Before Pentecost

The story of the Day of Pentecost is a spectacular one.  It is ready made for Hollywood special effects masters to do their work.  If Mel Gibson ever got his hands on it, we’d see the face-melting fire of Indiana Jones mixed with the cow lifting wind of Twister all culminating in Peter offering a wildly out of context antisemitic rant.  I’m on vacation this week, so I hope to have a chance to rescue the actual content of the Pentecost story from the overly dramatic 21st century image I’ve just given you, but in the meantime, as you ponder cows flying on Pentecost, I want to think for a moment about what happened before the coming of the Holy Spirit.

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On Thursday of last week, the Church celebrated the Feast of the Ascension.  It is the day, 40 days after the Resurrection, when Jesus returns to his Father.  As the story goes in Acts, just before his departure, Jesus reiterates to his disciples that they should wait for the Spirit.  This makes sense, given both their impulsiveness and their lack of faith.  One can easily imagine that within minutes of Jesus’ ascension, 6 of the disciples would head home, ready to return to normal life, while the remaining 5 set out to preach the Gospel without any help from the Spirit.  Instead, Jesus says, “wait.”

How often does the Church take that advice?  How often do we forget that it is actually a pattern in the course of salvation history.  Remember how the Hebrews, having fled Egypt on the Day of the Passover, get to the banks of the Red Sea and God tells them to wait there.  He commands them to set up camp while the Egyptians pursue them.  The Hebrews, like many of us, have no desire to wait.  They want to get out of town as quickly as possible, but God demands that they hold fast.

Waiting is often a test to our faith.  It is in those moments when we are doing nothing that we have to come to grips with whether or not we actually trust God to do what God has promised.  The Hebrew’s panicked, offering one of the best lines in Scripture, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?”  The Disciples, this time at least, were obedient to the call to wait.  They elected Matthias to round out the 12, they prayed, they went to the Temple, and they waited.  Faithfully, they waited.

It is easy to just keep busy: to go about the business of ministry and never slow down long enough to listen for God, but sometimes, the will of God is for us to stop, set up camp, and abide for a while.  In waiting, we give the Spirit a chance to meet us.  In waiting, we slow down enough to hear the call of God.  In waiting, we are blessed.

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Noticing a Theme

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Image from Liturgy Memes on Facebook

During the interminable season after Pentecost (the big green portion on the left of the picture above), the Revised Common Lectionary allows congregations to choose between two Old Testament tracks.  The first is the so-called “semi-continuous” lesson, which pulls lessons that are a “semi-continuous” telling of an Old Testament story.  The second track is “thematic” in that the lesson has something to do with some other lesson.  The trick is often finding what theme the RCL powers-that-be had in mind.

At Saint Paul’s, we’ve been using the Track Two lessons this summer.  The choice was made, for the most part, because unless one is going to preach the OT for an extended period of time, the “semi-continuous” lessons can raise a lot of questions that never really get answered for people sitting in the pews.  This Sunday, the obvious theme between the Exodus lesson and both New Testament lessons (1 Timothy and Luke) is sinfulness.  Jesus is accused of hanging out with sinners and tax collectors.  Paul gives Timothy a saying that is true and worthy of full acceptance – Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.  The Hebrews whom God has saved from bondage in Egypt have sinned egregiously by making and worshiping a golden calf.  It is a rare Episcopal priest who will preach about sin, but if there ever were a Sunday to do it, Proper 19C is it.

Not that I want to avoid preaching sin, but as I’ve read over the lessons for Sunday throughout the week, I couldn’t help but notice that there is another, more subtle connection between lessons in Exodus and Luke: humor.  These stories are two of the most ridiculous scenes in all of Scripture.  The Exodus lesson is a snark battle between God and Moses.  I hope your lectors will highlight the sarcasm.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it…”

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’?”

Meanwhile, Luke sets up the Lost Parables through a hyperbolic scene of his own.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them this parable…

Picture that scene for a moment.  As I see it, Jesus is in a room having dinner with all the tax collectors and sinners in a given town, while the Pharisees stand outside, peering through the doors and windows, grumbling among themselves.  Jesus, looking up from his plate of mutton, clears his throat, and begins to tell this immense crowd these wild stories about a shepherd who puts 99% of his sheep at risk to find one that was lost and a woman who spends a huge sum of money throwing a party over finding a single lost coin.

These stories are a helpful reminder that the Bible is not a drab history book for us to study for an exam.  It is the story of God’s relationship with humanity, in all our faults and foibles.  It is full of poetry, of myth, of humor, and most importantly, it is full of love: God’s unimaginable love for everything God has created.

Jesus’ Exodus

Luke’s account of the Transfiguration has several details that aren’t included in Mark’s version.  This makes sense for a couple of reasons: first, Mark is in a hurry and details, unless absolutely necessary, are superfluous; second, Mark is the first gospel written, so the story is logically going to grow as time passes.  One of the details that Mark and Matthew both gloss over, but Luke decides to include is the topic of conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

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“They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”

If it weren’t for the second half of that sentence, having this come on the heels of Jesus being rejected at Nazareth, one could think that Moses and Elijah were giving Jesus a hard time for his almost being thrown off a cliff in his hometown.  There, Jesus walked to safety “through the midst of them,” not unlike Moses and the people of Israel walking to safety from Pharaoh’s army between the Red Sea’s walls of water on their left and right. Alas, that isn’t the exodus they were talking about.

Instead, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus were talking about the new Exodus, God’s saving work for the whole world, which Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem.  This Exodus wouldn’t involve blood on the door posts of those who would be saved, but instead, the blood on the cross would serve as the saving mark for all of creation.  The people wouldn’t flee from the evils of one place for the promise of another, but instead, the promise of God’s kingdom would find a way to overcome the evils of this world.  The Exodus of Jesus will bring us to a promised land that doesn’t inhabit time and space, but rather is available not matter who we are, where we live, or when we accept God’s grace.

The conversation about the Exodus is good news, but the disciples are unable to hear it that way.  They’re weighed down with sleep: simultaneously confused and amazed by what they are seeing.  It’ll take Jesus dying on a cross, rising to life again, ascending into heaven, and ten days after that before the Spirit will come and begin to make sense of it all.  In the meantime, like the people of Israel in the desert, the disciples follow Jesus, unsure of where they are going.