however, our lives are not characterized by the peace and security of Psalm 23.  Instead, we feel insecure, harried and even alienated as we go about our daily routine.  And, when things are at their darkest, we may find ourselves identifying with the author of Psalm 22.

Like Psalm 23, Psalm 22 is one of the poetic masterpieces of the Bible, but it paints a bleak picture of a believer’s life.  Far from being calm and secure, that life is filled with pain, powerlessness, abuse and abandonment.  It is also filled with doubt and uncertainty about God and God’s good intentions.

Doubt is my subject this morning, and before going on, I’d like to explain the kind of doubt I mean.  I am talking about profound questions concerning God’s existence and God’s character.  Such questions arise, for example, when we consider issues of suffering and evil.  If God is good and all-powerful, why does God permit the vilest dictators and terrorists to wreak havoc around the world?  Why do some people suffer so terribly, while others, much less worthy, prosper?  Why is God silent in the face of urgent need?

Clearly, having doubts about God is a grave matter, one that we need to consider seriously.  But is it a bad or a good thing?  I think it can be either.  There is a risk that doubt will lead to a loss of faith in God.  On the other hand, if doubt compels us to engage with God and come to grips with what we really believe, then it will ultimately result in a stronger faith.

In any case, doubts about God seem inevitable.  Frederick Buechner put it this way in his volume Wishful Thinking, “. . . if you don’t have doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.  Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.”

Doubt is expressed throughout the Bible.  Read Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations or Habakkuk.  Jesus’ disciples doubted, as can be seen in the resurrection stories.  John Wesley had crises of faith, when he was convinced of his unbelief.  In her letters Mother Teresa wrote about similar crises:  “The place of God in my soul is blank – There is no God in me . . . I just long and long for God.”  How strongly her words echo the beginning of Psalm 22!

The psalm opens with a cry of suffering and doubt:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus repeated these words on the cross as he was dying; they are an unforgettable expression of heartbreak and abandonment.  Verses 1-2 continue, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”  In his misery the psalmist desperately asks – and keeps asking – where is my God?   But God stays silent.

Why is God sometimes silent when we pray?  I suggest that it may be due to our inability or unwillingness to hear what God is trying to tell us.  This may be because of sin in our lives, our Christian immaturity or our lack of readiness to confront some vital issue that God wants us to deal with.  Whatever the cause, such silences are hard to bear, and we can easily understand the psalmist’s uncertainty.  What can we do to withstand the trials in our lives when God is silent?

What does the psalmist do?  In verses 4-5, he argues.  He argues that God has been faithful to his people.  “In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.”

However, he has been put to shame and is now the object of mockery and derision, as we see in verses 6-8: “I am a worm and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.  All who see me mock at me . . . ‘Commit your cause to the Lord [they say]; let him deliver – let him rescue the one in whom he delights!'”  He is treated with hostility by people he probably once claimed as acquaintances and friends.  We can see from the words they use that they are, in fact, religious people, maybe good temple-goers, good “church” people.

How do we, as good church people, react to those among us who are in trouble and express their honest doubts about God and the Christian life?  Not with scorn, I am sure; but have we created a safe place for people to speak their doubts aloud, where their concerns will be taken seriously and where they will be supported prayerfully?  I strongly believe that this is part of what it means to be a church:  to be a place of listening and support, especially when doubt has the upper hand in a believer’s life and the way ahead is dim.

As we return to Psalm 22, the author next remembers when times were good, and reminds God that he is God’s child.  Verse 10 reads, “On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me, you have been my God.”  Why is God treating a beloved child so poorly?

In verse 11 he pleads, and you can almost hear the child in his voice, “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.”  The danger is described metaphorically in verses 12-13, “Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me, they open wide their mouths at me like a ravening and roaring lion.”  The psalmist reveals in verses 14-15 that he has lost all his strength:  “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.”  In verses 17-18 his enemies eagerly anticipate his death:  “They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”

What perils do we face that threaten the security of our faith?  Severe, debilitating illness in one we love or in ourselves?  The death of a loved one?  The horrors of war?  Doubt often has less dramatic causes.  Lauren Winner refers to the loss of certainty about one’s faith as “losing Jesus” in her book Still: Notes on a Mid-faith Crisis.  She observes, “. . . you [can] lose Jesus because you have departed from Jesus’ norm, from his path:  you begin to take for granted that he is next to you; you . . . just assume that the direction in which you’re walking is the direction in which he’s walking, and your assumption, it turns out, is wrong.”

Of course, the triggers for doubt are different for each of us.  For me, it was watching my father descend into the chaos of Alzheimer’s disease.  A college professor and an engineer, he was also an articulate, musically-gifted and involved Christian.  I railed inwardly at God as I saw what his life had become.  His fingers still remembered the old songs and hymns as he comforted himself on the piano and accordion, but finally even the music left him.  I grew angry and bewildered as my once-knowledgeable and creative father disappeared before my eyes.  How could God allow a committed, faithful servant to lose his very humanity?  Where was God, anyway?

Returning to the psalm, we hear another plea in verses 19-21, “But you, O Lord, do not be far away!  O my help, come quickly to my aid! . . . Save me from the mouth of the lion!”  The psalmist reaches out yet again to God.  Though riven by doubt, he continues to wrestle with God and refuses to give up, insisting that God pay attention.

And then . . . and then . . . Well, let me read verse 21b, straight from the Hebrew, “From the horns of the wild oxen you have answered me.”  Translators have worried the second half of verse 21 to death, believing that something must be wrong with the Hebrew, and no two translations are exactly the same.  However, the word which translates as “you have answered me” is clear.  And so after a long, difficult silence, we know that God has answered the prayers of God’s child.

God also answered Lauren Winner, whom I introduced above, after her extended struggle with doubt.  This happened at her church’s Easter Vigil service on Saturday night of Holy Week.  She was antsy, she says, and rather than stay in the service, she went to the kitchen to help prepare the Easter Vigil feast.  She returned to worship to partake of Communion, after which she sat down.  As she waited she heard a voice say, “You can stay here now.”  She writes, “Just five words, and I know that this voice is God and what God means is that there is ground beneath my feet again, that this is the beginning of sanity and steadiness; this is the beginning of a reshaped life.”  Of course, there are other explanations for the voice she heard, but as she says, “. . . I still will tell you that one night, while sitting in church, I heard God’s voice, naming a resurrection of sorts, telling me I could stay.”

I felt God answering me, as well, after a long period of anger at God on behalf of my father.  It was more like pressure than audible words, but in effect God said, “Look at your mother.”  I had been so focused on my father’s deteriorating condition that, to my shame, I hadn’t really seen my mother at all.  When I finally looked at her, I saw Jesus.  My mother was modeling Christ in her patient love and care for my father.  God truly was present in the middle of an awful situation, and God’s loving will was being carried out – by my mother.

In the psalm, what follows God’s answer is joyful celebration, beginning with verse 22:  “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:  You who fear the Lord, praise him!”  Verse 26 adds, “. . . the poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord.  May your hearts live forever!”  Why such exuberance?  Why such a complete turnaround from the misery and loneliness of the psalm’s opening words?

The author tells us in verse 24, and this is apparently also the substance of God’s answer to his prayers:  “for [God] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me but heard when I cried to him.”  He has realized that God was present in his affliction.  God was always there.

God is always there:  when we are abandoned and scorned, when we are weak and hurting, and whatever our doubts.  We worship the God who is always there, even in our darkest hour.  Sometimes we cannot hear God’s voice.  Nevertheless, God is still there – God is not hiding – and when we are ready and able to see and hear, God’s face will come into sharper focus and God’s voice will become clearer.

The psalm’s extravagant praise extends for several more verses, but we will leave the passage here, and consider what it can tell us about dealing with doubt.

We have seen that the psalmist continues to reach out to God, despite the lack of an immediate response.  He pleads.  He prays into the silence and keeps on doing so.  He argues with God; he wrestles with God like Jacob wrestled with God at the Jabbok River, demanding to be blessed.  He also remembers earlier days, when his relationship with God seemed to be closer.  Do we sometimes give up too soon when things aren’t going our way?  I know I do.  The psalmist teaches us to engage with God and persevere.  He shows us how to endure.

If you are struggling with doubt, I would also like to suggest sharing your questions with a trusted friend.  Let another’s faith support you if your own is not up to the task.  The call to the supporting friend is to share faith, prayer and empathy.  It is never to rebuke or judge.  When Thomas doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead, Jesus did not rebuke him, but he shared what Thomas needed in order to believe.  I hope you have friends in our church who will listen without judging and help uphold you through difficult times.

Finally, I urge you to put down roots, deep roots that will nourish and anchor you.  Nourishment, anchorage and support are necessary when you face the stresses of doubt and uncertainty.  Put down roots in church; be an active part of this congregation; develop a support network of Christian friends.  Grow roots deep into your Bible.  Learn where you can turn – for example, to Psalm 22 – to find answers and gain strength as you confront the questions that inevitably will arise.  Also, develop roots in your prayer life to anchor yourself as closely to God as possible.  After all, you are in the process of building a relationship with God, and your relationship will be weak if you never talk.  Such communication will help reassure you when you face the periods of silence and doubt that every Christian encounters.

Psalm 22 opens in uncertainty and abandonment.  It concludes in joy and adoration.  Why the change?  It comes down to one essential truth, expressed in the Hebrew name Emmanuel, in English, “God is with us.”  The psalmist came to understand this truth and it changed his life.

Jesus is our Emmanuel.  Do you want the life-changing assurance that God will always be with you?  Then, if you have never done so before, I invite you to accept Jesus as your Savior and Lord.  If you would like to talk further about this, it would be my privilege to meet with you after the service, or you can speak with Pastor Allie when she returns next week.

Sisters and brothers, wherever you are in your Christian walk, I urge you to take this truth to heart:  in all circumstances and conditions – in darkness and doubt, in suffering and affliction – God is with us!  May we explore what this means for our lives as we grow together in Christ.  Amen.

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What Happens After Pentecost?

Preacher: Kelvin Mulembe

Scripture: Acts 3:1-10

Increased skepticism and cynicism has become a virtue in our culture. Doubt appears to be more favorable than faith. Negativity and fear spreading seems more popular than a message of hope. We are encouraged to question anything that seems too good to be true. Nothing is straightforward anymore. Even the truth is relative. It depends on whose perspective. Mass Media can no longer be trusted as a reliable news source.  And, if the rise of Donald Trump as the GOP presidential front-runner is any indication, fasten your seatbelts, we are headed for interesting election times.

Every media outlet dismissed him. Everyone thought it was a joke. Now it’s no longer a laughing. It’s not funny anymore. He could well be the next president of the United States, bolstered by a message of make America great again, but build a way of separation and register all Muslims.

It was a similar environment among the Jewish Christians before the Pentecost. Persecutions did not end with Christ’s execution. Christ was no longer physically present with them. His disciples were in hiding – timid and cynical. Many of the followers had lost hope and become skeptical of Christ’s return. They were mocked by those who believed that there was another way of making Israel great again. The disciples felt insignificant and unsure, as they waited for the promised helper in the person of the Holy Spirit.

“Wait in Jerusalem until you have been baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4, 8). “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The day of Pentecost was the defining moment in the life of the church. It was the day that the church was empowered to go into the world as a witness. The baptism of the Holy Spirit heartened the timid peter to raise his voice and explain to the crowd what was going on. No longer hiding, peter and eleven other disciples stood before thousands and expressed their faith. Pentecost was only the beginning of a vibrant church.

It is important for us to recap on some of the functions of the Holy Spirit. Three that are important for us to know include:

Firstly, the Holy Spirit comes to teach you all things that pertain to life and godliness, and remind you of God’s Word (John 14:26); particularly, when our human intelligence offers us vague solutions to life’s most pressing challenges.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit will teach you what to say in challenging situations (Luke 12:12). Are you facing a situation in which you have no idea what you going to say? Maybe it’s a court case, or things are not going well at work, or you have a conflict in your relationship? Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you.

Thirdly, the Holy Spirit will give you boldness to do scary and impossible things (Acts 1:8). To lead an effective Christian life takes more than willpower or giftedness. It takes our yielding to the will of God and obedience to the Holy Spirit. Christ is the vine and we are the branches. The Holy Spirit will not impose God’s help on us. We have to accept and be willing to follow. And when we do, great things will begin to happen to us and through us.

This is our blessed assurance. That the Holy Spirit quickens us when we are weak. Yet we still feel powerless. We still lack confidence. We keep praying that the Holy Spirit comes and fills our lives when He/She’s already here. Are we missing something? How many times is the Holy Spirit going to come?

I believe the problem is not the absence of the Holy Spirit, but our lack of familiarity with the voice of the Holy Spirit. And this lack of familiarity also causes us to question or doubt the Holy Spirit’s direction. Further, our rigidity and resistance to God’s promptings, over time, diminishes our capacity to hear and obey God’s voice and amplifies our own inner voices.

In our text, we read of how Peter and John prayed for the healing of a man who had been crippled from birth. Every day this man would be brought by relatives and friends to the temple gate called “beautiful” to beg from those going into the temple. Notice that they did not bring him into the temple. They placed him by the gate. He sat there and begged for change every day for many years. I am sure he never thought of any other way to make a living.

I also believe that this is not the first time that Peter and John were meeting this man. This was their regular place of worship. It was a Jewish practice to go to the temple for prayers three times a day, at 9am, 3pm, and 6pm. They must have seen each other on numerous occasions, and perhaps avoided to make any personal connection or eye contact. After all, he was a beggar, a burden, a problem to be avoided. We don’t even know his name, besides his disability.

I wonder how many people have been brought to our Arlington Temple gates to beg from us as we enter this place. Do we avoid making eye contact? Do we even see them?

One day as Peter and John were going to the temple to pray, they encountered the same crippled man, in the same place. But this time, their reaction was surprisingly different. Instead of avoiding making eye contact, they did more. They engaged in a conversation with the man. The man asked for money, the only thing he knew to ask for. But peter looked straight at him and said “look at us”, to gain the man’s full attention and raise his expectation. “Silver and gold, I don’t have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Then they did something else. They took the man’s right hand and helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts. What an amazing testimony.

The Holy Spirit helped Peter and John recognize what they had received from Jesus -the power to heal. Are we looking for ways to grow the church? Then we must begin to help crippled men and women get up on their feet and walk. Then they can come into the temple with us. Notice that the healing happened outside the temple. Thus, we must not wait until people come inside the church to offer help. We must offer it at the gates, in the public square.

Disability in the bible symbolizes more than just physical handicaps. It represents impossible situations – something that defies natural solutions. Some disabilities are more obvious than others. Some are physical, and others psychological. Some are social or relational. Some are financial. Each of us has an area of vulnerability. Some life’s situations can be crippling, such as, the loss of a loved one, a job, or marriage. We as the body of Christ must recognize that we are stronger together. We need to lift each other up.

The Holy Spirit will not fully manifest in an atmosphere filled with divisions and selfish motives. We must be of one accord as a church. The baptism of the Holy Spirit (or God’s anointing) is not a badge of honor for those who are more holy and gifted. It is an empowering gift to believers for service. You don’t need the Holy Spirit if all you want is to serve yourself. It is for empowering the church to do ministry.

I remember when I was the missions’ director for Chi-Alpha Christian Fellowship at the University of Zambia. We had been planning for a mission trip to Northern Province from the start of the semester, when two weeks before the trip the University closed due to strikes from faculty and staff. All the people we depended on for leadership withdrew and advised that we cancel the trip. But, we had invested so much prayer and finances into it. High schools and colleges were expecting us. Churches had scheduled meetings for us. From an initial group of about 50, only six of us were left hanging in there. We knew God wanted us to go, so we obeyed.

The following week we boarded the train for Kasama, not knowing what to expect. And what happened on this trip forever changed my life and my relationship with the Holy Spirit.

On our first day, we spoke at a Girls High School where over 200 girls dedicated their lives to Christ. Many gave testimonies of how God touched them by our visit. One girl in particular, afterwards came over to me for prayers and confessed that she was being sexually abused by a teacher, and had planned to take her own life that very night. But, after hearing that God loves her, she experienced an overwhelming sensation and abandoned her plans. She felt worthy of love and free.

The following day, we went into a nearby village. Our host pastors actually warned us that the community was hostile to outsiders, especially religious people. Thus, we should be prepared for anything. So, the night before we spent time praying and asking the Holy Spirit to protect and guide us. When we entered the village, we went straight to the house of the village headman, and found him nursing his sick daughter who had malaria. We introduced ourselves and the reaction we received was surprising. We were welcomed and offered food. He even asked that we pray for his family. So, we did and afterwards, he gave us permission to go wherever we wanted to go in the village.

So we divided ourselves into three groups of two. I went with my friend Matthews and found a young boy about 11 years old, sitting by the entrance of his house. He should have been in school or playing soccer with his friends, instead we later found out that he had withdrawn, and was taking care of his bedridden single mother. Her illness had left her paralyzed and unable to walk. She had not been outside the house in five months. So we asked if we could talk to her. The boy responded that she doesn’t get up and that we could speak to her from the adjacent room. So, we got into this dark room and we could barely hear the voice from the other room. We shared a scripture about God’s promise of abundant life and healing and prayed with her. We told her God could see her.

We left and went on to other houses believing that God had answered our prayers. On our way back, we couldn’t believe what we saw. We found a young woman sitting on a stool outside her house. And, we recognized the boy. The woman was healed and crying. We asked why she was crying and she said she was overwhelmed that the village would be shocked when they see her walking because she had been paralyzed for months. We rejoiced with her and gave her a New Testament bible, and told her that God had a mission for her.

That is what the Holy Spirit does. Those are some of the things we can begin to experience when we yield to the Holy Spirit. That’s what happens after Pentecost. We receive a reaffirmation of our calling and mission – as a people sent out into all the world to bring hope and healing, to proclaim God’s salvation. The Holy Spirit gives us the to proclaim God’s truth with power and conviction – with signs and wonders. Not so we can feel good about ourselves, and brag about our holiness or how good our church is. We begin to take God’s word seriously. “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. They will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that God may be glorified. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:12-14).

We serve a powerful and merciful God. Our faith in God is not an expression of our weak intelligence. “A fool says in his/her heart, there is no God” (Proverbs 14:1). But, we know our God. Through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, we have experienced his amazing love. “For by God’s grace, we have been saved through faith.” Jesus continues to reach out to us saying “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6).

What happens after Pentecost? We must go out in the power of the Holy Spirit to be the light of the world, and bring hope in dark places. No doubt, you will feel alone and powerless, you will want to quit like everybody else. You will be tempted to take the easier route. But fear not, the Holy Spirit is with you, and will give you strength.

Amen.

Disciples on a Mission

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21

Where we left off last week, the disciples are on call.  They are gathered together in Jerusalem, where Jesus has spent time with them for forty days after the Resurrection.  Jesus has just ascended into heaven, to reign from another realm, and bide his time until the day when God’s Kingdom is made a reality here on earth.  And the disciples have been told to wait.  He has a job for them, he says, but they can’t begin yet.  They will go out and be witnesses to all the amazing things God has done, first right there in Jerusalem, then farther out to the surrounding areas of Judea and Samaria, and finally, to the ends of the earth.  But they are only to begin once they have been empowered to do so by the Holy Spirit, who Jesus promised is coming to be with them as Jesus leaves.

And so they wait, about ten days, watching and praying, ready to be summoned to duty.

And finally, the day of Pentecost arrives.

Pentecost was a Jewish holiday, a festival celebrating the end of the grain harvest.  It came fifty days after Passover, and in fact the name Pentecost means “fiftieth.”  That was what Greek-speaking Jews called it, but in Hebrew it was, and is, Shavuot, the festival of weeks.  The holiday was also a celebration of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.  Today, Jews celebrate Shavuot by staying up all night and reading the Torah and eating cheesecake and other dairy foods, which sounds like the best kind of holiday to me.  So, for the record, the church did not make up Pentecost.  But it is safe to say that for the disciples, that particular Pentecost Day was entirely different from any other.

It started with the sound of wind that picked up until it swirled and howled and filled the whole house where they were gathered.  Then there was fire, flames that forked and grew and touched each one of them.  Then they began to speak, all at once, maybe not even knowing what they were saying, because it wasn’t any language they had ever spoken before.  They must have spilled out of this house, wind still howling, flames still licking, strange words still flowing, until people began to stop and stare, and quickly, a crowd gathered.

The crowd was made up of Jews in town for Shavuot.  Since Shavuot was one of the three major pilgrimage festivals for Jews, along with Passover and Sukkot, people from across the Jewish diaspora were gathered in Jerusalem that day.  Being from different places, they did not all speak the same language.  So I imagine they stopped to stare just from the sheer commotion of it all, but then some familiar words caught their ear, and they said wait a minute—how are these Galileans—who are not exactly known for their cosmopolitanism—speaking my language?  And how is it that EVERYONE here seems to hear them speaking our own languages?  What is this??

Some people said, “Go home, disciples, you’re drunk.”

But Peter quieted the crowd and said, “Please!  It’s nine o’clock in the morning.  This isn’t about us.  This is about God doing a new thing.  This is the Holy Spirit at work, just as Jesus promised, just as the prophets predicted.”

It was clear: the time they had been waiting for was now.

And the church was born.

Maybe it sounds strange to say the church was born that day.  After all, the disciples and others had already been following Jesus for several years.  And after all, the church described in the book of Acts looks pretty different, for better or worse, than the church as we know it today.  But something decisive happened that day, and eleven guys—and maybe some others who followed Jesus as well—went from being a bumbling, ragtag band of followers of a traveling teacher to being the church.  They went from following Jesus to being the Body of Christ on earth.

And if the events of this particular Pentecost Day are what made the church the church, then I think they also have something to say to us about what makes the church the church.

We call ourselves the church, in Greek ekklesia, “called out.”  So what is it that makes us more than just some people gathered in a building to sing some songs and listen to some words and give some money and drink some coffee?  What exactly is it that makes this—us—or any group of people who do something similar—church?

 

Well, for one thing, church is where people are filled with the Holy Spirit. 

Now I don’t know about you, but if you’re like me, that makes you a little nervous, because you honestly wouldn’t really know what to do if right about now there came the sound of a swirling wind and tongues of fire filled the sanctuary.  It would be like, oh, wow, I wasn’t prepared for this, this is taking things a little overboard.

The church I went to in college was a pretty orderly, traditional, high-church kind of place.  There was a lot of organ music, and it certainly wasn’t the kind of place where you got up and made your own announcements.  But one Sunday toward the end of the service an old man stood up, took advantage of a pause in the order of events, and introduced himself, and called out, “I want you all to know that I have been blind for forty-something years, and as of right now, I can see!”

There was silence for a moment.  Then everyone clapped politely.

No one knew what to do.  Neither did I.

There might be something to be said for being more open to that kind of experience!  I know some of you here have even had that kind of powerful experience, or seen it happen.  But the Holy Spirit doesn’t always sound like wind and look like fire, either.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit more like a gentle dove that alights on us at baptism, assuring us of God’s presence.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit is the creative force present in the beginning of the world, when the Bible says the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit is the still small voice we hear after the hurricane and the earthquake and the fire have passed, like it was for the prophet Elijah.

I see the Holy Spirit at work whenever our assumptions about something or someone are broken down, whenever a newcomer is welcomed into a community, wherever someone is truly open to knowing what God wants for their lives, wherever someone steps out in faith to share their gifts, wherever we see growth, not just in numbers but in the depth of people’s commitment to following Jesus.

And truthfully any of those things might rightly make us a little nervous, too, even if they aren’t wind and fire.  As Shane Claiborne once put it, “I know a lot of people who say, ‘My life was all messed up and Jesus helped me put it back together.’  Well, I’d say I had things pretty well together, and when I met Jesus, he messed me up.”

The truth is that without the power of the Holy Spirit moving among us, we might be a lot of things.  We might be a service organization or a social club or an educational forum, but we are not the church.  The disciples had to wait for God’s commission and God’s power, and if we are without those things, so do we.  In 1 Corinthians Paul says that if I do great things, and speak in tongues, and give all my money to the poor, but don’t have love, I’m a noisy gong and a clanging symbol.  Well, likewise, if we’re not doing whatever we do in the power and by the call of God, we can still do things, but they are ultimately meaningless.

And so whether she shows up in wind and fire or gradually, quietly changed hearts and lives, without the Holy Spirit, the church does not exist.

 

Second of all, church is where diverse people are brought together in community.

There’s no doubt about it: the fire and wind are great special effects.  But what’s even more significant about Pentecost is not how the Holy Spirit shows up but the effect the Holy Spirit produces.  All these Jews are gathered in Jerusalem from all over the diaspora for the festival of Pentecost, and they speak different languages.  The disciples, meanwhile, spoke Aramaic and have probably never learned another language in their life, except maybe a little synagogue Hebrew—some of them possibly couldn’t even read.  But somehow, the people gathered heard the disciples speaking in their languages.  Somehow, this barrier that would have kept people apart was transcended.  Somehow, these people from different parts of the world understood each other.

I’ve traveled to a lot of places where my native language is not the dominant language, though as a native English speaker, I usually have the privilege of being able to make myself understood.  But in a place where you are struggling to make yourself understood, either in your language or in theirs, you know what a relief it is to come across someone who speaks like you.  I loved the time I spent in India meeting Indian people, many of whom spoke perfectly good English—but I always got excited when I heard an American accent.  There was a sense of instant community there—like here was someone who would understand me.

Still, we can speak the same language and still speak different languages.  I think we do it all the time.  Democrats and Republicans sometimes speak different languages.  Evangelical and progressive Christians sometimes speak different languages.  People from different places and cultures and classes, even just in the US, speak different languages, not to mention those of us who come from very different places the world over.  Sometimes, it is hard to understand each other.

And church, sometimes, is the most homogenous place we go.  Sometimes, though, it might also be the one place we come together around a table with people we never otherwise would.  And I’d say that in only one of those scenarios is the church really church.

Peter even says it when he quotes from the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy.  Your young men will see visions.  Your old men will dream dreams.”  Young and old, also, don’t always understand each other.  But they are all included in this community, and the Spirit is given to all of them.

I think of one time a couple years when I was working at a church for a summer and ended up having to spend a Saturday driving a couple people to an event in Fredericksburg.  One guy kind of went off to do his own thing, and it was just me and this one woman I barely knew, and my only thought was, we are going to have nothing to talk about.

We had nothing in common.  We came from different socioeconomic backgrounds.  She was black, I was white.  She had struggled with addiction and been homeless and spent time in jail.  I was the bright-eyed intern.

But there we were, together for the day, and during our lunch break we walked around Fredericksburg together, and we talked.  And it turns out we did have something to talk about.  We shared our stories of how we had gotten to the places where we were, paths which had both, somehow, led us to the same church.  And it was true that we had nothing in common other than that church and loving Jesus.  But it also turned out that that was enough.  And even though we both spoke English, that was a Pentecost kind of day for me.  That was church.

Church, Pentecost teaches us, is a place where the things that separate us and keep us from understanding each other are overcome.  And where they are not, where those barriers between us persist, the church does not exist.

 

Third of all, the church consists of disciples on a mission.

The day the church was born was the day the mission the disciples had been waiting for began.  Given the power of the Holy Spirit, the disciples’ job was to go out and be witnesses right there in Jerusalem, and they started right on that day as they told all the gathered people about everything God had done, then out to Judea and Samaria, and to the rest of the world.

“Witness” is a key word here.  It’s a word that will come up over and over again in Acts: “We are witnesses to these things!” the disciples will say, as they tell people about Jesus and the Resurrection.  On Pentecost, the church is born, and those who form it become witnesses to God’s work in this world.

Again, we might not all express that witness in the same way.  Some of us may be really good with words and telling people about what we believe and how it has changed us.  Some of us might have a gift for living our lives and loving people in a way that makes people take notice and ask questions.  Some of us might have a strong prophetic sense of justice and struggle for God’s redemptive will to be made known as we speak truth to the powers around us.  Some of us might go to the ends of the earth, and some of us might find our mission right here around us.  But our witness is a commitment we make every week when we stand up and say “We go out to be God’s people in the world.”  That is our mission as a church: to gather together as a diverse community brought together by God’s Spirit and then go out into the world to live our lives in a way that tells the story of who God is and what God has done.

And without that mission, the church does not exist.  There might be a building, and there might be some people in it, and they might even pray and read the Bible and sing some nice songs, but without a sense of mission, we are not the church.  If we’re only in it for us, the church does not exist.

So, church, how are we doing?

Maybe the truth is that no church is a perfect Pentecost church all of the time.  Maybe we don’t always open ourselves to the next move that the Holy Spirit is about to make.  Maybe sometimes we theologically justify the things that separate us from each other rather than letting the Spirit break them down.  Maybe sometimes we lack a sense of purpose and passion that compels us to go out and tell God’s story in word and action.  And maybe it’s enough to trust that the Holy Spirit also works through broken, imperfect people and imperfect churches.

But I do believe I see the Holy Spirit at work here.  And I do believe this is a place where people who wouldn’t otherwise cross paths come to know and love each other.  And I do believe that God has work for us to do, and that it’s our job to go out into the world as God’s people and do it.

Come, Holy Spirit.  Come as wind, come as fire, come as our life breath, come as that still small voice, but come, make us the church, and send us forth in mission.

Waiting for God’s Time

Scripture: Acts 1:1-11

My friend Nancy was telling me the other day that she wanted to go to the zoo.  She hadn’t been there in a long time, but she did have one vivid memory from the last time she went, years ago.   Her daughter Melody was around three at the time, and Nancy brought Melody into the bathroom.  While Nancy was using the bathroom, Melody all of a sudden just ducked under the stall door and took off.

So Nancy pulled everything up and ran out of the bathroom after her, asking the strangers around her, “Which way did the redhead go?”  By the time she spotted Melody, Melody was halfway down the hill running full tilt toward the otter tank.

Once Nancy had her daughter in sight, she thought, well, I’ll just wait for her to stop and look around and realize she’s alone and scared.  Apparently she never did.  (It’s OK, they all got home safely that day.)  But I guess the whole experience was traumatic enough for Nancy that they never went back.

But keep that image in your mind a minute.  Now: imagine God as that frantic parent in the bathroom.

And imagine we are that three-year old child running toward the otter tank.

This is a story about waiting for the right time.

Today is Ascension Sunday.   In some places, like Catholic parts of Europe, Ascension Day is a really big deal.  Everyone gets off of work and school and there are parades.  When was the last time you saw a parade here celebrating the Ascension?  Here, we barely even know what it is.  And if we do, we know it’s pretty weird, because it’s the celebration of Jesus being beamed back up into heaven after hanging around on earth for forty days after the Resurrection, and can’t you just imagine being one of his disciples and watching as he floats up into the sky, getting smaller and smaller until you can’t see him anymore?  I mean, where does he go?  Out into space?  I supposed once a guy has risen from the dead, nothing is too far-fetched.

This kind of image admittedly makes a little more sense if you have more of a premodern understanding of a three-tiered universe, where heaven is up above the dome of the sky somewhere, and less of a round earth, heliocentric kind of understanding, which complicates things.  But either way, the point really isn’t the geography of the whole thing.  The point is that in the Ascension Jesus is entering another realm, one that is not fully accessible to us yet.  He is glorified and reigns over heaven and earth, and meanwhile, the disciples have to go forward with their mission without Jesus physically there with them.

It’s like in Harry Potter, where Dumbledore dies at the end of the sixth book, and you know Dumbledore has to die so that the seventh book can be about Harry coming into his own without the kind of help and guidance that he once had in the fight against Voldemort.  Only Jesus isn’t dead, and the disciples aren’t alone, because Jesus is going to send the Holy Spirit with them.  Still, things are going to be a little bit different from now on, and how else could they be?  How else can the disciples figure out what it means for them to be the Body of Christ in this world?

Last week I conjectured that this was probably a pretty scary thing for the disciples, striking out on their own.  But maybe it was also an exciting thing. It could be both at the same time. Not that they wanted Jesus to go, but maybe they did actually feel like they had been born for such as time as this.  God had work for them to do and a church for them to build and they were going to build it!  It was the beginning of a great adventure!

But Jesus has some mitigating words for them here, too.  When they felt scared and uncertain, he offered them peace.  But when they are ready to duck out under the bathroom stall and take off running full tilt toward the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells them to wait.

Wait.  Don’t leave the city.  Don’t go anywhere.  Yet.

Soon, yes.  Soon the Holy Spirit will come upon them and they will receive God’s power and they will go forth and be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  Soon.  But not yet.

The Ascension is about Jesus being glorified, but it is also about the disciples, and how they are caught between two parts of the story.

It’s common during the season of Advent, when we are waiting for Christ’s coming, to talk about waiting and how none of us really like it.  I mean the little kinds of waiting like waiting for the cable company and waiting at red lights and waiting in line at the grocery store when the person in front of you can’t seem to unload their cart at a normal speed and then wants to pay with a check, but also the big kinds of waiting like waiting for a job offer or a college acceptance or test results; waiting for a relationship that is on its way out to end or for a new one to begin; waiting for a loved one to get better, or to die.  These can be agonizing times when the page has turned on one part of the story and the next part hasn’t yet begun.  I’m glad that the theme of waiting comes back around in our Christian year, because after all, it’s really not just a seasonal reality.  But it is a different kind of waiting than we talk about at Advent, I think.  There, we are waiting for something good that has been promised to us to happen.  Here, we are waiting to get started on something.

Have you ever been so excited about something you wanted to get started right away?  You hear a talk or read a book and you’re so inspired you’re instantly ready to give away all your possessions and go be a missionary in Southeast Asia?  Over New Year’s I read a book about a linguist who traveled to these remote corners of the earth to record the dying languages of practically-unknown tribes.  It was awesome.  I almost didn’t show up here that next Sunday.

Sometimes something like that happens and it’s a holy moment.  That is pretty much how the first disciples started following Jesus.

Other times that impulse is strong but fleeting.  You wake up the next day and you’re like, nah.  Or it’s just ill-advised.  I remember Shane Claiborne talking about a guy who heard about the work that his intentional Christian community, the Simple Way, was doing in inner-city Philadelphia, and he got on a bus and showed up.  And the people at Simple Way were like, OK, what are we going to do with you now?

Sometimes what God needs from us is just to take a breath and say, what does God really want from me here?   Is this newfound fire in my bones actually a call from God, or is it more about me?  I talked a few weeks ago about how hard it is to discern Jesus’ voice, the voice of our Shepherd, out of all the other voices in this world that are trying to tell us things about what is good and important and what we are supposed to do and who we are supposed to be.  A period of waiting is a good time to get quiet, pray, reflect, and ask other people for help trying to discern one voice from another.  It’s also a good way to see if the impulse or inspiration is fleeting, or if it’s constant.  And it’s a good way to see if God might open a door where we might have had to kick a door down and force our way before.  Or if maybe God does want to use our newfound passion, but just in a slightly different way than the first thing that came to mind.  Maybe that guy who showed up at the Simple Way house in Philadelphia had some justice work to do in the community he left.  There’s some humility to waiting, because it forces us to realize that we can’t just barge out and save the world on our own.

For the disciples, this period of waiting means they will be able to head out on their mission with the power of God’s Spirit, rather than without it.  That’s not a small thing.

Waiting also has a funny way of being able to change our perspective on things.  For the disciples, this period of waiting between the Ascension and Pentecost didn’t actually change their mission.  They knew straight from the mouth of Jesus what the mission was—to go and be his witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

But they kind of had it wrong, too, because when Jesus told them he had to go and the Spirit would be coming, what did the disciples say?  “Is now when you restore the kingdom to Israel?!”

They think this is the end, and that the Kingdom of God is about to be a reality here on earth.

But Jesus tells them not to worry about that.  Instead, he tells them, “worry about the work in front of you.”

I imagine a few days of waiting must have done the disciples some good, maybe allowing them to reflect back on everything and say, OK, maybe I get it now.  Maybe –I- have a part to play in helping to make that Kingdom a reality. 

I’ve talked before about how when I graduated seminary, I didn’t go straight to being a pastor.  It had taken me a long time, even in seminary, to get to a place where I even knew that I wanted to be a pastor, and I had been slow going through the beginning stages of the ordination process, and it seemed like a good idea at the time to take a year or two, get a nonprofit job, gain some experience, and see.  But it was 2009 and I didn’t get a nonprofit job.  So that summer, there I was back at my parents’ house, with this seemingly pointless year yawning ahead of me.

Part of me wished I could un-graduate.  It would have been great just to go back to a time in my life when my full time job was to write things at Caribou Coffee at 1:30 in the morning with friends around the table sipping mochas.  And another part of me wished I could fast-forward to a time in my life when I could actually begin to do the work I had been called to do, instead of what I really was doing that year, which was bagging school supplies at Staples and substitute teaching.  It was hard to live in the in-between of that year, caught somewhere between the past and the future, two parts of the story.

In all honesty, I really don’t know if the waiting I did that year was God’s will, or simply the result of my own possibly poor choices, or some mixture of both.  But I can say looking back that there was some holiness in the waiting.  It gave me some humility, because I had always been a high achiever, but now my friends were beginning their ministries and in some cases their real adult lives while I lived with my parents and made $7.50 an hour.  It gave me some new experiences, such as substitute teaching, which actually turned out to be a pretty good one, if not something I wanted to do forever.  But most of all, as I made my way through the next stages of the ordination process and prepared to actually go be a pastor, I knew in a way I really hadn’t before that that was what I wanted to do, and what I believed God had for me to do.  A year of waiting didn’t change the outcome, but it did change my perspective, and I think God was at work in that.

There’s a danger here, too.  The danger is that we’ll keep waiting.  We may take this call to wait as a excuse to remain in the past, or become complacent.  God doesn’t want that either.  It almost happens to the disciples.  When Jesus disappears up into heaven in the cloud, they just stand there, gazing up toward heaven.  That’s not what God’s going for either.  It takes two angels to come and basically say, “Snap out of it!”  Jesus will come back.  But in the meantime, there’s work to do.  Right now it is the work of praying, discerning, being ready, actively waiting for their call to duty.

I asked you a few minutes ago if you had ever felt passionate about something, so passionate you wanted to jump right in without thinking.  Well, on the other hand, have you ever felt complacent?  Have you ever thought there’s no need to do anything or change anything in this world because you’ve just never felt especially compelled?  Like God hasn’t given you something to do?

Let me tell you, God has given us plenty to do.

I think about this, the right, holy balance between waiting and action, as our United Methodist General Conference prepares to meet this week and talk about some hard issues that affect the future of the church.  How well have we prepared by praying and listening to each other?  On the other hand, have we put some changes off for too long because we can get stuck in that place of ambiguity?

I think about it in our own context here at Arlington Temple.  Do we have a good sense of the work God is calling us to do here in this community?  Could God be calling us to something more, and if so, how are we going to listen and prepare for it?  One way is next week we’re going to have a conversation after worship, for everyone, about what the needs in our community are and how we as a church might be gifted and called to respond, to reach out potentially more than we have been.  Maybe we could all take this week as a time to pray about that and listen for what God has to say.

The disciples, on Ascension Day, can’t yet leave the city.   And they also can’t keep looking up at heaven instead of the world right in front of them.  Instead, it’s time to wait.  A new day is dawning.  It’s called Pentecost and it’s God’s time for doing God’s work in the power of the Spirit.  So what do you think—will they be ready?  Will we?

Peace I Give to You

Scripture: John 14:23-29

We’re going to start off today by watching a little Seinfeld: Serenity Now

I think we all have a little bit of Frank Costanza in us.  I think all of us are searching for serenity now.

We’re stressed out from the demands of our jobs and the long hours they demand of us.  We’re stressed out about our finances.  We’re stressed out by the demands of other people on our lives, whether it’s our parents or our children or our friends, maybe even simply the work of trying to maintain friendships in the midst of a busy life.  We’re stressed out by traffic and life’s little everyday challenges.

We’re worried about the future, and we wonder especially as we get older what exactly we’re doing here, what the purpose of it all is, whether we’re getting ahead fast enough, and whether what we’ve done has been enough.  And we doubt and we go through crises of faith and we despair sometimes when we look at the world around us and we see so much need and so little love.

That all is probably a lot deeper than Frank Costanza, but still, I think we are all searching, somehow, for peace.

And we look for it in self-help books, new meditation techniques, yoga, even prayer; we look for it in therapy, or medicine, or sometimes alcohol; we look for it by being busier, or by being less busy, by simplifying our lives, trying out the KonMari Method (“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”), or getting out of debt.  Mostly, those aren’t bad things; a lot of them are good things, but somehow they don’t seem to quite get us to where we want to be, either, because here we are, still looking.

In today’s Scripture Jesus makes this bold claim that he can give us the peace that nothing and no one else can.

Of course, this bold claim is first to his disciples.  He says it to them in the Gospel of John just before he is crucified.  It’s part of the long farewell speech he makes to them after he washes their feet and before they all head out to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus will be arrested.  But this passage comes up in the lectionary now, the cycle of assigned readings we sometimes follow, I’m pretty sure, because the seven-week season of Easter is drawing to a close and Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples on their own again.  Next week is Ascension Sunday, and that’s when Jesus floats back up into heaven to wait for the right time to show up again.

Both times—just before Jesus is killed and just before he leaves them again—I imagine must have been pretty scary, stressful times for the disciples.  The first, for obvious reasons, though they may not have understood exactly what was going to happen; and the second, because even after the joy of the Resurrection, Jesus was going to abandon them again.  Leave them all on their own, to go on with God’s mission with Jesus’ help or direction.  It’s like the first day of a new job you haven’t been adequately trained for, and your boss disappears.

So to the extent they understood what was about to happen either time, they must have been like, “Jesus, we can’t do this.”

And Jesus leaves them with words of peace.  “Peace I leave with you,” he says.  “My peace I give to you.  I do not give as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

It’s not entirely clear if Jesus is saying he gives differently than the world does—unconditionally?  No take-backs?—or if what he is offering is something fundamentally different, and I tend to think both are probably true, but especially the latter.  The peace that Jesus leaves with his disciples, and with us, is not the peace that the rest of the world has to offer.

In Jesus’ day, one kind of peace the world had to offer was the Pax Romana.  The Roman Empire of the day was secure and prosperous.  They made it work by economically oppressing the people of all the territories they conquered and brutally suppressing any hint of rebellion.  If you were a Roman citizen at the time, and doing pretty well, that probably seemed like peace.

A friend of mine told me about someone he knew who lived in Argentina in the 1970s around the beginning of the Dirty War.  His friend would have told you at the time that a woman could walk down any street at any time of night and not feared having her purse snatched.  That was because the streets were lined with soldiers carrying large guns.  And of course, that so-called security rested on the premise that if you were seen as threat to it, you might disappear.

I think about that as we continue to slog through this election cycle, and we talk about “Making America Great Again,” and it seems to me that we’re terrified of no longer being the most powerful country in the world.  If we lose that power, do we also lose the security and prosperity that comes along with it?  And what’s the cost of maintaining that power?  Maybe we’re just being realistic, but at the same time, is that real peace?

It’s like our sense of peace is a Jenga game, and one block out of place might cause the whole thing to crumble.

And then there’s that inner peace we’re all searching for, the peace which comes from knowing our home is protected by an alarm, or our retirement is taken care of, or our homes are organized and therefore our lives are under control—so much of it is peace that still rests delicately on top of fear.  Or, perhaps, peace that tries to tune stress and fear out altogether – “Serenity now!”

But God’s peace has never meant any of those things.  In Hebrew, the word “shalom” means something more like wholeness, or fullness.  It’s the peace we find in community, where people welcome each other and everyone has enough. This is how the prophet Micah envisioned it:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. (4:1-4)

Shalom is where people live together, and they aren’t afraid, and God is in their midst.  Maybe that’s the kind of peace that Jesus means.

But unfortunately Jesus isn’t leaving his disciples to their own devices in this perfect-sounding world that Micah describes.  He’s leaving them to their own devices in the world of the Pax Romana, in a world of persecution, a world of fear and doubt and uncertainty.  He doesn’t create this new world for them—at least, not yet.  But he does offer them peace in the midst of it.

That’s because, even as he leaves them alone, he’s not really leaving them alone.  He promises them, instead, that the Holy Spirit will be with them in his place.  And the Spirit will teach them and guide them and remind them of what Jesus wanted from them and give them the power to face these scary, stressful, uncertain times ahead.

God will be with them, even if it’s in a new and less obvious way.

And I believe that when Jesus offers us peace, that’s the kind of peace it is too—the peace of knowing that God goes with us even when we can’t directly see God, and that no matter what we are facing in this scary and stressful and uncertain world, God will be there to teach us, and guide us, and comfort us, and empower us, and remind us of who we are in the midst of it all.  There is a sense of wholeness in that.

 

Question: Can any of you think of someone who exhibited peace even in hard times?  What accounted for that?

 

I’ve always thought that a powerful image of the post-Pentecost disciples, after they’ve received the Holy Spirit and gone forth on their mission to build the church, is them getting thrown into jail—as they did many times—and singing hymns.  The world around them had not improved.  Their circumstances had not gotten better.  But they knew God was with them and they believed in the promise of resurrection, which they had seen, and that was enough.  In the midst of it all, they had peace.  They had wholeness.  And it wasn’t peace that tuned out the world around it or the kind of peace that was thinly veiled fear, but it was the kind of peace that only Jesus can give.

Maybe, while we are still imperfect people in this imperfect world, it’s not possible to feel that peace all that time.  Jesus is never just an easy fix, and as long as this life endures, and as long as job stress and money woes and relationship issues and everything else endure with it, fear and doubt and despair are going to rear their heads.  I don’t want anyone to leave here thinking that finally finding peace is as easy as saying yes to what Jesus offers, once and for all, and then feeling bad when it doesn’t seem to work, just like everything else.

I think it’s more like saying yes to what Jesus offers every day, lots of times a day, as we face these things and in the midst of them the Holy Spirit reminds us of Jesus’ words: “Peace I leave with you.  My peace I give to you.  Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”

You are loved, through all of it, and wherever this crazy life may take you, God is going to meet you there.