Pentecost Kitch

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I recall a discussion once held in one of my liturgics classes.  We were talking about manual actions and the celebration of the Eucharist and the difference between anamnesis, the active remembrance of an event in the past, and mimicry, the acting out of that remembrance.  For example, as we remember the death of Jesus in Rite II, Prayer A (Expansive Language Version), the Celebrant says, “Jesus stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  It is unhelpful, yet, unfortunately not uncommon, for the celebrant, standing behind the altar, likely within sight lines of a cross, to also extend his (let’s be honest, it’s often dudes doing this) arms in a kind of pantomime of words being said.

 

These kinds of things tend to happen when we are either a) uncomfortable with the power of our words, or b) unsure what to do with them.  When talking about Jesus offering himself on the cross, these words have deep theological impact, and they can make us really uncomfortable.  So, we take the attention away from the words and put it on ourselves.  A similar thing happens at the fraction, when, in language that is foreign even too many priests, we talk of Jesus as the Passover, but often deflect it by way of a huge fraction motion.

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This is an ad from a Community Church. So, it isn’t just Episcopalians who are guilty.

There is no place that this tendency to pantomime away our discomfort is more apparent than on the Principal Feast which we will celebrate on Sunday, the Day of Pentecost.  Now, I’m not here to be a buzzkill over the wearing of red or the decorating of your nave with doves and flames.  I get that we need to make worship available to all of our senses, and I don’t want to suggest otherwise.  I would, however, caution clergy and their worship committees to be careful in making those choices, and to think theologically about why they are being made.  Are the dove kites going to enhance worship that day, or make it easier for us to avoid how little we [want to] understand the power of the Spirit.  Is encouraging folks to wear red a symbol of our unity in the Body of Christ or simply a photo opp for the congregation’s Instagram account?  Is the tradition of having the Acts lesson poorly read in many languages in any way edifying, or is it meant to keep us distracted so the preacher can preach yet another sermon on Jesus’ commandment that we love one another?

The active remembrance of the foundational stories of our faith is vitally important.  Too important, in fact, to be reduced to kitchy reenactments.  So, feel free to wear red this Sunday to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, but as inheritors of that same Spirit, also be ready to hear the powerful story of the Advocate’s arrival with power and might upon the disciples gathered in prayer.

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Without a Doubt

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The story of Peter and the sheet from Acts 11 is an odd one, even by Biblical standards.  It has so many supernatural elements as to almost be absurd.  In fact, it seems to read more like a hagiography than a historical account.  There’s the vision Peter has while in a trance.  There’s the exact timing of the arrival of the men from Caesarea.  There’s the Holy Spirit descending upon Gentiles just as it had upon the first believers at the beginning.  If you were trying to write a story that would carry spiritual gravitas, you couldn’t have scripted one better.

Lost in all of the supernatural events, however, is the deeper truth which Peter is trying to articulate to the Apostles in Jerusalem – the radically inclusive nature of the Gospel message even for the Gentiles.  Mired about halfway through the fantastic story, just after the three men arrive at Joppa, Peter, now removed from his trance, receives another word from the Holy Spirit, “to go with them and not make distinction between them and us.”

That phrase has always caught my attention.  In digging into it a bit, I’ve realized that it is another example of English trying to convey in a lot of words what the original Greek handled with simple eloquence.  Other translations say “The Holy Spirit told me to go and not worry” (CEV).  “The Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting” (KJV). “The Spirit said to me: Go with them, without hesitation” (PNT).  The original Greek word means “to evaluate, consider, doubt.”

While the NRSV’s take, “make no distinction between them and us” works, I think it missed the mark on what Peter is really saying the Spirit said to him.  What seems to be happening here is an opportunity for Peter to trust God.  Not unlike that experience with Jesus walking across the water, through this vision and the call to Cornelius’ house, Peter is being invited to step way outside of his comfort zone.  As the story is relayed to us, it appears as though Peter’s actions have raised a lot of questions within the rest of the leadership of the Way.  He certainly knew, based on his faithful Jewish upbringing, that stepping into Cornelius’ house would forever change the game.

When the Spirit speaks to Peter as his stares, probably dumbfounded, into the faces of the three men from Caesarea, what I hear the Spirit saying is, “Without a doubt, go.”  “Go and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Go and fling open the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Go and let the whole world know what God is up to.  Go and don’t doubt.  It isn’t for you to decide who is in and who is out.  Step out of the relative safety of this Jewish sect and watch what God has in store.”

Yes, it put Peter in an uncomfortable spot for a while, but because of his ability to trust, a skill that we know was hard earned in Peter, the Kingdom of God was opened to all and God was glorified.  I can’t help but wonder, what doubts are holding me back?  What is God calling us to do that will fling open the gates of the Kingdom?

How will I know?

I may be alone in this. It could be the result of my recent change in geography.  I’m hoping it isn’t a sign of the times.  In the past month, for the first time in my ordained life, I’ve become aware of two instances in which the efficacy of one’s baptism was questioned.  Both were baptized in the Dominical form: with water and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which, at least according to my read of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, is all that is needed for a baptism to be considered valid in our tradition.  Of course, those who are suggesting that age and mode matter above all else, don’t care much about William Reed Huntington’s attempt at church unity or what some papist rag wearing guys in purple shirts (probably a historical anachronism) voted on in Lambeth in 1888.  Realizing that, I turned to an old friend, Maxwell E. Johnson’s The Rites of Christian Initiation, which every clergy person should have on their bookshelves.

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As you can see, I’ve been hard at work, crafting a good argument for why infant baptism by affusion should be considered just as valid as a “believer’s baptism” by submersion.  I do so, fully admitting that I am a fan of and would much prefer to see the latter become normative over the former which is how I was baptized as well as both of my children.  The crux of the question comes down to, as it always should in theological debate, the Bible.  What does our foundational document say about baptism?

The full argument is beyond the scope of what I can handle in a blog post, but suffice it to say that like most things that end up in a Scriptural debate, the waters are murky.  If you want to argue that only adults can be baptized and it should be done in clean, flowing water, the Baptism of John will get you pretty close (ignoring that the waters of the Jordan were considered ritually unclean (Johnson, 11)).  If you think that maybe younger children should be welcomed and the means of water is open to debate, the stories of entire households being baptized in Acts can be used to support your argument (ignoring the reality that just because something is not said to have not happened, doesn’t mean it did).  So, how are we to know for sure that a baptism in efficacious?

Turning again generally to the Bible, and more specifically Sunday’s NT lesson, my ongoing side in these debates is that we will know that God was present in Baptism because we see the signs of the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the baptized.  In the story of Jesus’ baptism, every account makes sure to mention the Holy Spirit descending upon him.  In various stories in Acts, we hear that the newly baptized are filled with the Spirit in the same way the 120 were on Pentecost.  In the prologue to 1 Thessalonians, again we are reminded that the surest sign of salvation is God’s Spirit at work.

For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…

Those who argue that there is only one way for a baptism to be valid won’t be swayed by fancy arguments from a giant textbook, just as I won’t be swayed away from my belief that God is much bigger than any box we want to put God in based on “the Bible says it, so I believe it.”  I’m not sure that matters though.  What matters in the end is that when the signs of the Spirit are there, no one can deny God at work.  How do I know?  I’ve seen it in those baptized at 1 day, 1 month, 1 year, 10 years, 20 years, and beyond.

Hope does not disappoint?

Borrowing from the Unitarian reformer (yes, such a thing exists) Theodore Parker, in several of his famous speeches, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offered this reflection on the hope of the Civil Rights Movement.

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Given the time in which he lived, it would have been easy for Dr. King to give up that hope.  It wasn’t just your run of the mill racists who seemed to be working against the bend toward justice, but governments, and even entire denominations were working hard to keep this nation that was founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” from ever making that foolish claim in the Declaration of Independence a reality.

Some 50 years later, Parker’s original quote seems more apt than even the Dr. King paraphrase, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”  In a nation where angry rhetoric is spilling over into actual violence, it is hard to see much hope beyond the horizon that the arc toward justice creates.  I can honestly say that in my own thoughts, at times, I wonder if there really is any hope in the sort of peace that comes when every human being is afforded the rights and responsibilities of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  I fear that my children will only know a world of bitterness, anger, vitriol, and violence.

Thanks be to God, that at just the right time, I am reminded to never give up hope.  This week’s short lesson from Romans, though used to great damage by religious leaders who send battered wives back to their husbands or keep whole peoples from rising up against oppression because “we should boast in our suffering,” can and should be redeemed by the telos of our collective suffering.  For all who struggle with hope, for all who wonder if justice will ever roll down, for all who lament the violence and the fear mongering, Paul offers these words:

“suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

The reason we continue to hope, despite growing evidence to the contrary, is because God’s love is at work in the world.  This isn’t some ethereal claim of ooey-gooey love without substance, but the reality that God’s love has hands and feet and hearts through the Holy Spirit given to each of us in baptism.  We who claim to be disciples of Jesus are, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the agents of hope in the world.  We are they who should be calling for justice.  We are they who should be working for peace.  We are they who should be offering compassion.  We, who can see only as far as the horizon, with the help of the Holy Spirit, must continue to work to bring the end of the arc into focus.

In times like these, hope can be difficult, but with God’s help, we who continue to hope and work for a just society will not be disappointed.

How not to worry

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As the rubric at the bottom of page 888 of the Book of Common Prayer reminds us, “Any Reading may be lengthened at discretion.  Suggested lengthening are shown in parentheses.”  This Sunday, our Gospel lesson has one of those “suggested lengthenings”; taking us well into Jesus’ rules for his apostles.  The part where he tells them not to take a bag or a cloak or extra sandals gets plenty of press, but what is often overlooked are his instructions on what should happen should you get arrested.

they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

Worry seems to be the number one deterrent to evangelism.  Those of us in 21st century America don’t have to worry about getting flogged or dragged before the authorities.  Our worries tend to be much more superficial.  We worry about offending someone.  We worry about embarrassing ourselves.  We often worry that we won’t have any idea what to say.  We worry when there is absolutely no need to.  Jesus has shown us what we need to eliminate the worry of evangelism.  In Baptism we are given what we need to eliminate the worry of evangelism.  If only we would tap into the Spirit of God that is ready to be at work in our lives, we have no need to worry about evangelism.

It isn’t so much that we can just open our mouths and the Holy Spirit will make us say what needs to be said.  Instead, if we invite the Spirit into our relationships, and begin to see the other through the eyes of God, then all our our interactions will be fodder for evangelism.  It isn’t about having the perfect apologetic, understanding the hypostatic relationship of the Trinity, or knowing precisely how the Cross saves us.  Instead, through the Spirit, it is about how the Kingdom of God is at work in our everyday lives.  It is seeing peace when others see anxiety.  It is choosing love when others would choose hate.  It is showing compassion when it would be easier to ignore the needs of the other.  When the Spirit is at work in our lives, then these things happen naturally, and the deeper conversations of faith just happen because faithful living is happening all the time.

Jesus promised his disciples that the Spirit would speak for them in front on the authorities, but I am a firm believer that the Spirit is always at work, sharing the love of God with everyone we meet.  Our job is to allow the Spirit to work, to free ourselves from worry, to live lives of the Kingdom, and to be willing to share the Good News.

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.

A bad weekend for Acts 7

This weekend, at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, the Bishop will make his annual visitation.  Not to brag too much, but it is exciting to have 1 adult baptism/confirmation, 1 confirmation, 1 reception, and 1 reaffirmation at 8 am and 7 confirmations and 3 receptions at 10 am.  What is really exciting, however, is that I won’t have to preach this week.  Of particular note will be how the Bishop will handle the story of stoning of Stephen with this good group of wide-eyed new Episcopalians.

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Some things just don’t translate to a coloring sheet

Being a person of faith in 21st century America is a whole lot easier than President Trump would have us believe.  While an increasing number of people might look at us and wonder why we would believe that Jesus rose from the grave, and more people every day shake their heads at what is presented as the sacrificial love of God, we are free to exercise our faith on a day to day basis.  No one is telling us what we can and can’t believe.  No one is telling us that we can’t raise funds for charitable uses.  No one is telling us that we can’t gather to read scripture, sing praise, and offer prayers.  In fact, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the life of the average Christian American from that of the average None.

How then do we read this story of the Church’s first martyr?  What does it mean for those who are “singing up” on the day in which Stephen’s testimony leads him to be dragged into the street and stoned?  What should the life of the average 21st century American look like?  Is there anything we can really learn from the story of Stephen?

The answer is most certainly a yes, but maybe not from the 6 verses appointed for Easter 5, Year A.  If we look at the entirety of the story of Stephen, beginning with the despite between the Hellenists and the Hebrews at the beginning of chapter 6 and running through the end of chapter 7, there is plenty to learn from the story of Stephen.  It is a story about how the Church cares for those on the margins – especially those who are likely to fall through the cracks within the Church.  It is a story about discernment and how the Church calls people to ministry.  It is a story in which the apostles aren’t afraid to name gifts and talents that are required for the fulfillment of an office, which is a lesson the modern Episcopal Church could probably stand to have reiterated.

Most importantly for a service of Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation: The story of Stephen is a story about how expansive ministry can become when we invite the Holy Spirit to be the source of our work.  The Bishop will lay hands on and pray over each of our candidates, inviting the Holy Spirit who has already begun a good work in them to renew their ministry, to grow their faith, and to propel them out in service.  It is a story that we all could stand hear with some regularity, reminding us that each member of Christ’s Body has a ministry, and that the Spirit equips all of us for service.