Sunday, May 27, 2012

Coming Down

Acts 2:1-21
May 27, 2012/The Day of Pentecost

            In the opening scenes of the movie Chocolat the people in a small village in France are attending church as is their custom on a Sunday morning in the 1950’s.  The viewer has already been alerted to the fact that the people in this village believe in “tranquilite” or tranquility.  Everyone knows what is expected of them.  Everyone understands the particular roles they are expected to play in the daily drama of village life.  Tranquility, evenness, unwavering lack of surprise or change; that is the ongoing, monotonous theme of the villager’s lives. 
            Until this particular day.  What I love most about this scene is that as we see them gathered in the church they are singing.  What are they singing?  “Come, Holy Spirit, Come.”  They sing without passion, fire or zeal.  They sing dutifully; just as they probably sing every hymn they encounter in church.  As dutifully as they approach every aspect of their lives, family, home, work, play. 
            But as they are singing this particular hymn on this particular day all of a sudden a great wind blows through the town.  It blows open the church doors, whooshes through the parishioners, teases the flame on the candles, rattles the light fixtures and the young priest at the pulpit.  It fills the church and everyone there until the Count, the village’s most influential leader and citizen and the greatest proponent of tranquilite, makes his way down the center aisle and fights against the wind to close the doors.  He shuts out the wind – at least for the time being.
            I won’t tell you the rest of the story, but trust me this will not be the last time the Count tries to slam the doors on the winds of change that are blowing through that sleepy, tranquil little village. 
            How many times do we act as the Count does without even realizing it?  Think about how often we pray and sing and ask for the power of the Holy Spirit to come into our lives.  You know we’re hoping the Spirit will be with us today, especially.  But Pentecost isn’t the only day that we reserve for the Holy Spirit.  According to our words, our prayers, our music, we’re hoping for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be ours as soon and as often as possible.  But when the Holy Spirit does come, how often do we slam the doors against it?  How often do we close the doors on the Spirit because when it comes, change inevitably follows.
            That’s the reality that every one of our passages points to today.  Although each passage describes the coming of the Holy Spirit in a different way – the Advocate or the groaning as if in labor – and for a different purpose, the underlying reality is this – when the Spirit comes everything and everyone is changed. 
But our focus this morning is primarily on our passage from Acts and the day of Pentecost. Pentecost was a Jewish festival known as Shavuot, fifty days after Passover.   On this day the disciples and followers of Jesus were all gathered in one place.  They were devoting themselves to prayer, waiting for the Advocate, the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised.  Waiting for the one who would guide and lead them now – now that their beloved Jesus was gone from their sight, ascended into heaven.
They were together praying, waiting.  When suddenly from heaven comes a roaring, heart stopping sound, like the rush of a violent wind.  And that sound, that powerful, violent wind filled the room where they waited.  It filled the room, it filled them.  Then divided tongues of fire appeared among them and rested on each of them, and something even more crazy and wonderful began to happen.  They began to speak in different languages.  Languages they’d never been able to speak before. 
Barbara Brown Taylor describes it like this:
            “It starts with a sound like the rush of a violent wind . . . and it fills the entire house where Jesus’ followers are sitting.  Then it bursts into tongues like flames above their heads, but when they open their mouths to shout, “Watch out!  Your head’s on fire!” that is not what comes out.  [The Spirit] comes out instead, speaking languages that none of those Galileans ever learned, so that perfect strangers from the four corners of the world have to tell them it is God they are talking about – God and God’s deeds of power – the latest of which is now featuring them, behaving so bizarrely under the power of God’s spirit that the only paradigm some bystanders can come up with is drunk.”
But they weren’t drunk.  Something far more powerful than wine had been unleashed around them and in them.  The power of the Holy Spirit had unleashed itself in their midst.  What happens when the Holy Spirit comes?  For the disciples it meant a complete transformation from their previous selves. 
Again quoting from Barbara Brown Taylor, “if you believe the Bible, then there is no better proof that Jesus was who he said he was than the before and after pictures of the disciples.  Before Pentecost, they were dense, timid bumblers who fled at the least sign of trouble.  Afterwards, they were fearless leaders.  They healed the sick and cast out demons.  They went to jail gladly, where they sang hymns until the walls fell down.”
This transformation occurred when the Holy Spirit came.  When its power filled them and changed them and pushed them and moved them.  It poured out upon them and they were never the same again.
Peter, so empowered by the Spirit, got up and delivered the kind of sermon I can only dream of preaching.  Just as it was spoken through the prophet Joel, “In the last days I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”
Pastor Amy carries a Spirit Stick.  That is a change!
That’s what was happening right before their eyes, Peter told them.  The Spirit was being poured out upon all flesh.  And nothing would ever be the same again. 
When the Spirit comes down, nothing and no one is ever the same again.  So I guess we should be careful what we pray for.  We pray for the Spirit’s coming down, but then again, are we ready to be changed by it?  Are we ready to be moved by it?  Are we ready to go where the Spirit is compelling us to go and do what the Spirit is compelling us to do?
The one word that has been going through my mind as I’ve prepared for this day is “unleashed.”  I’ve already used it a few times as I’ve spoken.  When I hear the story of Pentecost from Acts, I can’t help but think of the power of the Holy Spirit unleashing itself upon the disciples and the Jews from every nation gathered around them. 
To be unleashed sounds somewhat violent, tumultuous and even a little bit frightening.  I imagine there were many that day who were frightened when the Spirit came upon them so suddenly, so wildly.  I probably would have been frightened as well.
And I wonder if I’m not still a little frightened of that power unleashing itself in our midst.  As I said earlier, Pentecost or not, every Sunday I pray in some form or fashion for the power of the Holy Spirit to come upon all who are gathered.  May it open our hearts, open our minds, open our hands to the will of God. 
But I think that when I pray, deep down I’m praying for a much milder version of the Spirit than what those gathered in an upper room received.  I’m not sure I’m ready for the rush of a violent wind or tongues of flame to descend on my head or to be so completely turned upside down that I appear drunk and unbalanced. 
 That may be a little more Spirit than I can handle.  No, I want the Spirit to be gentle, to sweetly nudge us just like my dog Belinda nudges my hand when she wants me to pet her.  I want the Spirit to just glide among us, giving us the option to follow Jesus, to be disciples or not.  Whatever suits our fancy.
But when the Spirit comes down, what happens?  What happens is not what I want.  What happens is change and upheaval and everything I thought I knew and understood being different.  What happens when the Spirit comes?  I am changed, we are changed, like it or not.  And let’s face it.  Our tendency as human beings is to not like change more often than we like it.  We are empowered to speak, to act, to be who God created and called us to be.  What happens when the Spirit comes?  Everything.
So does this mean that we should reconsider our prayers for that Holy Spirit to come?  No, in fact I think we should pray all the more and that much harder that it does come, suddenly, violently unleashing itself upon us just like it unleashed itself upon those long ago believers. 
What happens when the Spirit comes?
In the middle ages, churches would often be built with holes in the ceiling.  They were called “Spirit Holes.”  On the festival of Pentecost young boys would be sent to wait by the holes and when the story from Acts would be read, they would throw thousands of red petals down on the believers below just as the red tongues of flame descended on the disciples’ heads.  Before the congregants could process this sudden deluge of “fire”, doves would be released and they would swoop and soar in and around the congregation.  All this was so the congregation would not only think about what happened that day so long ago, but they could, in some form or fashion, live it.  This might give them a small glimpse into how the disciples felt and responded to God’s rush of powerful love.
I guess it would be far too much to ask that we add a few spirit holes to our ceiling; although we have seen a fiery spark descend upon us.  But perhaps we could add them to ourselves.  We could create them in our hearts and in our minds.  We could be open and ready and waiting for that rush of violent wind, for those dancing flames of fire. 
What happens when the Spirit comes?  Let us pray that we find out.  Amen.
Chocolat to start.  Chocolate to end!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Strong Women

where do the strong women go
                when they feel weak

who's arms hold them
                when they can no longer do the holding

do they cry in the shower

scream in the car

paste smiles on their faces
                knowing the strength they are praised for

is more curse than blessing

where do the strong women go
                when they feel weak

do they reach out
                or spiral deep into themselves

a nautilus

waiting on the shore
                for the wave that washes them back to sea


Wednesday, May 23, 2012


In my ongoing effort to live more courageously, I've decided to publish a short piece of fiction.  I'm ever lacking in confidence when it comes to my fiction, hence the need for courage.  I wrote this as an assignment for a writing class I took in 2010.  Thank you to my teacher, Amy Weldon, for encouraging me to always stretch myself and my writing, good, bad or otherwise.

Adelaide Ivey was known for her hats and her notes.  Neither were what you would expect from a 90 something woman.  Her hats were rakish and broad rimmed, bedecked with bows and fussy trimmings, always in neon tones, making her look as if she were stepping out to Ascot or the Kentucky Derby rather than to church or the library board meeting. 
            And her notes?  Her notes were not the kind that encouraged or praised or made you feel glad you were alive.  Adelaide spent her life teaching school, and for 40 years fourth graders were sent to their first day with three admonitions:  study hard, don’t eat your dessert first, and don’t do anything that would make Miss Ivey send home a note!
            Adelaide’s notes covered all topics, from hygiene to finance to the downfalls of parents.  A farm kid once received a note that said, “What a blessing it must be for you to have James helping around the farm.  I’m sure he works very hard.  Do you think, however, that he could wash a little more in the mornings before school?  The smell of manure is fine in the barn but not in the classroom.” 
            One little girl who struggled to learn brought home a note that read, “I certainly am glad Delia is such a pretty girl.  Perhaps a husband will be able to provide for her, as I don’t think she’ll ever be able to take care of herself in a manner that’s both respectable and Christian.” 
            Adelaide was an equal opportunity note writer.  Rich children, poor children, smart, simple; they all eventually succumbed to Miss Ivey’s note writing wrath.  And her notes weren’t reserved solely for her students.  Neighbors, family members, even the few people she called friends, would warrant at least one note.  But ministers were her favorite target.  It usually took a month or so after a new minister arrived in town before a note appeared in his or her mailbox. Then Adelaide’s note writing zeal was unleashed! 
She scolded them for prayers that were too long and sermons too short, or for using inappropriate words like “racism”, “social justice” or “politics” in that Sunday’s message.  One hapless preacher spent all week working on a 25 minute sermon and two minute prayers only to receive a note the next week that read, “I was fascinated with the history of ancient Babylon that you presented in your sermon this past Sabbath.  I could have listened to it forever.  I didn’t even mind that my Sunday dinner was almost ruined because of how long the service ran.  I’m sure the extra time you took for preaching was pleasing in the eyes of the Lord.”
            And Adelaide didn’t hold her notes back from the minister’s families either.  One young wife was told that, "she really should spend a little more time on the cuffs of her husband’s trousers.  Certainly she wouldn’t want her husband to look shabby in the pulpit.  Did she a need a sewing lesson or two?
            Another pastor’s husband got a note from Adelaide exclaiming how wonderful it was to have all three of their children in worship.  In her words, “They certainly set a good example of making a joyful noise to the Lord!”
            The irony of Adelaide’s notes wasn’t just that she couched her meanness in backhanded compliments; it was also the paper they were written on.  Adelaide kept an ample supply of stationery and cards in the drawer of her bedside table.  They were decorated with flowers and birds and snatches of simpering poetry and, worst of all, buoyant phrases from scripture.  And always, always, they were scented.  The aroma of lilacs, roses and lavender assaulted the unfortunate reader’s senses and hearkened them back to the days when Avon ladies roamed the earth like saber tooth tigers in lipstick, with purses that inexorably matched their shoes. 
            Still, Adelaide was considered one of the town’s good citizens.  She went to church faithfully, knew all of her neighbors, voted, served on boards and brought her famous Chicken Italiano from her Family Circle recipe file to every potluck.  To most folks her notes were seen as the town joke.  The group of old men who gathered at the coffee shop every morning would watch her drive by on her way to the post office, hat on head, notes in hand. 
Ralph Eklund was usually the first to comment in his tobacco stained rasp, “I just seen Adelaide go by.  She’s the closest thing this town has to a drive by shooter.  She’s a drive by noter!”   Their wheezy guffaws flavored their coffee as sweetly as the cream and sugar.
            Adelaide forgot her way home one day.  The six short blocks from the post office to her house looked alien and strange.  She drove around for two hours until her niece spotted her parked in a driveway crying and pounding on the steering wheel with arthritic fists.  When she came to church in a flowered housecoat and slippers with a purple hat tipped drunkenly on the side of her head, everyone shook their heads and made tsking noises at her sad state.  Predictions as to how long it would be before the nursing home claimed Adelaide zipped along the pews faster than the offering plates.  It wasn’t long.
            The minister went to see her under a heavy cloud of obligation and dislike.  Adelaide’s notes had caused too many tears.  But when the minister saw Adelaide, she stopped in the doorway and leaned against its frame for support.  The sight of her felt like a blow to the gut.  Adelaide sat in a wheelchair by the tiny window in her room.  Her hatless hair was matted and the snow flocked cardinal on her sweat shirt was stained with food.  Her black stretch pants bagged about her thin legs, and smelled slightly of urine.  But it was her hands that held the minister’s eyes.  Her knotted fingers moved back and forth, back and forth across invisible paper, still writing notes.
            Adelaide died on a Wednesday.  A few days after the funeral, her nephew stopped by the minister’s office with one last note to deliver. 
            “I don’t know when she wrote this, pastor, but we found it in her things.  It has your name on it.”
            The minister took it with a resigned sigh, smelled lilacs and felt her stomach twist.  She opened it, expecting some criticism of her preaching or teaching or the way her two-year-olds hair was cut.  But one lonely sentence stretched across the page in a weak, childish scrawl.  “Please tell God I’m scared.”

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Going Up

Luke 24:44-53
May 20, 2012

            What goes up must come down.
            It was my internship year in a church in Chester, Virginia.  I, along with other advisers and parents, had taken the senior high youth on a ski trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  My only problem was that I had never been skiing before. 
            So when we got to the resort, I took a ski lesson.  It was a helpful thing to do.  The most important thing I learned was how to stop.  I figured that was a good thing to know when I was riding two waxed sticks down a mountain.  The instructor said we were ready to go down the bunny slope, so we got in line for the lift.  Joe, my other youth adviser, rode up the lift with me.  He had never been skiing either.  We were excited about our first venture on the slopes until we realized we had one problem – we didn’t know how to get off the lift. 
            Many of the youth and other parents were already heading down the slopes, so we started yelling out to them, “Hey!  How do you get off the lift?”  The other people in our group would smile up at us.  They’d wave.  They’d give us the thumbs up.  But they didn’t answer our question.  So we kept yelling at any person on the slopes we recognized and probably even a few we didn’t. 
            “Seriously, how do we get off the lift?”
            Seriously, how do we get off the lift?
            Even though we never got an answer to our question, we managed to get off the lift without killing ourselves.  But I remember that I was more scared of the prospect of getting off that lift than I was about skiing itself.  I thought that going down that mountain couldn’t be nearly as frightening as just taking that first step off a moving chair. 
            I was right and I was wrong.  Going down the mountain was daunting to be sure, but at least I’d had some instruction.  I had some idea of what to do.  That wasn’t true about getting off the lift.  Even with the lift operator waiting there, I still felt very unsure, very alone, very uninstructed about how to proceed.  But what goes up must come down.  I went up that mountain so I had to come down.  I got off the lift.
            I wonder if that’s how the disciples felt when they watched Jesus make his final ascent.  Did they have one more question?  One more point they wanted clarified? 
            The scene that Luke describes at the end of his gospel sounds beatific and serene.  Jesus has opened the disciples’ minds to the scriptures.  He’s told them once more how he is the fulfillment of all the prophecies.  Jesus declared to them what the crucifixion and the resurrection meant and how it was essential that it happened.  He declared to them that they were witnesses of all these things.  He told them that he would send to them what the Father promised, which we know is the Holy Spirit.  He instructed them to remain in the city until they have been clothed with power from on high.  Then he took them out as far as Bethany, raised his hands and blessed them.  Luke writes that “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”
            Luke’s words paint a lovely picture.  The disciples have come a long way since Jesus first called them.  But as I often do when I am trying to get a better understanding of a particular passage or story, I put myself into that scene.  As much as I’d like to believe that I would be there soaking up Jesus’ final blessing, worshiping him, praising God, I also know myself better than that.  I would be the disciple with one more question. 
            “Okay Jesus, I get that we’re to be witnesses of these things.  But does that mean that I witness to people I know first or should I go to stranger’s houses?”
            “How do I start the conversation?  Should I just tell them about this guy I know or do quote scripture?”
            “Did you leave a list?”
            “Seriously, how do we get off the lift?”
            I know me.  And I’ve also gleaned a few insights into human nature.  I can well imagine that these questions, whether I asked them out loud or not, would have been running through my head as I watched  my teacher, my friend, my mentor leave me.  I probably would have felt unprepared and completely unskilled for the task that lay at hand.  I would have wanted to know, specifically and in great detail, exactly what I was supposed to do next.
            I wonder if at least some of the disciples weren’t feeling this as well.  In our verses from Acts, the disciples do ask Jesus if this is the time of Israel’s restoration.  But the answer they get feels far from satisfactory. 
            “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 
            In other words, wait.  Power from on high is coming to you through the Holy Spirit and you will be witnesses, so wait. 
            Like I said, if I were one of the ones standing there, I would have wanted a few more details.  Waiting is all very well and good and knowing that this Holy Spirit you speak of is coming is fine.  But how do you get off the lift?!
            When I dropped off Phoebe at choir rehearsal the other night, I walked through the choir room to go to my office.  A question was put to me about the title for today’s sermon.  I’ll be honest with you.  I hate titles.  The best titles come from what I’ve written.  But like other pastors I know, we don’t have our sermons written early in the week.   And even though I’m doing a lot of thought work and reading for my sermon on Tuesdays, I rarely have a concrete idea of where the sermon is going yet.  So creating a title is hard for me. 
Regardless, I didn’t have a set title in my head yet although I knew I was preaching on the ascension.  When I got the question about my title I jokingly replied, “I don’t know, ‘Going Up’”.  So I stuck with that, thinking that was as appropriate for today’s worship as anything else I could come up with.  After all, when we read about the ascension we read that Jesus goes up into the clouds, into his Father’s realm, into heaven.
But just as I realized with the story of the resurrection on Easter – that I don’t have to have the ability to explain it in literal terms, just grasp as best I can what it means for us now – is true for the ascension as well.  I don’t think it matters if Jesus went up, down or sideways.  I don’t think it’s essential for our understanding to know for a fact if he went up into heaven or disappeared or blended into the background of clouds.  I realize that many people take the angels’ words to the disciples literally.  Why are you looking up?  He’ll be coming back to you the same way he left you.  So a lot of folks stand around watching the heavens, waiting.  I don’t think we need to do that.  I don’t think we’re called to do that.
I do think and believe that in one way or another Jesus, the physical human being, left.  He left the disciples.  But before he left he gave them instructions.  No, it wasn’t a complete to-do list with every step spelled out in exact detail.  Yet they were instructions nonetheless.  The disciples were to be witnesses of these things. 
Two of the preachers that I read this week in preparation for today referred to this as the “passing of the baton.”  Jesus leaves and when he leaves he passes the baton to the disciples.  It’s up to them now.  They have to take the message forward.  They have to proclaim the kingdom of God.  It’s up to them.  Jesus goes up.  Now they have to go out.
Go out into the world.  Go out into Jerusalem.  Into Judea.  Into Samaria.  Into all the world and preach the good news.  That’s what the ascension is.  It’s passing the baton.  It’s putting the responsibility on the witnesses to go and do and tell. 
When I think about the disciples being told to go out, I think of a wonderful scene from the movie Bruce Almighty.  Bruce Nolan is a cynical human interest reporter in Buffalo, New York.  He blames God for all his bad luck. Finally God has enough of this.  If Bruce thinks being God is so easy, then let Bruce do it for a while. God, played brilliantly by Morgan Freeman, gives all of his powers to Bruce.  Bruce doesn’t handle this well.  He uses the powers he’s given to further his own interests first.  As you can imagine, things don’t turn out well.  So he has another meeting with God.  At the end of the scene God is going to leave him again, but he reassures Bruce that he has all the ability he needs to do God’s job.  Bruce wants to know, though where he can find God if he needs him.  God tells him to stop looking up for God.  Too many people spend their time looking up, thinking all the answers will just magically come from the heavens.  If you want to know where God is, if you want to find the answers, look here (point to head and heart).  Look out there (point around the sanctuary and towards the outside).  That’s where God is. 
            That’s where God is.  Here and out there and all around us.  Jesus has left this earth but we are not left empty-handed.  Jesus goes up but the power of Holy Spirit is about to come down.  And when that happens, the disciples are never the same people again.  Neither are we.  We don’t have to wait until next Sunday, the day of Pentecost, to feel the power of the Holy Spirit.  All we have to do is trust in the good news that we are not alone, that we have all the abilities and skills we need to pick up that baton and go out.  Jesus went up.  The Holy Spirit comes down.  And we are called to go out.  Let all God’s children say “Amen!”