Today our Easter season continues and culminates in the celebration of Pentecost. We rejoice in the work of the Holy Spirit, which has been set loose in our world and poured out upon all believers. We celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, not only as a historical event, but as the action of God in our midst today. The Spirit blows among us. We are a Church of Easter: we claim the joy of Jesus’ resurrection and promise of life for us. What will it look like as we are called and formed into a Church of Pentecost?
We heard from Acts a recounting of that amazing day of Pentecost. Jewish people who live in many nations had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost. They came to celebrate a festival called “Shavuot” in Hebrew. Fifty days after Passover, this celebration is a time to give thanks for God’s providence: “the goodness of God toward the nation” (of Israel) (NIB 53).
On this day of celebration of God’s faithfulness, the disciples have gathered as Jesus instructed them, and Jesus’ promise to send the Spirit is fulfilled. The loud noise of the coming of the Spirit gathers a curious crowd around the disciples. A sign appears above the disciples, like a flame. Then the disciples begin to speak, and filled with the Holy Spirit, they proclaim God’s work in Jesus in the various native languages of the crowd.
Some of the crowd are amazed, while others are skeptical. The disciple Peter stands up and interprets the event, connecting God’s work of sending the Spirit with God’s work of sending the Son with God’s promises written in the holy scriptures of those many Jews who were gathered.
By the end of Peter’s speech, many people are convinced that they have witnessed God’s work. They are convicted of their disbelief of God’s work in Jesus. They follow Peter’s invitation to be baptized. Three thousand people are thus converted to this new way of understanding God’s work. They join the community that the Spirit has grown from those eleven disciples who at first had such a difficult time believing the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.
As a smaller congregation, I think we might hear this story and long for the same amazing work of God that would grow our numbers by that amazing percentage! Some of us might think that’s impossible. Some of us might be afraid of all the growing pains that would cause. If I’m doing my math correctly, that would mean we’d grow from around 30 coming to worship to 8160! Of course, that would mean quite a change in this community for there to be so many people!
We might not be looking for eight thousand people, but we can still experience the power of the Holy Spirit as a church of the Pentecost. At the center of this event is the Spirit’s empowering ordinary people to share their experience of Jesus Christ. The really amazing work of the Spirit is that people listening hear this good news in the language they know best.
The disciples praise God and proclaim Jesus in a way that reaches people. Their witness doesn’t feel foreign to those who hear it. It makes sense. That’s the work of the Spirit that I long for today. How do I- how do we- share the good news of God’s work in Jesus in such a way that it makes sense to those who hear it? How can we proclaim the gospel so that it becomes a source of joy and hope for all the world?
I know that each of you have your own comfort level with sharing your faith with others. Most of you are not all that comfortable. It varies with the situation: easier at Bible study, less so at the cafe table. It’s ok to not be comfortable, talking religion with people. But I do think we are called and challenged to point to Jesus in some way, so that other people would be able to hear about God’s love for them.
Witnessing to our faith is not an easy task. The Spirit makes it possible. But, it’s not necessarily going to be completely “successful.” On that amazing day of Pentecost, there were people who saw and heard evidence of the Spirit, but still doubted. There were people who sneered and called out that only those who are drunk would be speaking as the disciples were.
Others among the crowd were astonished, knowing these men are Galileans. This is an interesting detail. Even as the foreign Jews heard these disciples speaking in their own foreign language, they recognized the disciples are from Galilee.
Even as they are able to speak directly to each member of the diverse crowd, the disciples retain their own identity. I find this really helpful and empowering. It tells me that I can be all of who I am, and not have to pretend to be something I’m not in order to share the good news. With all my history, my experiences, my likes and dislikes, my personality, as well as those things and experiences of which I am completely ignorant, God will still give me the ability to proclaim Jesus to people who may be very different from me, as well as those who are very similar.
Our foundation, if we are a Pentecost church, is God. God makes all things possible, including our ability to speak of God’s goodness through word and action. The next level up, supporting our ability to speak directly and understandably to many different people, is relationship. Being able to witness to how God gives life and hope and a future depends on our knowing that other person to whom God gives those gifts.
There’s a special stance of relationship that we can cultivate as a community. That is a stance of hospitality. I think hospitality comes pretty naturally to many of you. You know how to set out a lunch and add a chair to the table. At the center of this hospitality is making room for the other by changing for the other. That’s the part that maybe doesn’t come so naturally. In our daily lives, that means being hosts who help another feel comfortable and welcomed in the grand story of God’s salvation. It’s helping them see themselves, with all their particularities and uniqueness, among those who are loved and chosen by God. It means welcoming the unique stories and questions each person brings.
In our congregation, hospitality that makes room for the other means recognizing the gifts and passions each person brings, and giving them space and support to live out their faith and impact the way we do things. Hospitable relationship allows for a questioning of everything we assume. As hosts, we change for the other by letting go of control. Yet we are not chameleons who match one circumstance one moment and another the next. We are people strong in our own faith experience, so strong that we can allow for someone else’s faith story, and ways of living that out, to be different from our own, and yet celebrate that the same God works in both of us.
Pentecost, like so many acts of God, calls us to set aside our assumptions. In being hospitable to those who long to hear God’s good news for them, we can’t assume they will know or accept the same things we do. In being a community of faithful people, we can’t assume we know how God is working. The disciples could have never dreamed that God the Spirit would stir in Jews of all nations on the day of Pentecost, and then continue spreading, to stir up faith in Gentiles, people who were outside the boundaries of their relationships.
The Spirit blows with the tree-shaking power of a strong wind. It burns among us as dangerously as tongues of fire. We can’t control the work of the Spirit, and it’ll likely push us toward uncomfortable change. As a Church of Easter, we’ve already begun to rejoice in the amazing and surprising news of the resurrection. We’re in the midst of learning to claim this good news for ourselves. God is also seeking to form us into a Church of Pentecost. God’s among us, strengthening us by reminding us of God’s action for us, and giving us the words to share God’s work of love with all the world.
Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: Baptism, communion, graduates, identity, Jesus, truth
Our daughter, Laila, is almost 11 months old. Every once in a while, I scroll through photos of her, on our computer. I watch as she transforms from screaming freshly born baby on the weighing scale with arms and legs extended, to her first smiles, easy to come as she woke in the morning, to being able to sit and pick up objects, to her first tastes of food, and now with her growing independence as she scoots across the floor. I wonder how much we’ve already shaped her life, by what we’ve exposed her to, by what we’ve encouraged her to do or not do. Will she be a musician but not an artist, since she sings with her daddy, but we’ve yet to give her a crayon? Will she feel safe in the wide openness of the Dakota plains, but claustrophobic in the woods of my homeland? Will she call snacktime lunch and roll her eyes when her daddy tries to call dinner lunch? Will she fear people of different skin tones and cultures, because her community is fairly homogeneous and white?
We all are shaped by our communities, taught to expect one thing and not another, taught to welcome one person and not another. We are formed by our experiences, learning what to avoid and what to touch. The voices of those we listen to on TV or radio shape our own thoughts. Teachers guide us towards the correct answer.
Every day, we pick up messages and signals that form us into who we are: people with expectations about how the world works, what and who is valued, and how we are to interact with others. We combine all of this, without conscious effort, into our worldview, which directs how we act and react in our daily lives. The thing is, we don’t often question all these things which have formed our assumptions. It’s become who we are, and often supported by those around us.
The people whose stories are recorded in the Bible were much like us in this respect: they were imbued with their culture. The book of Acts tells of Jesus’ disciples as they encounter the Holy Spirit and witness the spread of the good news of God’s love shown through Jesus.
Today, we hear the closing scene of a story in which Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, was pushed beyond his comfort and expectations. Peter, like Jesus and all the other disciples, was a Jew. He saw himself as part of a small group of people who believed in the one true God, lived a Godly life, and followed God’s commands. People who were not part of this group were to be avoided, because they had a polluting influence on those who were called to be pure before God.
One day, while Peter was praying, he had a vision in which God called him to eat meats that God had commanded should not be eaten. Peter is faithful to what the Bible says and to God’s commandments, so he declares that he will not eat. But, God is doing a new thing, and declaring what was once unclean, clean. God calls Peter to eat. This is Peter’s preparation for the work God is doing among the people of the world, work God wants Peter to be a part of.
There is a non-Jewish man, named Cornelius, who has been seeking to know and serve God. God answers his prayers by sending Peter to him. Peter enters the home of this Gentile, a person he had always thought God would want him to avoid. Peter proclaims the good news about Jesus to Cornelius and all his family.
Peter had probably never expected God to send him to an outsider, to teach about God’s work through Jesus. Even Jesus’ unexpected welcoming of outsiders hadn’t prepared him to do this work himself. But it’s what happens next that really surprises him.
Suddenly, while Peter’s trying to teach, there is evidence that the Holy Spirit is already at work among these outsiders. Cornelius and his household begin speaking in tongues and praising God, common practices for those who were filled with God the Holy Spirit.
Now, Peter hasn’t come to Cornelius’ home alone. He’s accompanied by those the text names as “circumcised believers.” That adjective underscores the division between them and the “Gentiles:” Cornelius and his household. Circumcision was a sign between God and God’s people, and a commandment of God that all men were to follow. It was a practice that repulsed the Gentiles. The question of whether every man who chose to follow Jesus would also have to follow God’s command to be circumcised caused great division and debate in the early church.
In this scene from Acts, expectations are being shattered and worldviews shaken! God has shown Godself to be active among people who have not followed correct practice, have not followed God’s law, and do not belong to the right group. Not only Peter, but all the circumcised believers with him, are forced to realize that God might work in ways they have not been prepared to accept. Peter, perhaps better prepared than the others from his “eat this forbidden food” vision from God, quickly responds with rejoicing, gets on board with God in this act of welcoming outsiders, and calls for water to baptize these Gentiles who have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
On this day when we at Trinity celebrate young ones receiving communion for the first time and Wyatt being confirmed, I hear a caution from Acts. We have tried to teach these young people some basic Christian teachings, so that they would know what is true, and how God works in our world. We have done this in good faith, wanting to prepare them to receive the sacraments rightly, and live Godly lives. Yet I fear that we can be too zealous to pass on the faith, too eager to form our children, and hold too tightly onto the power of determining correct practice, so that we do not prepare them and ourselves for the beautiful and overwhelming grace of God. God gifts life and love in places and ways and to people we would not expect, beyond the boundaries we have drawn.
Peter, and the other circumcised believers, thought they understood how God acts in our world. They were surprised with the beautiful reality that God breaks out of the boxes we place around God. God works where we do not expect. God acts outside of our control. God’s love is always wider, forgiveness always more abundant, and life more powerful than we imagine. Peter and the other circumcised believers were pushed out of their comfort zone and met God working where they had been sure God would never be.
We have soaked up prejudices that need to be wiped away. Throughout our lives, we may find that much of what we think we know needs to be edited and adjusted to match the reality in which we live. God may need to break open our expectations, and confront us with our cultural assumptions. God is often at work in ways we cannot see because we cannot accept that God might be giving life, love, and forgiveness to those outside our communities.
<< Graduates, you are about to enter a new phase in your life. You are about to leave the education system you have known. Some of you will be leaving the community you have known. What comes next will be different. You may meet people, learn things, and have experiences that uncover the assumptions you have about the world. It can be scary to leave what you have always known. It can be scary to think that what you’ve always thought was true about the world might not be. God walks with you through this new adventure. In all your sifting and sorting of experiences and education, God is with you, to give you strength to test assumptions.>>
Of all that we tell ourselves about our identity and our place in the world, there is one thing that will always be true. God loves you. You have worth in God’s eyes. It’s not easy to see proof of this beautiful truth. In fact, the world around us, and even the communities closest to us, can often bear messages of our lack of worth, our brokenness, our imperfection. That is why we need Christian community, and why we need to be in church, where we receive the sacraments.
This community is called to be a place where the promise of God’s loving and life-giving presence is declared so often that it becomes our central mark. The one message about ourselves and our world that will always be true is God’s love. This love has been freely given, proved by Jesus, in his willingness to suffer, in his death and resurrection. This one truth, and our intention to be formed by it, is the reason we gather around the sacraments of baptism and communion. There we hear, taste, smell, and feel God’s promises. There we receive life, love, and forgiveness from the very hand of God. This community is shaped by these central gifts of God.
My prayer for my daughter, and for each of you, is that you continue to grow into your identity as a beloved child of God. Through baptism, you are set free from the world’s judgements and welcomed into God’s community on the merit of Jesus’ righteousness. You are loved by a God who loves with reckless abandon, loving beyond expectation and past all boundaries.
Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: Baptism, branches, confirmation, i am the vine, Jesus, life, vine
We have entered the season of growth. Finally, flowers are in bloom, budding leaves are opening, and the seemingly dead stumps of perennials are coming back to life. The world around us echos the gospel of this season: God brings life.
We hear from the Gospel of John this morning, a teaching from Jesus. Jesus declares, “I am the true vine” (15:1). Jesus and his friends lived in an area of the world in which vines produced one of their major crops: grapes. Not many people around here grow grapes, although I think I may have seen a few vines around town. So we have to think a little to get our minds away from single stalks of corn and wheat, and on to vines.
Vines have a base that descends into the ground, anchoring the plant, drawing in life-giving nutrients and water. Out from the vine come branches. Branches may stretch far, reaching for the bright sun, establishing their own place, but they can never exist without the vine that gives them what they need to live. When the branches are well supported by the vine, they are able to do what they are meant to do: produce fruit.
Jesus uses what was for his friends a familiar image to explain his relationship to them. We find ourselves in this verdant image. Jesus is your vine. You are Jesus’ branches.
Jesus is the rooted vine who grounds you in the source of life. God brought all life into being. God resurrected Jesus, giving life where there was only death. Every breath you breathe is given to you by the life-giving power of God. When you die, you will be held in the life-giving power of God through Jesus, and you will receive life again. Through Jesus, you are given this everlasting life.
There’s a vineyard near my parents’ home. Every spring, the vinegrowers trim back the plants, to encourage new growth. Those trimmings are available for anyone who wants them. Sometimes they can be encouraged to grow roots of their own. Mostly, I think people take them and graft them in to their own plants.
Different varieties of grape branches can be grafted onto different vines. I’m not an expert on grapes, but from what I understand, people graft branches of different varieties onto established rooted vines so that the new branches will benefit from the strength of the vine, producing a good crop earlier than if it was planted on its own. Sometimes new branches combine with the vine to produce a special blended variety, creating a new flavor or a more hardy plant.
We are united with Jesus through baptism. The Apostle Paul uses the language of a new variety being grafted into the vine, when he talks about us finding our roots in God through Jesus. We are among those who are grafted in, because God first had a special relationship with the people of Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob, the Jewish people. Jesus welcomes people of all nations into this special relationship with God. So we, who are not Jewish, are welcomed into the vine. Grafted in are people from Asia and Africa and the Americas and Europe and Australia: diverse peoples from every land are brought together as one organism through Jesus.
Today, Tucker is going to be baptized. All along, he has received life from God. Something new is going to take place in this sacrament of baptism. He’ll no longer be a little branch all on his own. As God promises, in this water, God is going to welcome Tucker and unite him with Jesus. Tucker will receive all that Jesus has: holiness, perfection, victory over sin and death, relationship with God, relationship with all creation, and resurrected life: life for today and forever. Tucker will be connected in to Jesus’ vine. There he’ll find that he’s no longer alone, and he’s not in relationship with Jesus alone, he joins all the baptized of every time and place. He is joined into a great community of saints. As he grows in his baptized and rooted life, you all will be the fellow branches he’ll know best. You are called to live your life in relationship with God and with this newly welcomed branch, so that he knows that he belongs to God and to the whole community of Jesus-rooted people.
When you are grafted onto Jesus’ vine, you are changed. You become like the one you are connected to. On your own, you’re just another branch, a dead twig good for nothing but the fire. On your own, you are fearful, selfish, and captive to sin and death. But in Jesus, grafted on to that life-giving, life-changing vine, you are alive, restored, freed from the powers of evil, and plugged in to the source of joy and life. God has grafted you in. You belong to this life-giving vine, and you will not be cut off.
Drawing life from the vine, you also draw your identity and purpose from Jesus. You are nourished by that vine, to be like Jesus. Jesus gave up power, comfort, and prestige to come to those who were outcast, sick, and suffering. Jesus not only spoke about healing, forgiveness, and welcome, he embodied it. Jesus touched the unclean lepers and bleeding woman, and healed them. Jesus shared meals with shunned sinners. The Holy Spirit within you gives you the power to be working with Jesus, as Jesus worked, to bring healing and life to the world.
You are the branches, who extend out from the source of life, to bear fruit for the sake of the world. You are each capable of bearing fruit that shows God’s love. Wherever you find yourself, however you spend each day, with whatever skills and passions and gifts you have, it is in and through those things that you are called to bear fruit. Do what you do with love and with the intention to serve and give life to others.
The young people being confirmed this spring spent the year exploring what it looks like to bear fruit for the sake of the world. We considered our communities, and the assets and needs of this place. We gave thanks for each person’s gifts and passions. We explored God’s call to each of us, to live in service, with justice and love. Then each student brought together all these things to write a plan and complete a faith project. These projects are meant to help the students understand that they have the gifts and the call to serve God. These projects are the beginning of much fruit born from a life of faith. We are all called to use our gifts, listen to God’s call, and do something about the needs of our world.
Today, Andrea is affirming her baptism. She is saying “yes” to the promises to live as a baptized Christian. She is taking responsibility for putting herself in places where her faith can flourish. She is promising to be a part of Christian community, to be active in church, where she will hear the Word of God and experience the sacrament of Holy Communion, and she is promising to bear the fruit of service and justice. Confirmation is our flowering, our continuing to bear fruit. Andrea is declaring her intention to live a life of faithful growth.
Even as we rejoice that Andrea is taking this step of faith today, we celebrate all the more that our baptism is a gift of God that does not depend on our faithfulness or our ability to fulfill the promises that Andrea will take on today. God has claimed Andrea, God will claim Tucker, God has claimed all the baptized, through Jesus Christ. You have been united with Jesus for life forever. God will never go back on that promise. Not if you ignore the baptismal promises, not if you welcome the forces of evil, not if you cease to believe as we confess with the Apostles’ Creed. Jesus will always be faithful to you, and will always nourish you for a whole and healed life.
Everything that lives receives its life from God. You have the joy of being aware of that gift. You have the joy of knowing that Jesus gives you life. Jesus promises, “I am the vine” and you are each nourished by this life-giving vine.