Saturday, November 28, 2015

Gathered in the Arms

It’s here again.  I know you knew that.  This season doesn’t sneak up on anyone any more.  That used to be my opening line in Advent.  “Wow, is it that time already?”  It doesn’t work any more.  Not because we are in better control of our calendars and are always ready ahead of time for every event that comes roaring around the corner at us.  Not because we keep better track of where we are and what’s going on all around us, not because we keep our heads up and our eyes focused, not because we are leaning forward as we were told to lean forward into God’s promised advent.  No, that’s not why it isn’t a surprise.

Rather, it’s not a surprise because marketing has been telling us it is the season long before it was the season.  “Christmas as it is meant to be” a radio station says while we’re “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”  “This is ‘Thanks-getting’ so be sure you get what you really want” says an electronics company.  And does Santa drive a red imported sports car to deliver the presents or does he rely on an international shipping firm?  Either way, no need to fear that you won’t get yours this year, because a big box store says “you aren’t ‘elf-in’ around” because gift giving and getting is serious business.  They all say that.  One way or another, they all say this is serious stuff.  And who’s going to argue with them?  

When our way of life is threatened, of course you’re going to lash back.  If you don’t spend a lot of money this year, the terrorists win.  That’s the underlying message, it seems to me.  Buy our way out of the doldrums.  Retail therapy some call it.  More stuff.  It insulates us from the emptiness, from what our hearts really long for.  Hey, I like stuff too.  I’ve got a list somewhere.  It works, to a degree.  For a while, we feel better.  We feel loved.  Which is good, and supportive and good enough.  Until.  

Until the arms of the new cozy arm chair, while comfy and soft, don’t pulse with life and love and acceptance.  Until our gizmos and gadgets, who can talk to us and answer our questions, can’t wipe away the tears of loneliness and hold us until the empty spaces in our souls are filled in.  Until ... well, you know.  Sorry to be so cliche.  It’s just that sometimes something we all know needs to be said again.  That love needs to be embodied.  Incarnated.  Put on flesh.  We need arms to gather us up.  Not just the idea of arms.  But real flesh and blood arms.  We long to be gathered.  To be loved.  In a way we can feel.  Even when we think we don’t.  When we think we are doing just fine.  We can get along with knowing we are loved.  We don’t have to feel it.  I mean, really, do we?

Isaiah 40:1-11 NRS Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." 6 A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" 10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

There’s a committee meeting going on in the Kingdom.  I know, bad news for those of us who aren’t terribly fond of meetings.  Those who just came through Charge Conference, sorry.  I hope this won’t bring back the trauma.  But Isaiah says there is a committee meeting going on in the Kingdom.
God has the floor.  God’s pacing back and forth, ready to release the latest and greatest new idea from the divine office.  The whole committee of heaven leans in, the archangels stop tapping their pens on the table.  The cherubim stop eyeing the bagels on the side table.  The seraphim put down their phones and start listening at last, because God’s about to speak.  About to pass judgement, about the lower the boom, you know they thought so.  But they never know.  The One has this annoying - can the One be annoying?  Of course not! - The One has this omniscient habit of saying something completely surprising on a regular basis.  

“Comfort,” thunders the voice that made planets and galaxies, “O comfort my people!”  Michael and Gabriel exchange furtive glances around the huge conference table.  Brows knit and eyes narrow amongst the angelic beings high and low.  “Did I hear “comfort”?”  Comfort?  Not judgement?  Not burn or fry or .... Comfort?  None question, however, because the Presence isn’t done yet.  Just catching breath before the words come pouring out like a soaking rain on a parched ground.  “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.

The book of Isaiah covers such a span of time that there had to be more than one who wrote under that name.  Chapters 1 - 39 is “first” Isaiah and is concerned about the faithfulness of the people of God.  There is a variety of moods represented in those chapters, but the dominant one is judgement.  The people were complacent, the people were selfish, self-centered, found their solace in things and not in the ever present Spirit of God in their midst.  Isaiah preached until he was blue in the face and it didn’t amount to much.  Until Babylon.  Until Assyria.  Double for all their sins.  Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom both, overrun by enemies who caught them with their guard down and now there is desolation, there is desert in the middle of the Holy Land.  Desert, a land forsaken.  Now, Chapter 40, they are broken, now they are afraid, now they are longing for arms to gather them up and croon a lullaby.

After the initial shock, the beings around the table begin to nod along with the echoes of the Lord’s proclamation.  And the Amen corner pipes up, a voice, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!”  In the wilderness that used to be a lush garden find an oasis.  In a sandy windswept desert that used to be a marketplace, clear a path.  But this road work, they understand and want us to understand isn’t so that we can get out.  It’s so that God can get in.  Make straight the highway for God.  

It’s not that God’s GPS isn’t functioning, its that God needs to know we want a visit.  The consummate gentle presence, God never comes where God isn’t welcomed.  God never opens doors that we barricade.  God never climbs the mountains we throw up to block access to the deepest parts of ourselves.  The committee meeting becomes a gospel choir and as always happens in God’s kingdom, worship breaks out.  

Around the table a voice says “Can I have an Amen?”  Another says “What are we amen-ing?”  Then one jumps onto the table and sings out, “That these troublesome, yet lovable, fragile and yet creatures beloved by God have access to eternity!”  “In the Word,” the chorus rings out, “In the Word, is eternity!  Is hope, is reclamation, is restoration!”  AMEN, rumbles God as the I Am slides to the door to usher out the swaying angelic beings.  “Head to the rooftops, to the mountaintops, shout and sing, again and again, until all can see.  God is coming.”

They rush out to tell us.  Again.  And at the door stands the Word, who smiles and says, “Soon.  I’ll be there soon.  Save some room for me.”

Do you see what I see?  That’s our Advent theme, based on the song and the musical we plan to present this Christmas Eve.  But for now it is a reminder that there is plenty to see, if we’ll just look.  Around the obvious, over the garish, behind the tinsel.  Look a little deeper and see.  See what’s in the way.  And then see what’s coming.  Do you see?  Keep looking.  Keep reaching.  Keep wanting to find your way into those arms.  Do you see?    


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Kingdom Carol

Turns out Pi Guy Day at Maddie’s sorority was a fancy tailgate party before the home football game of the Wittenberg Tigers, go team.  Lots of cool food, dads and grandads trying to look like they belonged in among a bunch of college girls - excuse me - young women, and then trouping over to the stadium for a football game.  Except Maddie wasn’t interested in the football game so we went shopping.  

Well, sight seeing to start with, down the road to Yellow Springs, sort of Ohio’s answer to our Nashville in Brown County, artsy craftsy and distinctly odd little boutiques scattered throughout a quaint little town.  From there we went to Dayton because she had to pick up a few things, since the laundry accident (lipstick in the pocket).  We found ourselves in a Jefferson Pointe like place and I stood in Victoria Secret trying not to ogle and then to Von Maur (thankfully she can find the sale racks) while she tried on dresses for up coming semi-formal, most of which were gorgeous on her but made the dad in me decidedly uncomfortable.

Still it was a good day.  I enjoyed being with her, she makes me proud to be a dad.  And there was, as there always is with her and her brother both, this odd little time shift thing going on the whole time I was there with her.  As we drove and walked and shopped and ate together, I could see the little girl I first fell in love with twenty years ago when she arrived into our lives and proceeded to take over the whole house, the intense scrutiny those piercing brown eyes give to everything and everyone, even those she loved, but the sparkling smile that melted hearts and the quick wit that often had us all in stitches at a moment’s notice.  She was there, the little one who fell asleep - after a bit of a struggle - in my arms, finally at peace in the world.  But layered over that is the college young woman who is making her way in the world on her own, connected to family and friends and teachers and mentors yes, but standing on her own feet.  She is shaping herself into someone formidable, someone capable, yet someone compassionate and caring, with a heart looking outward to others.  Though she doesn’t always see it and the shy little girl hides behind those eyes from time to time, she really is something amazing - I say with honest objectivity.

And even more, though it gives her pause, there is a future opening up in front of her.  My mind runs scenarios in which she plays various parts, business owner, teacher, aid worker, wife and mother, innovator, pastor (yeah, I feel she has a call to ministry, though she doesn’t yet, and I’ve been wrong before), and plays them all well.  There is a will be in her that is about to burst forth, sooner than she and I and any of us realize.  Or are ready for, to be honest.

At least before I’m ready.  I tend to live in the now, in the is, with a firm grasp on the was.  But that will be keeps showing up.  And all of it brings worries, doesn’t it?  Some days we feel like we are just getting by.  Like our grip on the is slips a little bit with every passing heartbeat.  And our is frightens us, too many worries, “fightings and fears within and without,” as the hymn says.  Once again, we are presented with the argument that safety has to take precedence over compassion, that security is a greater good than the moral imperative to welcome the stranger and care for the outcast. 

Our is has gotten too troublesome.  So some of us want to retreat to our was.  Let’s go back to the way it used to be, because in our heads it seems so much better, so much safer, so much easier.  Even though it really wasn’t.  We like to pretend.  It was better back in the was.  Except then why are we filled with regrets?  Why do we replay the words and the deeds that depict us as hurtful or hurt?  Why do we wish for a time machine to go back and undo parts of the was, to make a better past, to choose better, kinder, to not pass on opportunities to help and heal, to love and to be loved?  If the was really was better, why do we want to change it? Or fix it?  Or forget it?

No, stick with the is.  Seize the day, carpe diem.  That’s the word for us.  Except, there’s that will be lurking around the corner.  With a hope or a threat, and some times a little of both.  Our current election rhetoric is all about fear-mongering, it seems to me.  Not about hope, but about what’s wrong, with both the was and the is.  And the threat that our will be is heading off the same cliff.  And maybe there is some course correcting that needs to be done.  Isn’t that always the case?  But can’t we do it without all the vitriol?  Without all the hate?  Why choke out our will be as we fight about our is and misrepresent our was?

It makes us want to throw up our hands in despair.  Doesn’t it?  No wonder our young people are worried, and dropping out of what we used to think was important.  No wonder they are turning away from that which gave us meaning and direction, because it no longer seems to do so.  When the best we offer is an is full of a blind nostalgia for the was and a bleak will be with a violent oppressive response, why not turn away to something else?  Or even to nothing else.  Why not throw up our hands?

That’s John the Evangelist’s response anyway.  Well, the throwing up our hands bit.  But not in despair.  Oh no.  John says throw up your hands in praise.

Revelation 1:4-8 NRS John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.  7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.  8 "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. 

Revelation has a checkered history in the canonization process.  It almost didn’t make the cut.  It has been a source of controversy almost from the beginning.  Too graphic, too bleak, too bloody, too ... weird.  Better to admit that we’ve lost the language that allows us to understand this book, some argue.  The images of the apocalyptic are too obscure for the modern mind, what might have made some sense in its day now only confuses and leads to outrageous and fanciful speculation that is neither comforting or edifying.  Better to just let it go, some argue.  A sentiment hard to disagree with.  If it weren’t for the beginning of the book.

John starts with praise.  With a reminder that God has the whole world in hand.  That time itself is a gift from God and that we won’t be abandoned to a random and meaningless existence.  Throw up your hands to the God who is and who was and who is to come.  The Almighty, strong enough to hold your will be with the same Presence with which God held your was and holds your is right now.  Right now.

The early shapers of the worship life of the Christian community realized that we needed a place to begin regularly.  So, every year we begin with longing.  The longing for more, for completion, for hope.  That’s next week, the First Sunday of Advent - coming.  But if we need a place to begin, we also need a place to end.  And we end in the loving arms of God.  Christ the King Sunday is about pledging allegiance, true allegiance to the One who hold us in the palm of a hand.  Who was and is and is to come.  

And John told us this over and over.  Verse 4 - grace and peace (all we need for a life of wholeness) comes from the one who is and who was and who is to come.  Verse 5 - Jesus Christ - faithful witness (he was - did what he came to do, proclaim God), first born of the dead (who is, the living eternal one who shows us the way into eternity) and the ruler of the kings (who will be, since not every knee has bowed yet).  And who loved us (who was, this was what he was about from the beginning, come to show us we were loved), who freed us (who is the savior, at great personal cost, he gave us a way to live a life of fullness and joy), and made us a kingdom of priests (gave us a mission, a will be, to represent God, to usher folks into the kingdom, to welcome the outcast and build a community of faith).  

Our beginning and our end is in God.  Our was and is and will be is wrapped up in the loving purposes of God.  We are invited to trust in that.  Even when the way is murky and the possibilities seem few, we can choose to be subject of the king, the crucified lamb who loves us more than his own life.  Like I am trying to love my children and my church, and my world.  

When Dickens wrote the Christmas Carol, he knew that for transformation to occur, Scrooge needed to examine his was and is and will be, as painful as that might have been.  We too are invited to lay our lives and the lives of those we love into the arms of the One who is and was and will be.  And declare with our living that Christ is king.


Friday, November 13, 2015

A Land of Delight

I’m hoping that you are reading this early.  Hoping because I’ve just started writing, but I intend to finish on Friday this week, instead of the usual Saturday.  I mean there is no reason why I couldn’t do this earlier in the week.  Except that isn’t my rhythm.  That isn’t how I’ve worked this process that starts with text and context and works it way into a sermon for Sunday morning and the last gathering of thoughts and images and ideas on Saturday.  It isn’t the system I teach, or what I recommend for most preachers.  But it works for me.  

This week, however, I have another obligation on Saturday.  So, I can’t spend the time immersed in the text that I usually like to spend.  Instead I am driving to Ohio, for lunch with Maddie in her sorority.  This is an unusual thing, men aren’t usually allowed into the house, certainly not for a meal.  But this is Pi Guy day. (Alpha Delta Pi) I’m the Pi Guy.  Maddie’s been raving about their cook, Connie, so I’m looking forward to the meal.  But mostly I was pleased to be invited to be the guy.  It doesn’t say Pi Dads, it just says guy.  Maybe dad is implied, but I choose to believe she chose me to come because she wanted me to come.  Not because she had to invite me.  

So I will go to be blessed by her presence, blessed by sharing in her world for a little bit.  Of course part of my going will be to help her recover from her latest accident.  Not a trip to the ER this time, but a laundry accident.  A forgotten lipstick left in a pocket and the subsequent redecorating of some of her favorite items of clothing.  She was pretty devastated a few days ago.  When I told her we could find a moment to replace a few things and then more things when she was home for Thanksgiving in a couple of weeks, she was greatly relieved.  She felt blessed.

Blessings sometimes come in surprising ways.  Sometimes they come in the midst of the anxiety of living.  Sometimes they come out of the bounty of goodness and the abundance of a life rich in the things that matter, in love and joy and peace.  Blessings come when we’re least expecting them.  And blessings come because we strain forward to receive them, we beg and plead on our knees for them.  They come just in time to remind us of our dependence on the One who sustains us even in the darkness and the One who makes the sun to rise and the stars to shine.  Sometimes blessings come long after we thought we should have them, long after we were strong enough to enjoy them, and instead become the means by which we redefine our lives in humility and gratitude.  

It is commitment Sunday at Aldersgate this weekend.  The time where we declare ... what?  What is it that we declare?  We write down a number, an estimate of giving for the next year.  But what are we doing in that moment?  What do we declare?  What do we hope happens because of this annual faithfulness?  Why do we do it?  Well, because we’re told to.

Malachi 3:10-12 NRS Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. 11 I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the LORD of hosts. 12 Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts. 

Back up a couple of verses and you get the harder version of this concept.  God accuses us of robbing Him.  When we withhold our tithes, when we don’t give to God, we are God-robbers, says Malachi.  It explains why things go wrong, he argues.  The people are in the midst of a drought.  It is devastating the nation.  They are asking why.  Why is this happening to us, to the people of God?  We are good people, aren’t we?  Why should such terrible things happen to us?  Well, says Malachi, you aren’t really committed.  You aren’t really sacrificing.  The drought, the barrenness is the result of your disobedience.  

But there is a solution.  Give.  Give all that is required.  Bring the full tithe into the storehouse.  And the windows will open and the rain will fall down on the parched ground.  The blessing you seek will be yours.  Just give, give enough, give sacrificially.  That’s all it takes.

Right?  Listen here, Malachi, you’ve got some explaining to do.  This isn’t really how it works, now is it?  It can’t be that mechanical.  Insert this into that and turn the crank and out pops all you ever wanted.  All you ever needed.  God is only angry at your stinginess.  And you can appease the angry God by coughing up a little bit more.  Or a lot more, depending on how far in arrears you are.  Pay up, and the blessings will flow.  The locusts will stop gnawing away at the stalks of your confidence.  The labors of your hands will bring forth fruit; you won’t be the loser who can’t produce any more.  Just give a little bit more.  Just pledge something substantial, and every one will be your friend, you’ll rise to the top, be the life of the party.  Just give and you’ll be a land of delight.

Sounds great.  Really.  Simple.  Straightforward.  Easy.  Oh, so easy.  Just give and ...  Just put a little bit more in the plate and ... Too easy.  That’s what’s echoing around in our mind as we read these words from Malachi.  Way too easy.  There’s a catch.  A formula, words that have to said, a condition of heart that has to be held.  That’s the escape clause.  I gave and nothing happened!  I didn’t feel delight.  I didn’t see the windows of heaven open and the blessings shower down!  What happened?  Well, you didn’t believe enough.  You didn’t pray the right prayer.  Try again, hold your mouth like this, say these words, close your eyes tight, then it should work.  Right?

Well, no.  The problem, Malachi, is that the way you put this, these words from God, makes it sound like a transaction.  A contract between equals.  I’ll give you this, you give me that.  Blessings are a commodity, something we can buy.  Delight is an item on the shelf and as long as we have the cash, or our credit is good then we’re set.

Except we know that isn’t how it works.  We know because we’ve tried.  Again and again we’ve tried.  Even when we try to convince ourselves we aren’t trying to buy off God, we are trying.  So, either we’re really bad at commerce with God, or there is something else going on here.  Malachi, you say that God says put me to the test.  What else can that mean, but enter into a transaction with the dispenser of blessings and delight?  

Think about it for a moment, mutters the prophet with a sigh, if you were going shopping in God’s supermarket, could you even reach the counter?  Do you think that your paltry gifts, no matter how grand they seem on your scale, could be enough to amaze the God of wonders?  Of course there is something else going on here.  Of course you’ve got the wrong end of the stick if you think that you can partner with God to transact a dispensing of blessings.  

Put me to the test, God says, means try it my way instead of yours.  Instead of thinking in your terms of transaction and what do I get out of this and how am I better off because of what I do, try thinking like me for once.  Give out of the sheer joy of giving.  Pour out because you love, not because you’re expecting something in return.  Give away that which will only weigh you down.  Sacrifice because sacrificing is a way to be alive, not because it gets you further down the road to where you’re trying to be.  And then see if the windows don’t open and the blessing comes pouring out.  Not because you’ve given, but because in giving you’ve put yourself in the place to see them and to receive them.  Not because you’ve earned a blessing, but because you’ve emptied yourself enough to receive them when you were too full of yourself before.  The test is of the system, the way of living and being, in Jesus’ words, we are to test the Kingdom way of living.  We are to give it a try, Malachi says.  Give more than you think you can, and see if something doesn’t open up inside of you and the anger that you’ve felt because you haven’t been given your due, is swept away in a new wind that blows through your soul.  Commit to giving to God, not because the church deserves it or the pastor is worth it, but because giving is the key that unlocks your heart and allows the Spirit to take up residence in your being and suddenly you know what Jesus meant by an abundant life.  It’s not the stuff of this world, that isn’t abundance, despite the ubiquitous Christmas ads telling you otherwise.  No, it is a lightness, a centering, a confidence and faith that comes from trusting not in the stuff we can own, but from living in a land of delight, of loving and being loved.

I’m not 100% sure what a Pi Guy is or does.  But I want to give it as a gift to the daughter whom I love more than I know how to say.  And because I love God, and love - really love - the church that Christ has called me to serve, I give.  And learn to live in a land of delight.  Join me.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Holy Spirit Falls

A few years ago, when Maddie was still doing competitive ballroom dancing, we ordered her a dress online through my account, since I was paying for it.  Now, many years later, I still get email and posts and ads running on Google and Facebook, assuming I want to buy more dance dresses.  You know how we used to worry about the government keeping eyes on us and knowing more about us than they should?  Well, George Orwell, it isn’t the government, it’s the internet.  Google and Amazon and Facebook remember what I bought a lot longer than I do.  And they want to sell me more.  

Dance dresses.  I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t look good in the kind of dresses they’re trying to sell me.  Not as good as Maddie anyway.  A little too slinky and smooth and feathery and slit open and flowing for my use.  Preachers should stick to the little black number that I wear.  Right?  Mind you, I’d love to dance like that.  Some Sunday mornings seem to call for it.  Light and airy, the good news is about lifting us, like we could float, walking on sunshine.  Or dark and heavy, weighed down by sinfulness, brokenness, a dirge, a lament longing for a savior who could come and set us free.  Or confident, a waltz or rumba reminding us that we are loved and capable of loving.  Or a square dance that’s all about changing partners, including all, from one to the other and back again, enriched by the whole community as we dance together.  Yeah, that’s what we need in worship, a little more dancing.

If any of the disciples had two left feet it was Peter.  Always tripping over his own shortsightedness, stumbling around in his misguided certainties, leading with his sense of self-preservation instead of following the lead of the one he called Christ in a flash of grace that surprised even Jesus (“flesh and blood didn’t reveal this to you” i.e. there’s no way you figured this out on your own, Peter!)  No, Peter wasn’t Lord of the Dance, he was a back row chorus line member at best.  

Yet, here he is, leading, headlining, finding the spotlight and trying to follow the lead of the Spirit, who still has new steps for him to learn.  

Acts 10:34-48 NRS Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ-- he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. 

Peter was preaching.  Actually, he was giving his testimony.  It was his own story that he was turning into a sermon that day.  Back up in chapter ten of Acts and you’ll see the story that he was telling.  The vision on the rooftop that seemed to be about the dietary laws, but actually was about who was worthy of the gospel.  Peter was a good Jew.  He knew who he could hang around with and who he had to avoid.  Sure, Jesus kind of messed with his head for a while there.  He was still processing all of that.  But he knew where the lines were.  He could follow the steps in this dance he knew from his childhood.  But now his foxtrot thinking didn’t fit the salsa music he was hearing.  

“I truly understand,” Peter preached, in what turned out to be a bit of an overstatement, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality!”  What was wrong with that?  Well, the “I truly understand” bit.  He didn’t.  Not yet.  In the moment, yeah sure, he was swaying to the beat.  But later, he’d want to sit this one out and Paul would beckon, and they would have a dance off, to re-teach him what he truly understood for a moment.  That’s later.  Let’s give him his due now.  He’s got it down.  That flow from the Spirit that takes him farther than he thought he could go.  

He says that he was commissioned to preach to the people.  Commissioned by the life and death and resurrection of his Lord, the living Christ, the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth.  Oh, yes, he knows the name now.  He was reclaimed from his doubt and fear.  He was gathered up from his denial and disappointment.  He was called to preach to the people.  What he still had to learn was who the people were.  

See, he thought it was his people.  The people like him.  Who looked like him and spoke like him and danced like him.  But Jesus opened his eyes to the people.  All the people.  The wonderful panoply of people.  The glorious created collection of people and traditions and languages and dances that there would be no way he could master without throwing out a hip!  But he could watch, and then learn and laugh and clap his hands as he welcomed them into the family.

He’s learned some new steps, we should applaud that.  God does.  And the heavenly applause sounds like the Spirit falling.  No sound like a mighty wind this time.  No tongues of fire resting on all and each.  What did it sound like?  Why did Luke say the Spirit fell?  

It sounded like praise.  It sounded like joy.  It sounded like showers of blessings, like the moving of feet and the raising of hands.  It sounded like the exuberance of a people who discovered they were included, they were loved, they were valued.  The Spirit fell like a dove, it fell like rain on parched ground, it fell like lifted arms falling down to wrap around triumphant bodies.  The Spirit fell.  And even Peter, certain and uncertain both, couldn’t mistake that presence.  “Can anyone withhold water for baptism?”  How did he say that?  I’m sure that a part of him hoped someone could, someone could come up with a reason to say no, so that he could scurry back into the certainty of his former darkness.  But, let’s hope it was only a small part.  Let’s hope the larger part was defiant, staring down the sticks in the mud among them who had “we’ve never done it this way before” dribbling from their lips.  Let’s hope it was the joy of building up with body, of welcoming to the party, of lining up to dance.  The water flowed, the words were sung, the family grew that day.  

When families grow there are struggles.  This Spirit thing hasn’t always been easy.  That’s what the final chapter of Fresh Air is all about.  The struggle between different expressions of the Spirit.  One tends to look suspiciously at the other.  The firestorm of speaking in tongues is just the weather vane to a larger issue.  A perhaps simplistic way of characterizing the divide is to talk about head vs. heart faith.  Those who want to emphasize the reason and will and those who want faith to be felt, emotion and passion.  There’s more to it than that, but the arena of division is sometimes fought on those terms.  Levison has a solution in his final chapter.  Read the bible.  The more we study, the closer to the center we come.  I think he’s right.  Because the purpose of reading the bible is not to know the bible, but to know Jesus.  And only Jesus can draw us together.  The Lord of the Dance can help us thinkers move our feet with joy.  The Lord of Dance can help us passionate ones learn new and deliberate steps, inclusive movements.  Bound together as one.  One faith, one Lord, one baptism.  Can anyone withhold the water?

When the Spirit falls, we all get up on our feet.