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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2012

May 27, 2012
Gospel: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
1st Reading: Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
2nd Reading: Romans 8:22-27

According to 1 Corinthians 12, “With regard to spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed… To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things.” I quote you this portion of the Bible because it has to do with today’s readings from Acts when the Holy Spirit came upon the Disciples and they started speaking in tongues.

I have to admit that speaking in tongues is not my favorite of the spiritual gifts. You won’t find anyone signed up today to speak in tongues and to share that gift with us this morning. It isn’t found anywhere on our time and talent survey, but maybe we should throw it in there to make sure you are paying attention. With my luck you’d sign up for it. I’ve heard people speak in tongues and it just sounds like babbling to me. I don’t see who it helps or what the use of it is, so I don’t really see any need for it.

Reading the story from Acts makes tongues make more sense. On that day it was about sharing the message far and wide, about speaking so that people could understand in their native language. Part of me has to wonder if in this story time is compressed, so what really took many years is collapsed into one day. The Holy Spirit came. The people were on fire for the Gospel. They learned the languages of the surrounding people and shared the good news with people of every nation. In this case, speaking in tongues makes sense, because it is a tool for people to share the Gospel. It isn’t the babbling it has become, but real languages that are used the share the good news.

Part of the miracle of Pentecost is the speaking in tongues, but the other part of the miracle is in the hearing of it. The Gospel said the Galilean disciples spoke in other languages. Amazing! But perhaps even more amazing is that there was someone there to hear it and receive it. If you have known what it feels like to truly be heard, you know what a miracle that is. Listening is an art. More than a dozen years ago, I took an active listening class in college. There is so much more to listening than just hearing. We may hear sounds, but in listening we also pick up on body language and many other nonverbal cues, tone of voice, pauses, little clicks of the tongue, volume, enunciation, and so on.

We always hope that in committed relationship, a couple truly listens to each other. But that takes practice. When you come home at night and share about your day, do you look each other in the eye, or do you share while you’re watching TV, reading the paper, or cleaning up after dinner. When you stop and devote that time to sharing and listening, when you look each other in the eye, doesn’t it make a huge difference? I know it has for us in our family.

We can shout the good news from the rooftops and tell people about God’s love, but it won’t do any good unless there is someone there to listen and receive. And you can’t force someone to listen. The best thing to do is to listen to them. Build a relationship. Don’t do it because you’re going to fix their life with the good news of God’s love. Listen because they are precious. Listen to them because they are interesting and unique and special. Listen with curiosity about the language they speak. It might not be Spanish or Russian, or maybe it is, but I’m talking about the kind of language they use about what is meaningful for them or what gives them joy. Stop, look in their eyes, hear the words, the stories, the pain and the hope. Learn their language because they are a precious child of God. And someday they might ask you about where you get your faith and what it means to you and that is a good time to share your experience. And you’ll probably find that they’ve already shared God’s love with you in the friendship you share.

God’s message needs people to share it and people to listen to it, or receive it. We find ourselves in both rolls all the time. We need to constantly hear it. That’s why we read the Bible, do our daily devotions, pray at mealtimes, go to prayer group, volunteer, etc. And we need to constantly share it, so that our lives reflect God’s love. The Holy Spirit is more than just carrying Jesus in my heart. The Holy Spirit is carried between us. It takes a sharing to involve the Holy Spirit. That’s why the Bible says, “Whenever two or more are gathered in my name.” God is between us, to be given away and to be received. An individual experiences God in relationship with another. We experience God in our interactions with other people. We, who are the Christians, find that others are sharing God with us, when we thought it was our job to share God with them.

There were a few years in my home congregation when the organist would ring a bell during the words of institution leading up to Holy Communion. The pastor would quote Jesus and say, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And the little bell would ring. I thought it was a little cheesy. I would elbow my mom and snicker, “Here comes the Holy Spirit.” She would always glare at me for being snarky. I’ve come to believe that the miracle of the Lord’s Supper, the point when the Holy Spirit swoops in, is in the sharing of it. I try to make eye contact if people are willing. I try to see each person as I hand them the bread. I hold them in a little prayer. I say the words, “The body of Christ, given for you.” And I feel blessed back. The Holy Spirit stands between us at that moment, a miracle transforming us, connecting us and connecting this congregation, and other congregations, and our neighborhood, farther than we can imagine.

And you don’t have to wait for Holy Communion to share the Holy Spirit. That can be translated to any interaction between people. Take a moment to look in the eyes of the person who holds the door for you at the store, or your checker, or the guy holding the sign on the street. Look in the eyes of the pantry client and ask them with genuine curiosity how they are doing. Stop and take the time to let the Holy Spirit do her work. The Holy Spirit is something that happens between people that connects us to each other and to God and transforms our lives into ones of love.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sermon for May 13, 2012

May 13, 2012
Gospel: John 15:9-17
1st Reading: Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
2nd Reading: 1 John 5:1-6

“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” This is basically the same question we had in last week’s lesson when the Ethiopian Eunuch asks, “Here is some water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

The answer to these questions might not be so obvious. “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing?” The answer to the question in the early Christian church would have been yes. And to the question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” the answer might well be, “Everything!”

There was a debate going on at the time about whether you had to follow the Jewish laws to be Christian or whether Gentiles could be Christian, too. So far the Christian church had been made up of all Jewish people. To follow Jesus, you had to be circumcised, follow the dietary laws, follow all the holiness laws about washing and sacrificing, etc. So as Christianity was forming, it was thought by many that you’d need to follow all the Jewish laws, too. Jesus, himself, said, “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law.”

So for Gentiles to try to sign on and be baptized, it would have been out of the question for most. And for an Ethiopian Eunuch to ask to be baptized and what could possibly prevent that, early Christians would have said that many things prevented it including his race, his damaged state as a Eunuch, his lack of understanding of scripture, and his lack of community to share in his faith.

And I don’t know if we are any better about this today. Certainly we don’t ask people whether they are circumcised before agreeing to baptize them, or if they eat pork or made a sacrifice or anything. But I fear what we do with baptism in the Christian church. We make it too easy and we make it too hard. We turn it into an initiation ritual into our church rather than the blessing and empowerment from God that it was intended to be. On the one hand we don’t want to make it a burden to be a Christian—to have rules and expectations that are too steep to even attempt so people give up in despair. On the other hand we don’t want to follow the cheap grace road that it is meaningless and doesn’t mean your life is changed in any way.

Recently a young woman asked me if we do private baptism. She does not go to church. But she believes it would be a meaningful thing for her young son. It is difficult to respond. On the one hand, here is some water, what is to prevent that child from being baptized? Who am I to stand in the way of that? Would Jesus really tell her no? I don’t think he would. He didn’t line up a bunch of rules that people have to follow before talking to them or welcoming them. He accepted them where they are at.

On the other hand, baptism is done in community. It isn’t something done away from other people. It isn’t a “me and God” moment. It takes God working through other people to help raise a kid to know about how much God loves them and to help show them how to love other people and have compassion. After Jesus talked to the woman at the well and after he healed the paralyzed man, he said, “Go and sin no more.” There is an expected life change that happens after an encounter with Jesus. There is something different.

And it isn’t just about baptism, but it is about how we live our lives as Christians. We can’t over-burden ourselves or other people. And yet the life of a Christian ought to be weighty. It ought to be meaningful and life-changing. We don’t expect anyone to give their last dime to the church or to give so much they can’t support themselves, and yet we ought to tithe enough so that we feel it. We don’t expect anyone to make themselves sick in service to the poor, volunteering so much their family life goes down the tubes. And yet we want people to stretch themselves beyond their comfort level, to do more than what is simple and easy.

In the end, each person has to decide for themselves what their level of giving or service will be and what will be their level of church attendance and devotion. I can help guide as a pastor and challenge and help remind people to also practice self-care. I can try to be an example of a good balance. Maybe I can be an example of how that struggle plays out. Sometimes I am overtired and other times maybe I play a little too much. I have tended to work too hard, I think, and am working to move a little more toward spending time with my family. I need to be sure to raise a son who also knows what it means to be balanced and healthy as well as giving.

As Christians we are freed in Christ. In the second reading for today it says we are children of God if we obey his commandments. That is a poor translation. It really says if we do his commandments and keep his commandments. We are freed because of our relationship to God and God’s forgiveness and love. Because of that relationship we are freed to be ourselves and freed to be who God made us. And because of that relationship we have responsibility to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, helping our neighbor and trying to live in a way that brings God’s Kingdom to those on the fringes. It is a kind of both/and, the freedom and the responsibility. But what a blessing that we don’t have to do anything out of guilt or obligation, but we do what we can because God has loved us and freed and empowered us to love.

So I walked that line about the baptism. I asked if they intended when the child was able, to bring him to services in God’s house, since that is one of the promises in the baptismal service. I, of all people, know how difficult it is to mess with a baby’s sleep schedule and that this kind of service doesn’t work for a baby who naps anywhere between 9 and 11:30, which I have to believe is most babies. I told them that we don’t do private baptisms, but that a baptism doesn’t necessarily have to happen at church. We could do a baptism somewhere else. If you don’t go to church, you might feel hypocritical or awkward having it at church. And we need to surround this child with Christian community in whatever form. Family and friends can be invited. But someone needs to be that community surrounding that child and teaching him and loving him with a love that comes from God, is God’s.

To tell someone “no” that we won’t baptize because they don’t meet the norm, is not going to help. But to find a way for God’s love to be known, for God’s love to be a “yes” in their lives is what God asks us to do. That family may never come to church, but you never know if someday in that child’s life, maybe even after they grow up, they remember they are loved and claimed and connected by a power greater than themselves who empowers them to live and love more fully. And because of that, even when churches are no longer, the love of God will remain and grow and touch countless lives.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sermon for May 13, 2012

May 13, 2012 Gospel: John 15:1-8 1st Reading: Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31 2nd Reading: 1 John 4:7-12

There was once a gardener who decided to grow vines. He found a place perfect for growing grapes. The climate was just right with warm days and cool nights. The sun shone directly on this plot of land. There was just enough rainfall, and not too much. The soil contained all the right nutrients and was loose, fast draining, and loamy.

So the gardener built a system of trellises and supports the grapes could grow on. He planted cuttings with plenty of room for roots that could spread three to six feet from the base of the plant.

Although the plants had all the information they needed to grow and produce good fruit they needed a lot of help. The Gardener had to watch for fungus and rot. He had to train the vines along the supports. He had to wait a couple of years for the root system to develop and the vines to bear fruit. When the fruit started to appear he had to keep watch that animals and insects didn’t devour them and then he had to check their ripeness.

This gardener knew he was supposed to prune the vines, but he didn’t have the heart to do it. Every branch seemed like a miracle, every twist and turn of the vine was a delight. He just couldn’t bring himself to do it.

The second or third year the vines began producing fruit. They started as tiny dots on the branch. As they slowly expanded, delicious, beautiful grapes began to dangle from above. The clusters glistened with dew in the morning. As the weeks went by they began to blush with ripeness. The entire vineyard began to smell so sour and sweet it would make your mouth water just to be nearby. And what a harvest it was that year, plentiful grapes, mouthwatering tart and sweet, everything the gardener had hoped for.

He thought to himself, if it is this good this year, just think how much better it will be next year. And he let the grape vines grow where they would. The next year was almost as good. In fact the gardener wondered if he had just romanticized the previous year, misremembered how good it had been. But the third year, it was clear. Production was way down. The vines were so thick you could hardly find the grapes that were there. Most of the vines were empty. Others had rotted because of a lack of air circulation. All of the plants’ resources were being used to keep the vines alive. There was no extra energy for growing grapes.

Finally the gardener realized that the pruning was necessary. The vines that produced no fruit, he cut them back. He even cut the ones that had produced, knowing it would cause them to bear more. Even as he did it, he was afraid that he might be hurting the plant. He cut them back to what looked like dead wood. And when he was done, he looked around in despair. There was no more green anywhere.

He spent the next few months in a depression. Where would he go now that he had destroyed his precious vineyard? What would he do now that he had failed as a gardener?

Of course, when fall came, it was a complete turn around. The gardener found himself surrounded by such healthy thick vines, and fat, juicy, sweet grapes. And he took them to all his neighbors and friends and donated the extra to the food pantry and let the kids from next door come and pick all they wanted. And he took cuttings and gave them away. And his cup truly overflowed as he had more grapes and friends than he knew what to do with.

At the Synod Assembly this past weekend, we talked as gardeners whose vineyards aren’t producing very well these days. Most congregations are shrinking and aging. Some are dying. We’ve all been aware of this for some time now. Reactions to this fact range from sad to confused. Sometimes we blame ourselves. Sometimes we blame the pastor. Sometimes we blame that world out there and those people who don’t know what they’re missing. If they would just come here instead of going to soccer on Sunday mornings. If they would just meet us, they would like us, and they’d join us.

Part of the problem may be that we’re afraid of pruning. We let every branch grow because you can’t be sure if something might eventually grow there. We want to keep every activity, every communion setting and hymn, every committee, every classroom. You never know what person might have a connection to it. You never know what it might produce.

And in our lives we aren’t always good at setting priorities. Families are pulled in so many directions. It must be hard to pick and choose what activities to participate in and which ones to keep doing.

So we find ourselves pulled in every direction. Our resources dwindle as our time and energy go so many different places.

But God gives us a standard for pruning. We can ask ourselves, what produces fruit? When I hear this, I always think this means bringing people to Christ. I’ve done a few baptisms, taught a few Bible studies, and led Bible School, but I don’t know that I single-handedly brought anyone to Christ. When I ask myself whether I have born any fruit, I can’t truly say that I did.

What if bearing fruit, means sharing love?

The vine supports life. It is a branching out of that life in different directions. It is an experiment to try to reach the sun, to give life and growth to the plant. So maybe when we realize that we’re stretched too thin, we can ask ourselves, is this particular branch giving me life? Is it a branch that can support and grow love?

I know in my life I need to do some pruning. When I had the baby, it was like sending out a new shoot and that one is growing so fast. And my roots can’t support so many directions. There are parts of my vine that aren’t giving me life. I am not sure which branches those are, but I am certainly going to be doing some pruning. And our lives are in constant change, so it is good to be watching out for those places that could use a little snip.

Jesus came among us, a strong and healthy vine. He wasn’t afraid to send his vine into unlikely places. Everywhere he went he produced fruit—so much fruit that others were jealous. And he let his vine be pruned all the way back. It looked like it would be dead. The vines lay limp all over the ground. His friends mourned the loss of hope, the loss of life, the loss of love. But that vine sprung up with new life and once again it reached out to all of us. And we have become his branches. One vine together sharing love and life with all we meet.