Saturday, October 31, 2015

With the Wild Beasts

It’s a two parter this week.  A common literary device.  Compare and contrast, light and dark, or near and far, lots of different ways to configure this dualism.  Our author, Jack Levison writer of the book “Fresh Air” from which we took this Holy Spirit series, writes this penultimate chapter with two characters in mind.  

The first is the title character and for most of us the most important one of all: Jesus.  You might think that Jesus should have been the subject of the first chapter, or the last chapter.  And that he wouldn’t have to share a chapter with another character.  That’s the way it should have been done, we’re pretty sure.  The way we would have done it anyway.  But no, here it is the next to the last chapter, “Jesus’ Test.”  

Mark 1:9-13 NRS In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 

Ah, yes, the wilderness experience.  Three of the four gospels tell us that after his baptism, Jesus spent time in the wilderness.  John’s loquacious Jesus doesn’t have time to be alone, he’s got disciples to call and parties to attend, wine to make.  But the other three are pretty clear that Jesus needed time to get things in order.  At least that is what it seems like he is doing.  What kind of messiah is he going to be?  Matthew and Luke describe the conversation in the wilderness, the temptations.  They give us some background into the decisions facing Jesus as he launched his ministry.  Lots of juicy detail about what was going on there, lots of debate about the test.

But Levison didn’t choose Matthew or Luke.  You’d think if he was going to title a chapter “Jesus’ Test” that he would.  But no, we get Mark.  Who presents the temptation in the wilderness in two verses.  Who doesn’t itemize the questions.  Who doesn’t tell us how strenuous it was.  We just get some bullet points in Mark’s PowerPoint on Jesus.  Item one: Jesus was there forty days.  Item two: He was tempted by Satan.  Excuse me?  How, sir, how was he tempted by Satan?  No time for questions.  Moving on.  Item three: He was with the wild beasts.  What?  What do you mean with the wild beasts?  Attacked by them?  Surrounded by them?  Fought them for food?  Turned them into pets?  What?  No time for questions.  Moving on.  Item four: He was waited upon by angels.  Waited on?  They brought him meals and such?  They mopped his brow and fanned him with big leaves?  Or that they stood on the edge of the wilderness and tapped their toes and checked their aPhones for texts from Jesus?  End of lecture.

Um.  OK.  What was going on there?  Mark says we don’t know.  He says Matthew and Luke made up stuff, or had other sources or pestered Jesus until he told them what happened.  Mark says it doesn’t matter, really, what exactly happened.  Mark says the important stuff is there.  Back up, he says, look at the process.  Baptism, heavens torn open, gentle Spirit like a dove settles and Jesus is blessed.  Then gentle Spirit becomes an irresistible force driving him out into the wilderness.  Driving him.  Temptation, wild animals, angels.  That’s all you need to know.

Right.  Um.  Right.  So .... What?   Wait, you said there’s another character in this chapter, maybe that will help us figure this out.  Do you think?  Who’s the other character?  Another Old Testament prophet?  An early church figure who took a test?  Who?

Mark 13:9-13 NRS  "As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. 10 And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 

And the other character is?  Well, it’s you.  You all.  All y’all.  Us.  OK, a bit of a sleight of hand here, since we are the second character in every chapter.  But, I had to come up with a way to explain the two passages this week, two texts from Mark.  One for Jesus and one for us.  We’re supposed to hear an echo in these two passages, I think.  We’re supposed to see us walking where Jesus walked, in that lonesome valley, with the wild beasts.  

We have those beastly moments from time to time, don’t we?  We find ourselves cast out into a world we aren’t ready for, dealing with things for which we didn’t prepare, wondering if we are going to survive.  There are choices to be made, paths to follow and we are never sure which is right, what will bring us back into the gentle blessing of the Spirit and which will drive us deeper into conflict with the adversary.  

And our first thought when we find ourselves in difficult situations is what did I do wrong?  How did I get off track?  One wonders if Jesus thought that while stumbling around the wilderness.  What did I do wrong?  Surely not, we think, he must have known what he was doing.  It must have been his idea to go and spend some quiet time before diving into the busy years of his earthly ministry.  But then, why does it say the Spirit drove him out?  Doesn’t that sound like he didn’t want to go?  It sounds like punishment, God drove Adam and Eve out of the garden.  It sounds like getting rid of something you don’t want, Jesus himself would later drive out demons and drive out disease.  It was a way of getting obstacles out of the way, Jesus drove out the mourners when he wanted to rescue Jairus’ daughter from the grip of death. 

The Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.  The Spirit tore open the heavens and drove him into the wilderness.  And in the middle he was blessed, with a gentle presence and loving words.  He was tempted in the harsh wilderness for forty days and in the midst of it he was waited on by emissaries of the God who claimed him at the river.  Again, there’s an echo of our own lives which seem to vacillate between moments of love and acceptance and moments of doubt and terror.  We seem to be swallowed up in uncertainty even as we are comforted by the blessings of those who love us. 

Mark tells us, Jesus tells us to lean into the Spirit.  Even when it blows you into uncharted territory.  Even when it seems to be sending you out against your will.  Lean into the uncertainty, because it won’t abandon you.  And along the way there will be moments of blessing.  Remember them.  Cling to them.  Let them be sustaining in times of temptation and deprivation.  Let those words, You are my beloved, ring in your ears over the weeping and moans of your own brokenness, and let the gentle Spirit be what drives you to embrace the suffering of the world to bring healing and wholeness and love.  

Wait, though.  Light and dark, gentleness and suffering, Satan and angels.  OK, we get that tension, that daily struggle to hold on, that hope in the midst of despair and the suffering that deepens love.  But what about the animals?  He was with the wild beasts?  Who are they?  Another danger?  Another comfort?  Another choice to turn away from or a responsibility to claim?  Who are the wild beasts?

We are.  He was with the wild beasts.  That’s all we get.  Did they attack to rend limb from limb or did they lie down to keep him warm in the cold desert nights?  Yes.  Maybe both.  Maybe some attacked and some came along side.  Maybe some ran from him and some ran toward him.  We have that choice.  Always have that choice.  And we aren’t told what happened because it is still happening.  Every day we make the choice.  Lean into the Spirit, it won’t let you down.  And you’ll find resources to face whatever may come in the wilderness.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Bone to its Bone

I hardly know what to write this week.  I’m still reeling from last week’s festivities.  If you somehow missed it, a group of folks from Aldersgate decided that the occasion of my 30th anniversary of elders ordination needed recognition.  So, last Sunday was quite the party.  Just that they wanted to acknowledge it was honor enough, but they pulled out all the stops.  From the beginning of the service to the end of the potluck dinner that afternoon, many folks went out of the way to say congratulations and thank you and I’m glad you are or were my pastor.  The moment that blew my mind was during the liturgy of presentations (usually an installation ritual we’ve used almost too often - but was gloriously rewritten for this occasion) the presentation of the stole was not the usual grab one off the shelf and use it symbolically, but a brand new one of a kind, custom made stole, designed and assembled and (and this is the part that still brings a lump to my throat) presented by my brother, Jason.  All the way from New York City, he was in on the surprise and made the trip just for me.

Just for me.  I have seen my brother off and on over the past years - since we lived in the same house I mean - but it was usually on the way to something else.  Or because my folks were here.  Or a kid was graduating.  Or something.  I would never have asked him to interrupt his busy schedule to make the trip for me.  Others asked him.  He said yes.  And there he was last Sunday morning.  Looking oddly older than I remembered.  But still Jason.  I could scarcely believe my eyes.  Eyes that filled with tears are notoriously suspect witnesses to a miracle.  But it was him, placing yet another glorious work of art around my neck and then holding me while I tried to compose myself.

Everything changed in that moment.  Forgive me, but I thought I knew what I was in for.  I pretty much had the day figured out.  There would be words of congratulations.  There would be smiles and thanks.  Maybe even a gift of some kind.  There would be a meal afterward with delicious food prepared by loving hands.  There would be a cake, perhaps, maybe, I figured, maybe it had my name on it, or maybe just a congratulations.  And it would have been a very nice day.  And I would have been grateful.  But it was more.  So much more.  It was family, it was welcome - radical hospitality is the buzz word - it was sincere words, it was heart breaking - in a good way!  It was grace poured out like I can’t recall ever experiencing before.  It was bone to its bone.  I was taken apart that day and then put back together.  And I wasn’t the only one.  We were taken apart and put back together that day.

Ezekiel 37:1-10 NRS The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know." 4 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD." 7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Maybe it is because the prophet is telling his own story here.  “The hand of the Lord came upon ME.”  Maybe that’s why this becomes such an individual story.  When it isn’t about individuals at all.  The passage ends with a vast multitude, for heaven’s sake.  Yet we insist on hearing it as a multitude of individuals.  And this is about being shorn up.  It’s about getting what you need to keep going.  It’s about God who can revive you no matter how dry you are.  God can breathe into you new life, no matter how much you are gasping for air.  I’ve heard, and probably preached, too many sermons along those lines.

Full disclosure, that’s not all bad.  Certainly souls, individual souls need reviving.  Certainly, breath can come to reanimate those who have had the wind knocked out of them.  Certainly, there is something there for the individual yous in this story.  Last Sunday was a wonderful personal day for me.  Which, all of a sudden I understand the desire to take a personal day off work.  I need a personal day.  You need a personal day.  Everyone needs, if that is what it was last Sunday, everyone needs a personal day.  Wonderful.  Let’s make it happen. Personal days for everyone!

But that limits the power of this passage, both historically and today.  The passage usually includes verses 11-14, because they function as an explanation of Ezekiel’s vision.  And verse eleven begins “These bones are the whole house of Israel.”  The whole house.  Not just individuals.  Not just one on one, but all together.  So, then if you go back to verse three where God says to Ezekiel, “can these bones live?” God isn’t referring to any specific individuals.  Can this one live, can that one?  Can you live?  Can I live?  No, as important as those individuals are, God is talking to Ezekiel about the whole community.  The family of God.  The body, we have come to call it, the body of Christ.  

We live in an era of massive and rapid change.  One of those changes is the loss of influence of institutions like the church.  Not just the church, by any means, but the one that concerns us in this space.  The church is seemingly on its way out.  Or at the least the church as we have known it for the last however many years you want to count.  And now here we are.  Set down in the midst of this valley of bones.  Of what once was.  Of what our expectations are.  This is where we are.  This is the world in which we live.  But, and this is important, not because we messed up.  Not because we lost something, or broke something, or did something wrong to this gift called the church.  No we are here today because this is where God wants us.  This is our paradise.

I know, sounds outrageous, right?  In the midst of decline, in the midst of struggle, of conflict and disagreement and longing for a past that may not have been real, to call this paradise seems .... offensive.  Or a scam of some sort.  Like I’m trying to divert the blame for the mistakes I have made or something.  Maybe.  But look again.  The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  Set me down.  Did you know that is the same word that is used in the beginning of Genesis?  He set them down in the Garden of Eden. (Gen 2:15) Maybe this is where God wants us.  Here in this place where what used to be so easy, now involves effort and commitment and faith.  

He set us down here in a church that is facing an uncertain future and asks us “Can these bones live?”  And our response is often one of despair.  If only.  If only it was like it used to be.  If only we could turn back the clock.  If only we just advertised more, just opened the doors wider, just went back to what used to work, even though it was already losing ground.  Can these bones live?  

Let’s be honest, shall we?  Can these bones live?  No.  Face it.  No.  Not a one of these bones can live.  Not a one, they are too dry.  Too old.  Too dead.  Not a one.  But Ezekiel is wise enough to know that he shouldn’t voice that answer.  Even though he feels it in his bones, like we feel it in ours.  He wants to say no these bones can’t live, I can’t make them live.  Too many, too dry, to broken.  But he knows better than to say so.  Instead he shrugs his shoulders and says “You know, Lord.”  And God says, no.  As they are they can’t, they won’t live.  On their own.  So, bring them together Ezekiel.  Prophesy to the bones.  Bring them together.  What happened next took time, and made noise, and didn’t look right for a while. Wasn’t right for a while.  Until it became right.  Until the breath entered and what was apart came together and stood together.  A vast multitude.

I truly hope what happened at Aldersgate last Sunday was not just about me and my longevity.  I hope it was about us, about coming together, bone to its bone.  Everything changed, I said, when Jason walked into the room.  Then it was family, then it was a part of my flesh and my blood.  But Jesus says family is not just those who share DNA, but those who share a vision, those who share a hope.  We were set here in this paradise of brokenness to bring life where life seems to be lost.  And it is not just a good idea, it is part of us, deeply part of us.  We are not whole until we can bring these bones together.  We are not complete until these bones can live.  The truth is we can’t make the bones live - the bones of our church, the bones of our families, the bones of our world.  But God can.  So we prophesy to the bones and to the breath. To the body that we are becoming and the Spirit that makes us alive.  Then maybe we can come together, bone to its bone.


Saturday, October 17, 2015

Look Ye Out

Some time earlier this year, I came to the realization that this year, 2015, is the 30th anniversary of my ordination as an elder in the United Methodist Church.  Wow, I thought, thirty years.  That’s a long time.  I noticed, for example, during Annual Conference this June that many of the clergy who retired this year had not served for 30 years.  I was a bit startled.  I didn’t feel like a geezer.  I never saw myself as one of the old guys of the conference.  But I guess I was.  I am.  

I started paying attention to how many times I said, “well, when I started we didn’t do it that way,” and things like that.  I started noticing how many of my contemporaries were retired or retiring.  I got a letter recently from the denomination telling me I had served enough years to quality for retirement.  I was stunned.  I had never seen myself in those terms before.  I still felt like the new kid.  Like one day I’d grow up to be a real minister.  That for now I was just bumbling along learning the ropes.  Picking up a few tips here and there, but haven’t really figured this thing out.  It was a revelation of sorts.  Not quite sure what sort, still working on that.  But some sort.

Anyway, in sharing some of my incredulity around various groups at church, there were those who heard the anniversary date and determined that some public notice should be made.  They commandeered the calendar and chose a date for this recognition.  I said yes, some time ago not really thinking it through.  Well, now here it is.  We are taking a break from our Holy Spirit series, which is a good thing, a breather you might say, in the series about breathing.  And this weekend, a group has gathered to construct the order of worship and the subsequent activities all as a way of recognizing my longevity.  

I insisted that we don’t gather to worship me (or worse eulogize me), but that it is a genuine worship of God in Christ through the activity of the Holy Spirit.  They countered with “trust us.”  They gave me my responsibilities, and one of them is to preach on a text of their choosing.  So, I will do that.

Acts 6:1-6 NRS Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word." 5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

The first ordination, they told me.  That’s why they chose it for me to proclaim.  Well, yes.  The first ordination of the church after Jesus had left.  To ordain means to set apart for a special task.  So, technically the first ordination in the Christian movement was when Jesus names the twelve.  He set them apart to learn and to follow.  Or, you could argue that the first ordination was when Jesus sent them out to proclaim the good news.  The twelve or the seventy, depending on which Gospel you read.  That was when they went from being disciples to being apostles.  Ordained, set apart.

But, yes, this one, was the first one in the church, the fledgling movement that was becoming an institution, becoming an organization.  This was the church realizing that to be the church it was going to take a lot of help.  They were limping along on good intentions and personal passion.  And doing pretty well, according to the first five chapters in Acts.  But now in chapter six we’ve got trouble in River City.  There is favoritism, there is neglect, there are those slipping through the cracks.  In short there are the ills of any human organization.  No matter how great the desire, there is scope for things to go wrong.  Any they did.  The widows of the Hellenists (the Greeks, the outsiders in some circles, the immigrants you could say.  One commentator even goes so far as to suggest that the word used to name them implies that they didn’t even know the language of the community in which they lived) were being neglected in the daily distribution.  A system had been established for caring for those who had no other means of support.  And it worked for some and not for others.  So, a complaint was raised.  

And a new system was created to help make sure that this particular problem didn’t continue.  The twelve said choose seven men whom we will set apart (ordain) for the task of serving.  Waiting tables is the phrase that they used in the description.  And everyone said, “good idea!” And they picked Stephen and some other guys.  

Ok, that was unfair.  But it kinda reads like that, doesn’t it?  “Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with ...” Not faith in the Holy Spirit.  But full of faith and the Holy Spirit.  And if you know Stephen’s story, he had a short but brilliant career as an ordained member of the clergy.  But back to him in a moment.

This ordination was to service, not proclamation.  The apostles were reserving the proclaiming and the teaching to themselves.  They were ordaining what we now call the Order of Deacons in the UMC.  So, I asked, is it the thinking of the organizers of this event that I am like the apostles and now I’m going to choose folks to come alongside and help me?  Is this a way of tapping into my consistent theme that the church is actually run by the laity, the priesthood of all believers, and that no one ought to see him or herself as being able to run the whole show on their own?  I was glad that they had picked that up, feeling good about my ability to cast a vision.

No, I was told, you’re one chosen.  You’re the one ordained, right?  You were chosen to serve in this way.  But they were chosen not to preach but to wait tables.  My first appointment back in Indiana after seminary I was an associate to a senior pastor who had a different view of ministry and the role of the minister than I did.  One day we were heading out to a meeting of some sort.  And someone met us at the door and asked if we could help unload his truck.  I said sure and went to help.  The senior pastor stood looking at his watch.  Later he made it known that I shouldn’t have done that, that what we were going to do was more important than unloading a truck and I made us late.  Besides they need to recognize our position, give us the honor due the post.  Right?  I thought a moment and kinda shrugged, I am a servant, I said.  And he didn’t have a response to that.

I hope I haven’t become like that pastor on that day.  I’m not an apostle, I am a servant.  Called to whatever task God has in store for me.  I need to follow that call, whether it is standing to preach or waiting on tables.  God will use the gifts I have, that God has given me, in the way that fits the Kingdom best.  Stephen was chosen to wait tables, but all we hear about him after this moment was he was preaching and teaching.  He was martyred for preaching.  Maybe if he had stuck to waiting on tables he might have lived longer.  But he took the ordination and made it into what God had in mind in the first place.  The apostles, as they usually did, stumbled on something that was bigger than they knew.  They started a tradition, a ritual, a structure that almost immediately became something they didn’t foresee.  Because God was in it.  It has always been my hope that I follow not my own ideas of ministry but the calling that God has laid on me.  Some of my dreams and hopes for the task I was given have been realized over the years, others have not.  And I am content with that.  Content to be where God finds me useful and the church is able to become the church where I serve.

I read this passage in lots of different versions, trying to get an handle on it.  Even some really old ones.  One of those old versions took the verse where our text says reads “Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves ...” and it read “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you...”  I liked that for some reason.  Look ye out.  A good description of the process of ordination.  It means, choose from among yourselves, but it sounds like look out!  You chose these folks, now look out.  A good word of warning for the church as a whole.  Look out, I’ve been doing this for thirty years.  Look ye out.


Saturday, October 10, 2015

Merely Human

Maddie texted last night.  She was accepted for the semester abroad next year.  Sometime in January she is going with a group of other students from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio to Wittenberg Germany in ... Germany.  Europe.  Across an ocean.  Half a world away.  Good for her.  Really.  I’m excited for her.  Excited that she is excited, as she indicated in her text and in her Facebook post.  And Twitter feed.  And Snapchat ... chat.  She’ll be fine.  I know.  It will help her grow in ways that are hard to define.  Living overseas, in a different culture, with a different perspective on life, broadens one’s vision and opens one’s eyes.  I am who I am, in part because of the travel I have done, the countries I’ve called home, even for a short time.  So, good for her.

But then, I’m only human.  So I’m nervous.  A three hour drive is plenty far away.  Oceans and national boundaries and language divisions and a whole heap of history seems way too much, way too distant.  Ripe for danger or disappointment, I get suspicious of local unrest and volatile political environments.  So, I’m worried.  I’m only human.

Do you notice how we trot that phrase out to excuse all sorts of things?  Only human.  It’s our nature, we argue.  Don’t expect too much.  Don’t expect perfection, for heaven’s sake.  I’m only human.  Don’t ask for too much.  Don’t look at me as the hero, I’m not Superman from another planet with powers and abilities beyond that of mortal men.  I’m only human.  

It’s about being realistic, right?  About know what is within our capabilities and what is beyond us.  Hey, we’re only human.  No since claiming too much, wanting too much.  There are limitations, gravity holds us in place, we are shaped by the laws of physics, by the laws of psychology, we’re only human after all.

Well, Paul is having none of it.  Our humanness is not an excuse for bad behavior, he argues.  Because we have an antidote to being human.  

1 Corinthians 3:1-17 NRS And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely human?
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.
9 For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building. 10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw-- 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. 16 Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.

“Are you not merely human?”  When you are being divisive?  When you are choosing up sides, determining insiders and outsiders?  When you are dabbling in surface stuff instead of the deeper more meaningful, more sustaining and more demanding stuff?  Are you not merely human?  Paul gets a little testy here in the third chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians.  

Actually, it isn’t the first letter.  It is probably the second.  Maybe third, there is some considerable debate.  What happened is that Paul launched this church in Corinth and now has moved on to other things, other places.  But he gets word that there is trouble back in Corinth.  It is a church mired in dysfunction.  There are fights and factions, there is behavior that is causing unrest and wagging fingers and mass exodus.  There is trouble in River City.  And the trouble is they’re too human.  

What he really means is “you’re acting like everybody else!”  You’ve got the same priorities, the same self-centeredness, the same suspicion of the other as everyone else around you.  And you are supposed to be different.  You are supposed to be more.  “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in you?”

But, careful here, this isn’t about the glory of every person.  This is about the potential of the community of faith.  About the witness of the body as a whole.  This is why he is so upset about the choosing up of sides.  Because the temple is whole body.  That “you” in verse sixteen is plural.  It’s a you all.  Do you not know that you all are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you all?  Or y’all.  Except that those with Southern connections will know that sometimes y’all is singular.  Better to say “all y’all.”  All y’all are God’s temple, the Spirit dwells in all y’all. 

You need each other, that’s part of what Paul is trying to tell them.  And us.  We need the whole body to work together.  We need to be on the same page, sharing the same vision, pulling in the same direction.  That’s how this Spirit thing works, he argues.  It works on us and not as much on each.  We have so individualized our faith, turned it into a commodity, a thing we can come and get checked out and tuned up and then go out each week a little bit brighter and a little bit more ready for whatever comes our way.  We are consumers who come to get what we need to prosper, or to get by week by week.

That’s baby food, says Paul.  That’s infant thinking.  Instead come and be a part of the whole, of the field that is planted and tended and grown for the benefit of all.  Be a part of the building that is constructed to shelter the whole body of faith.  What are you contributing, Paul would ask, and he doesn’t just mean donations.  But how are you teaching the children?  How are you comforting the lost?  How are you being the sign and light of the presence of Christ in our world, in our neighborhood?  

To be human, in this way of thinking, is to be concerned about self-preservation, suspicious of the other, afraid of the stranger.  But, Paul says, on the foundation of Christ we want to be more than merely human.  We want to be Spirit driven, we want to be the sign and signal that God is at work in the world.  That the Spirit equips and sends and unites.

That’s the key to this passage, to this dimension of the life in the Spirit.  It unites.  It creates relationships.  It builds community.  It makes us one.  We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.  Remember that song?  We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand.  We will work with each other, we will work side by side.  That’s the sign of the Spirit’s presence.  Harmony, community, unity.  We won’t get there, Paul tells us by being merely human.  It takes something more.  Some One more.  We are One in the Spirit.

I’m excited about Germany.  I really am.  Because I know the Spirit is there as much as here.  I can trust in that.  Even as I struggle to be more than merely human.  In Christ all things are possible.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Then Afterward

I got back from Tennessee late Wednesday night.  A quick trip.  I needed to be in the office part of the week at least.  But I needed to be there too.  Took dad to a cardiologist appointment, took him to see mom, talked to therapists and doctors and social workers.  None of whom had definitive answers.  I know, definitive answers are few and far between.  In any sphere of endeavor.  And I didn’t really expect them.  But I confess I hoped for them.  It would have been so much easier if someone had just said here’s the deal!  Here’s what is going to happen.  Here is what your dad will be capable of, and here is what he won’t be capable of.  Here is the path you need to go down now.  Oh, and he is amenable to it too!

Well, while you’re wishing for the moon....  Speaking of moon, the day I left was the night of the SuperBloodMoon.  Remember that?  Last Sunday?  I know folks in Fort Wayne didn’t get a good view because of clouds.  But after I left Greencastle and dinner with my DePauw senior, I drove west on I70 and caught a glimpse of the moon in my rearview mirror.  Big, and orange and just waiting for the show to begin.  Super Blood Moon.  Or is it one word, like the ubiquitous hashtags I saw afterwards (#superbloodmoon)?  Frankly it sounds like a band our Genesis Music leader Mike Walter would have been a part of, back in the day.

I turned south on 41 at Terre Haute and made the long trek down into Kentucky.  And the moon and I played hide and seek all the way down.  Clouds and rain came and went, the moon was there, and then gone and then back in a slightly different place.  The first bite of the lunar eclipse was taken somewhere between Vincennes and Evansville.  Just a smudge on the right side as I looked at it.  Slowly from then on, imperceptibly almost, the super blood moon was sliced away, half gone by the state line, almost invisible on the Pennyrile Parkway in the middle of nowhere Kentucky.  Just before it disappeared, the last little sliver glowed brighter and it looked like a diamond ring, shining there in the dark sky.  My route turned west again and it slipped behind me, quickly consumed by the clouds that gathered in the darkness.  So, I didn’t get to see the revealing, the rebuilding of the super blood moon back to its colorful glory.  As far as I knew that night, it was gone, swallowed up by uncertainty and doubt.  

It was quite the celestial display, and it served to keep me awake and focused on the journey.  Maybe a little more attentive to the heavens than the road in front of me, though I made it safely to my destination.  Given the distance and the amount of time alone in a car hurtling to an uncertain reality, it seemed a metaphor to me.  I too was being eaten away, sliced up by fear and doubt.  The longer I drove, the closer I got, the more convinced I was that the task ahead of me was beyond my capabilities.  The decisions and choices and plans and possibilities were too often hidden by clouds of confusion and uncertainty.  And what was visible was shrinking away into the dark sky.  What was left seemed like more than I could handle.

Joel 2:28-31 NRS Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. 30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.

Yes, it’s somewhat ironic that Joel is our text for this week.  We are in the fourth week of our Fresh Air series on the Holy Spirit.  One hopes you are reading along.  But Joel is something of an invisible man, invisible prophet in the Old Testament.  The only thing we know about him appears in this little book, tucked away between the much more dramatic writers like Amos and Hosea.  The who text is rather bland, frankly, nothing to draw attention to the writer, nothing to locate him in more than a general space of time.  Scholars pick his period as being somewhere between 800 to 300 BCE.  That’s quite a range, five hundred years to get lost in.  In half of the book, Joel is dealing with a nation reeling from a national disaster of some sort.  Could be locusts devastating crops, could be a drought that felt like locusts, something.  Something fearful, something life threatening.  In the second half Joel talks about judgement from God.  The result of being a wayward people.  Not very specific as to the offense, not very creative in the results, standard prophetic fare.  Kind of a ho hum non-entity in the pantheon of prophets.

Until right at the end of chapter two.  Joel races out to the thin end of the limb on this one.  In an incredibly unique proclamation he declares that God promises to pour out the Spirit on all flesh.  I know, we’ve heard it before.  It’s old hat for us, old red Pentecost hat.  Because Peter grabs these verses from the bland unknown prophet and blasts them into the consciousness of the new community of faith.  We’ve read these words year after year so that they fade back into the wallpaper and we don’t even hear them anymore.  It’s just part of his first sermon that wild and wonderful day.  We say go back to the sound of a mighty wind, Peter, tell us about that.  We say, describe the tongues as of fire, settling on each and every head.  Tell us how you managed to become multilingual without sitting through French 101.  That’s what we want to hear, the magic, not the promise.

The barriers will fall, Joel says in God’s voice.  This Spirit isn’t anyone’s exclusive property.  It isn’t for the good people, the smart people, the rich people.  It isn’t for the mature people, the successful people, the people in power.  I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, ALL FLESH. You have to hear the capital letters.  You have to hear the shout.  In a time of finger pointing and teeth grinding, in a political process bent on showing who is wrong and who is bad and who is not worthy, instead of what just might bring us together, you have to hear the proclamation, the promise for what it is.  Heaven.  That’s what it is.  The kingdom of God.  The rule and community of God.  All flesh.  

But.  Ah, here we go.  But.  Not now, not yet, not here, not real.  That’s the progression we run through.  That’s why some are drifting away from the faith.  It’s a hard hope to hold on to.  Hope delayed is hope destroyed.  So, when is this thing, this pouring out supposed to happen?

Then afterward.  Huh?  That’s what we get.  Afterward.  After what exactly?  Well, Joel says it is after the day of the Lord.  The great and terrible day of the Lord.  Like Oz, great and terrible?  Is that what we have to wait for?  The end of all that is?  The end of life as we know it?  Are we really supposed to be living for that?  The rivers of blood and the rising of the beast and the demon locusts from hell?  (Which also sounds like a great band, doesn’t it?)

Well, um, sort of.  Sorry, you were hoping for something else, I know.  But we are supposed to be looking for the return of the Christ.  For the setting right of all that is wrong and to know that it won’t be easy, this new day that is coming.  I don’t want to remove any reference to the apocalyptic from the bible, not from Joel certainly.

On the other hand, I’m not waiting for the beast, because I know the beast in my own heart.  And the locusts, well, I’ve been stung by choices and decisions and by uncertainty and neglect.  And you have too, of that I am sure.  We don’t have to wait for the moon to turn to blood, it followed me to Tennessee on Sunday.  What if the day of the Lord is not just (notice the just in there please) some future moment when God says that’s enough, let’s get this party started?  What if the day of the Lord is the day you first drew breath?  What if the Spirit has already been poured out on all flesh?  Peter seemed to think so.  What if what creation is waiting for is for us to prophesy?  No, not that.  Not the future telling, finger wagging that most folks seem to think it is.  But to prophesy is to tell God’s truth in every situation.  It is to speak a word of grace in the midst of brokenness.  It is to speak a word of warning in rampant selfishness.  What if we began to breathe the Spirit that has been poured into us?  Right now?  What if we were living in the afterward right now?

No, we haven’t made it to completion.  We aren’t all telling God’s truth, to ourselves and to our neighbors.  We aren’t all certain about which way to go and what decisions to make and what the future might hold even for those close to us.  So, there is, and always has been, a “here and not here” quality to the Kingdom of God.  We are already living in the afterward of God, with access to the Spirit for all flesh.  But haven’t yet claimed it as fully as we might.  As fully as we will.  That’s the promise of Joel.  That there will be an afterward.  One day all the uncertainty will be gone and all the hope will be realized, we will live in grace and love and no longer wonder if we are doing the right thing.  Because we will know.  In the afterward.

The moon that chased me to Tennessee, that superbloodmoon, wasn’t there to haunt me, like it felt on the way down.  No, that was a sign of the promise.  That there really will be, one great and glorious day, an afterward.  Even for me.  Even for you.  Thanks be to God.