Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14736169

It’s Okay to be Uncomfortable

Click here to read the biblical text.

People have no idea what it’s like inside my head.

They look at my body, of course. It’s plain to see there’s something wrong with me. When I was a little girl, my parents were worried sick about me. They asked me all the time, “Why don’t you just stand up straight?” They consulted physicians, who looked me over from head to toe, but couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. As far as the doctors could tell, there was nothing medically wrong with me.

But without a clear diagnosis to work from, everyone assumed the problem was me. People would say things like, “Don’t slouch! Stop messing around and stand up straight! We know you can do it; the doctor said so! You’re just faking this illness for attention! Come on, just stand up straight already. You’re just not trying hard enough!”

But those were just the voices of other people. Even worse, SO much worse, were the voices I heard inside my own head: “You piece of garbage! You’re worthless! You’re hopeless! You deserve this! You should do the whole world a favor and just kill yourself right now!” They were SO LOUD and they never stopped, day or night. No matter what I did, even covering my ears with my hands, I couldn’t make them stop or get any quieter. Most days, I couldn’t even leave my house. All day long, I just sat in a corner with my head leaned up against the wall, singing to myself, just to have something other than the voices to listen to. It felt like a dead weight inside my chest, like someone had tied a heavy, invisible stone around my neck.

Once a week, on the Sabbath, my parents would force me to get up and leave the house. I felt so bad for them. Their hair had turned grey and their faces wrinkled with worry. They both had dark circles under their eyes from so many late nights when the voices wouldn’t let me get to sleep. I was almost twenty years old at this point. Any other “normal” daughter would have been married off by now, with a husband and children of her own to care for, but not me. They were getting on in years. Sometimes, I could hear them talking at night, worrying about what would become of me when they were gone. We had no other family. I would probably end up living on the street, where I certainly wouldn’t last long. Perhaps some of the neighbors would be kind enough to help me out from time to time?

The Sabbath was the one time each week when I would get out of the house, to go to synagogue. To be perfectly honest, I hated it. Since we were women, tradition said my mother and I had to stand at the edge while my father covered his head and went to the middle to pray with the men. I liked listening to the sound of their singing, but being around the other villagers was unbearable. Some people were kind: they would greet my mother and ask how I was doing this week. Others would look down at me with disgust, but most just politely ignored us. Just like I did at home, I would mostly crouch in the corner, leaning my head against the wall, and trying to make myself turn invisible.

One Sabbath, a traveling rabbi named Jesus visited our synagogue. People were saying lots of interesting things about him: that he was some kind of prophet, like the ones we read about in the Torah. As was customary, our rabbi invited him to preach and lead services that day. More people than usual came out to hear him. The synagogue was crowded, so I had an especially hard time finding a space against the wall were I could be.

As the congregation was gathering for worship, Jesus and I crossed paths at the synagogue door. I knew better than to speak to a man who wasn’t a member of my family, but I glanced up as he passed by, and we very briefly made eye contact. He gave me a smile and I quickly looked down again.

After the prayers, Jesus began to preach. One of the readings that morning was from the book of Isaiah (I heard somebody say that was Jesus’ favorite book to preach on). The reading said:

“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday… if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth”.

Jesus’ sermon was all about the Sabbath. He said there were two reasons why it was so important. First of all, it was the day God rested after creating the heavens and the earth, so we too should rest from our labors on that day. But the second reason, he said, was because God freed our people from slavery in Egypt. Pharaoh worked our people to the bone, making us build his palaces and pyramids. We were nothing more than animals to him, but God saw our suffering and liberated us by the hand of Moses. We are human beings, made in God’s image and likeness. Because of that, each and every one of us has God-given dignity and should be treated as such. Keeping the Sabbath, Jesus said, helps us to remember that dignity. That one day a week, when we Jews rest from our work and gather together to study the Torah and pray, should remind us to treat each other with kindness and compassion on the other six days of the week. The best way to keep the Sabbath, he said, is to help our fellow human beings live lives with the full and free dignity that God intends for them.

Then he paused in his sermon for a moment. He looked up and said, “There was a woman I saw on my way to synagogue this morning. Where is she?” The people started looking around at each other and shrugging their shoulders. Which woman was he talking about? He said, “She’s bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.” Everybody knew he was talking about me.

I was terrified. My only goal in life was to pretend to be invisible, but now everyone was staring at me because of Jesus. Then he did something I’d never seen any rabbi do before: he called me over to the center of the synagogue. Didn’t he know that was against the rules? Only men were allowed in that part of the room. But Jesus didn’t seem to care about that. He wanted me to stand up next to him, as best as I could, at the front of the service.

I could tell the leaders of the synagogue were uneasy about this. They were looking back and forth at each other with angry eyes. People were shifting back and forth uncomfortably. Jesus ignored them and turned directly to me. He said to me, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” As he said this, he laid his hands gently on my head.

And suddenly, the most amazing thing happened: It got quiet. I mean, really, actually QUIET. And not just quiet in the room… for the first time since I could remember, I was quiet on the inside.

The voices had stopped. I could hear myself breathing and the pounding of my heart in my chest. The pain of that dead weight, the imaginary stone tied around my neck, was gone. When Jesus lifted his hands off my head, I felt lighter, like I could float right up to the ceiling. Almost without thinking, I leaned back and… and… and stood up straight.

There was an audible gasp from the congregation. Looking around at everyone in the room, I realized for the first time that I am actually quite tall. In fact, Jesus himself was actually a couple of inches shorter than I am. I didn’t expect that. He just looked up at me and smiled again.

I don’t know what possessed me in that moment, but I felt like I should do something. I’d spent my whole life in that synagogue, listening to the men chant and pray from the very spot where I was standing. Sometimes, I would sing their songs to myself at home, just to drown out the voices.

But now, with the voices gone, I could feel that song rising up within me again, like a kettle boiling over. But this time, it was a hymn of praise, not a plea of desperation. I began to chant:

“Barukh atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh haOlam.”

          “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe.”

That was when the synagogue leaders really lost their temper. Not only was this visiting rabbi interrupting their service, but now he even had me, a woman, leading God’s praises in the place that was traditionally reserved only for men. Needless to say, I didn’t get to finish my hymn.

They jumped up and shouted, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

But Jesus didn’t miss a beat. He wasn’t having any of their pious nonsense. He shouted right back at them, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

Let me tell you, that shut them up real quick! After a moment of stunned silence, the crowd erupted into thunderous applause.

What Jesus did that day was not just for me; it was for everyone who lives with oppression and degradation of their God-given dignity. Jesus showed me that day that my life matters. Yes, even mine, which seemed to be so wasted and useless for so long.

Of course, every life matters to God, but God seems to have a special concern for those whose lives are degraded. It’s not that our lives matter more; it’s that we’ve been told so often that our lives matter less. That’s an error in judgment that God is eager to correct.

Our ancestors were made to believe that their lives mattered less than Egyptian lives because they were nothing more than Hebrew slaves, so God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Hebrew lives matter!”

In my case, I believed that my life mattered less because I was a woman and because I lived with a chronic illness, so Jesus came to tell me, “Your life matters!”

This is God’s message to all who are poor and oppressed in this world. Wherever and whenever the God-given dignity of human life is threatened by the powers-that-be of this world, God intervenes with this message to the powerful: “These lives matter!”

Black lives matter. Women’s lives matter. Gay lives matter. Trans lives matter. Mentally ill lives matter. Disabled lives matter. Immigrant and refugee lives matter. It’s not that other lives don’t matter to God, but others haven’t been subjected to humiliation and violence in the same way that some of us have. We already know that those lives matter; we need to hear and know that our lives matter too.

It might be that hearing this makes you uncomfortable, just like Jesus healing me in the middle of a synagogue on the Sabbath made our leaders uncomfortable. I want you to know that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. Stay with that discomfort for a while. Don’t be too quick to speak up. Don’t interrupt my song of praise, even if it sounds angry and defiant. This is the song that Jesus gave me when he set me free and made me able to stand up straight for the first time in my life.

This is my song of freedom, I’m singing it for the whole world.

And believe it or not, I’m singing for you too.

 

By ESO/H. Drass et al. (http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1625a/) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Discovering Fire

Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest and brilliant scientist, once said:

“The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.”

I begin with Fr. Teilhard’s words this morning because they remind me of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

At first glance, these words of Jesus seem very apocalyptic and destructive. It’s understandable that some people might interpret them in this way. After all, fire can be very destructive. However, it can also be creative.

Fire, in a contained explosion, ignites the engines of automobiles and rockets. Electricity is a kind of fire that powers most of the technology we take for granted. For our ancient human ancestors, fire was used to cook food and refine metal.

On a much larger scale, the fire of the sun gives light and heat to the earth, making life possible.

Finally, the very atoms of our bodies were formed by nuclear fusion in the fiery furnaces of distant stars. These stars later exploded in brilliant supernovae, spreading their elements across the galaxy until they coalesced again in the substance of this planet.

So yes, fire carries within itself the power to destroy, but it also has the power to create. This is the kind of fire that Fr. Teilhard is talking about when he says that humankind “shall have discovered fire” for a second time when we “harness for God the energies of love.” It is also the kind of fire that Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel.

Ever since the earliest days of the Church in the book of Acts, fire has been a prominent, recurring symbol of the Holy Spirit. God dwells within human hearts like a kind of fire, a divine energy that animates faith, hope, and love in the same way that the fire of an explosion propels a rocket into space. The fire of the Spirit has survived multiple, almost constant, attempts to snuff it out over the centuries. But persecution, manipulation, arguments, and sin have all failed to contain this explosion. The Jewish prophet Jeremiah described his inner experience of the Holy Spirit like this: “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jer. 20:9)

The divine fire is unquenchable, it seems. It’s burning goes back 13.7 billion years, all the way to the moment of the Big Bang, when God ignited a spark that grew into the universe we know today. Like an Olympic torch, this same fire has been passed from star to star, galaxy to galaxy, sun to planet, and hearth to heart.

That same fire burns in you today. To be sure, human selfishness, ignorance, and sin have tried repeatedly to smother it in ash. At times, its light had grown so dim to our eyes, we thought it had died out completely. But all such attempts to quench this fire have been in vain. The fire that Christ kindled in his work of redemption is identical with the fire that exploded forth at creation. This fire burns in you today, God’s free gift to all that exists, and it unites your spirit with the creative energy of the cosmos in the Holy Spirit.

This is a powerful truth that takes root in our Christian hearts as we make regular use of the means of grace, especially Scripture and Sacrament. We need to stay connected to these things because they act like firewood in our souls. This is the fuel that Christ uses to bring the divine flame back to life in us when we have almost succeeded in stomping it out with our selfishness and cynicism.

All of this sounds rather nice. It would be all too easy to say that there is a bit of God’s fire in each of us and Jesus comes along to help us keep it going. But here’s the catch: in order to rekindle the divine fire in us, Jesus has to stir up our smoldering ashes. He digs deep down beneath the surface and turns everything upside-down so that the fire can find its way back to the surface again.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is intentionally stirring up the ashes in his listeners when he says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

This is a far cry from “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” At Christmastime, we hail the baby Jesus as the “Prince of Peace” who proclaims “Goodwill to all.” At first glance, it seems like Jesus is contradicting himself in this passage, but he isn’t.

In order to rekindle the fire of divine love within us, Christ first has to clear away the ash. In many cases, the “ash” is a faulty way of thinking about and relating to one another.

We human beings have a tendency to divide ourselves into camps of various sorts, for various reasons. We are divided along lines such as race, class, gender, language, politics, nationality, and religion. We are trained from birth to identify with one or more of these categories and understand how those in the opposing categories are enemies. One group is “us” and the other is “them.” Our groups fight with one another to gain supremacy, especially in terms of power and money.

Jesus, as the Prince of Peace, wants all God’s children to live in harmony with one another; he wants us to recognize the common spiritual fire that has bound us together from the beginning of time.

But before this recognition can happen, Christ has to shine the light of truth on our idolatries and ideologies that lead us to ground our sense of identity in one or more of these categories and set ourselves up against those who are different from us.

This is the kind of “division” that Jesus brings to the world: he divides our True Self from our small ego. He teaches us how to detach from ultimate identification with some aspect of our circumstance or personality.

This division process is painful. It looks like treason from the perspective of those who continue to identify with these categories. This is why Jesus says, “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.”

Jesus caused quite a scandal in his day because his band of apostles included Levi, a tax collector who collaborated with the occupying Roman government against his own Jewish people, and Simon, a zealot who had dedicated his life to fighting the Roman occupation of Judea with acts of terror and violence (in many ways, he was like an Al Qaida or ISIS fighter). By all rights, these two men should have hated each other. But somehow, in the company of Jesus, these two men found the strength to transcend the categories that divide them.

This pattern repeated itself time and again among Jesus’ disciples. Not only did he reconcile members of opposing in-groups within Judaism, he also welcomed entire villages of Samaritans as those who believed in him. Not only that, but the early Church went so far as to include Gentiles as well as Jews in its membership. This was unheard of at the time.

It was so scandalous, the early Christians were forcefully exiled from the synagogues where they had previously worshiped. Christ’s all-inclusive message of peace, which transcends lines of race and nationality by the power of the Holy Spirit, sounded like treason and heresy to the powers that be. The peace of Christ became divisive, not because Jesus willed it, but because people were too wedded to their narrow ideological categories. Given the choice, the enemies of Christ would rather possess one small corner of a world divided than live together in a universe united.

It seems to me that little has changed in the two millennia between Jesus’ earthly ministry and ours. We continue to live in a world/country/state/city/church/family that is bitterly divided against itself along petty and selfish lines. We are taught to fear those who are different from us and hate those who are our enemies.

As Christians, we cannot afford to play these silly, destructive games. Through Christ, we have come to experience the great fire from the foundation of the universe, the Holy Spirit that pervades all creation.

Christ calls us today to live with this awareness of the great sacred fire, even though the majority of people around us doesn’t see or understand it. Our actions of grace and mercy may look like treason or heresy to those around us. We may find ourselves at odds with the members of our own family, but Christ calls us to a higher allegiance. It may be my patriotic duty as an American to cheer as bombs fall on the strongholds of ISIS, but it is my spiritual duty as a Christian to mourn the death of my enemies, brothers and sisters who were created in the image of God, just like me.

It seems ironic that our unity in Christ should put us at odds with our other allegiances in the world, but this is how it has been from the beginning. It is yet another paradox of the Christian faith that we are called to let stand. We cannot hope to understand or resolve the problem by human effort alone, but only as all of us come to recognize and honor the sacred fire that was kindled by Christ: the Holy Spirit that dwells in each of us.

Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From God, For All

This week’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

Click here to read the biblical passage.

Let me tell you something about my brother: he’s a jerk. I mean, really. A world class jerk.

Everything in life has just been handed to him. He was always dad’s favorite: the eldest son, good looking, charming, and everything else you could want a son to be. Dad doted on him. He always bragged about him to his friends: “My son this… my son that…”

Well, what about me? Ain’t I his son, too? I’ve played second fiddle to my brother for my whole life. Both of us followed in Dad’s footsteps, taking over the family business. I work just as hard as he does, but he gets all the credit. He gets to be in charge and call all the shots.

But in these past few years, as Dad has gotten older and sicker, has my brother even lifted a finger to help take care of him? No. Not even once. That was my job.

I checked in on Dad every day. My wife went over to help Mom with the cooking and cleaning so she could be with Dad. And then, when the end came and Dad finally passed away, I was the one sitting by his bedside, holding his hand and saying prayers. My brother was off tending to the business. I had to send one of my kids to tell him that Dad had died.

At the funeral, he made a good show of grief and all the neighbors came by to comfort him. They talked about how proud my Dad was… of him. I got the obligatory handshakes and clichés like, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

But that’s not even the worst of it. After the funeral, when Dad’s estate was being settled, all of the inheritance went to him. Nothing was left for me or my family. Just him. Where was he when Dad got sick? Where was he when Dad died? Both of us run the family business, so why I didn’t I get at least a portion of the inheritance?

It was humiliating. I would be dependent on my jerk of an older brother for the rest of my life, without a nickel to my own name. I would live like a beggar, even though I work for a living.

I went to the village rabbi with this issue, but he wasn’t any help at all. He just quoted this rabbi and that rabbi, saying that oldest sons were entitled to the largest share of the family estate. It’s like they didn’t even care about what was right, only what was legal, according to the dictates of the Torah.

I had just about given up hope when I heard that this traveling rabbi named Jesus was coming to town. I thought to myself, “Aha! This guy can help me! This rabbi Jesus has a reputation for speaking his mind and telling it like it is. He stands up for the common people and fights for what is right.” Surely, I thought, he would be able to knock some sense into my brother and make him give me what’s coming to me.

So, Jesus came to town and it was amazing. He was healing people left and right. I saw things I had never seen before in my life. My brother was there. Jesus was preaching to the crowd about the justice and mercy of God. He said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

And I thought to myself, Yes! This is it! This is my golden opportunity! So I stood up and shouted, “Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.”

And then Jesus just stopped. He looked at me, looked over at my brother, and then back at me again. I just stood there, like I was frozen. All of a sudden, I felt kind of small. You know what I mean?

And then Jesus said to me, “Mister, what makes you think it’s any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?” Turning to the crowd, he said, “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”

And then he told us a story. It was about a rich man who owned a lot of property. For a minute, this made me really excited again because people like me knew all about these rich jerks. They made their money, not by hard work and sacrifice, but by exploiting the poverty of their fellow farmers who were down on their luck.

You see, if a farmer had a bad year, he would take out a loan from one of these big business moguls. As collateral, he would put up the only things he had to his name: his land and his body. If the next year was a good year, then everything was fine. But if it was another bad year for the harvest, the farmer would have to take out another loan. Eventually, the poor farmer would get so deep in debt, he could never hope to pay it off. The creditors would foreclose on the loan and the farmer would lose his land. If he was lucky, he could go back and work the land as a tenant, but all the profits would go to the creditor. If he was unlucky, the farmer and his family would become slaves. Either way, the end result was that the rich would get richer and the poor would get poorer. The whole system was exploitative.

So, I was glad that Jesus started by talking about these rich jerks and how they took advantage of poor, working folk like me. I hoped my brother was listening.

And then Jesus continued:

The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’

“Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’

“That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”

After that, Jesus went on to say some other things, but to be honest, I kind of tuned him out. Something about that story stuck with me. Actually, it made me uncomfortable (somebody told me later that Jesus has that effect on people a lot). I had a sneaking suspicion that Jesus wasn’t talking about my brother; he was talking about me.

It wasn’t so much what he said that bothered me; it was what he didn’t say. Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines on this, but it occurred to me that the rich farmer in the story never gave thanks to God for the big harvest he had just hauled in. He seemed to assume that this abundance of crops came from his own hand, as if he himself, and not God, had made the rain to fall and the sun to shine that year.

It reminded me of a passage from the Torah that we used to hear in synagogue services every year:

Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

The second thing that occurred to me from Jesus’ story is that the rich farmer seemed to want to hoard all of this wealth for himself and not share it with others. Didn’t he know that other people in his community, especially the families of those poor farmers he was exploiting, would probably go hungry that year? Didn’t he realize that God sends the rain and the sunshine on everyone so that so that all of us can enjoy the fruits of the earth together?

This reminded me of another passage of scripture we used to hear in synagogue: God spoke to our ancestor Abraham and said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

God blesses us, not so that we can be rich and comfortable, but so that we can be a blessing to other people in need. This is what we should be thinking about, as God’s chosen people.

And then it hit me: I was like that rich farmer in the story. The rich farmer was me, not my brother. I came to see Jesus that day, not to bear witness to what God was doing in our community, but to get something for myself. I thought it was my responsibility to make my brother do what I wanted him to do.

Not only that, I didn’t really care about what happened to my brother or his family; I just wanted to have what was owed to me. I kind of forgot that he’s my brother. We’re part of the same family, so a blessing for one of us is really a blessing for both of us. And my rotten, selfish attitude was only making it less likely that I would benefit from this mutual blessing in the future.

I’ve got to say, I didn’t get what I came for when I met Jesus that day, but I did get something. His words reminded me of what is most important in life: that we are family. My brother and I are sons of the same Father, and that means something. And you know, if you think about it, all of us human beings are kind of like brothers and sisters. We are the children of God, our Father in heaven. And the blessings that God pours out upon the earth are meant to be shared by all, not just a few of us. I’m grateful to Jesus for showing me that.

Ever since that day, things have been a little bit different between my brother and me. Not dramatically different, but a little bit. I eventually let drop the whole thing about splitting the inheritance. To be fair to my brother, he’s been okay about the whole thing too. When we fell on some hard times with the family business, my brother dipped into his inheritance to help the whole family out, so that we wouldn’t have to go one of those loan sharks. We wouldn’t have made it through if it hadn’t been for him.

Don’t get me wrong: he can still be a jerk sometimes, but he’s my brother after all.

I went to Jesus that day because I wanted to be proven right. Instead, Jesus showed me how wrong I’d been. More than that, he showed me that there is more to life than what I can get out of it. He showed me that I am loved, that I am part of a family, God’s family that reaches around the entire earth. And God’s desire is that all the children of this family would share generously in the abundant blessings that have been poured out for all.

By Albertus teolog - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17310761

God Says Yes

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

My wife shared this poem with me several years ago and I would like to share it with you today:

Click here to read ‘God Says Yes To Me’ by Kaylin Haught.

What I love about this poem is its whimsical nature and almost cavalier approach to prayer.

Prayer is a major theme that appears in today’s readings.

We see it first in Abraham’s conversation with God about the fate of the city of Sodom. God declares that the city must be destroyed, on account of the wickedness of the people who live there. But Abraham, in an act of haggling worthy of a used car salesperson, manages to talk God down from total destruction to sparing the city if even ten righteous people could be found in it.

There are plenty of theological issues I could raise from this passage: What was so bad about Sodom that made God want to destroy it? What kind of God goes around destroying cities, anyway? These are great questions that deserve answers, but I’m not going to address them in this sermon today.

What I want to focus on is the conversation that takes place between God and Abraham. That’s all that prayer is, really: a conversation between God and people. And in this conversation, the main thing we observe is that God says Yes to Abraham, without fail, every time he asks. God says Yes.

I put it to you this morning that God says the same thing to you in prayer. God says Yes to you. Always.

I admit that this is a pretty bold claim to make, especially since there is no one among us who cannot remember an instance when we prayed fervently for something or someone, only to be disappointed as the situation did not turn out as we had hoped.

And we ask ourselves, “What happened? Did I not pray correctly? Why did God say No? Does God simply not exist?” All of these are perfectly legitimate questions to ask in the wake of disappointment, especially when it feels like God let us down at a time when we really, desperately needed help.

For me, that kind of deep disappointment with God came early in early 2010, when my wife and I co-officiated at a funeral for a three-week-old baby named Madalyn. Her parents were good friends and dedicated church members. She was born several months too early, weighing a little over two pounds. Despite an extended stay in the NICU, her prognosis was good. My wife and I were visiting the hospital and checking in with the parents regularly. The whole church was praying fervently and Madalyn showed steady improvement. Then, in the middle of night, the hospital called the parents, saying that Madalyn wasn’t doing very well and they should get there immediately. They rushed over as fast as they could, and ran in to discover that their baby had died mere moments before they arrived.

Madalyn’s death got me asking all kinds of uncomfortable questions about God, faith, and prayer. I had to go back and rethink much of the theology I had learned in seminary. Specifically, I had to ask myself, “What is the purpose of prayer?”

It occurs to me that many people these days have one of two misconceptions about prayer.

On the one hand, there are many devout people of faith who regard prayer as a form of magic. They think that if we pray long enough, hard enough, or in the right way, we will receive the results we want. In the Christian tradition, we see this idea most commonly among the adherents of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.” I commend these believers for their conviction that faith can make a tangible difference in this world. However, there are not a few of them who resort to “blaming the victim” when situations don’t pan out as hoped. They say that the victims of tragedy must not have sufficient faith, or that they have some kind of hidden sin in their lives that calls for divine judgment in the form of ill-fortune. Adherents of the Prosperity Gospel are quick to cite numerous Bible verses in support of their ideology, but they often ignore the broader narrative of Scripture, in which God is working in Christ to reconcile the whole cosmos to Godself, even in the midst of adverse circumstances. Moreover, they fail to notice that there is not one instance in the four gospels when Jesus turns away from a sick person in need because they are a “sinner” or “don’t have enough faith.” To the contrary, Jesus regularly enters into relationship with sinners and even heals the epileptic son of a father who openly admits his struggle with faith.

On the other hand, there are many secular people who assume that prayer is simply a psychological trick that religious people use to help themselves feel better in moments of crisis. I find this reductionist view equally unsatisfying. First of all, prayer often doesn’t work as a psychological placebo. There are times when I pray about a situation and don’t feel any better for it. Inner peace, it seems, is just as fleeting as circumstantial happiness. A cursory reading of the book of Psalms reveals a prayer life that is intimately familiar with suffering. Sometimes, the psalmist praises God for deliverance from the problems of life, but sometimes, they cry out from the midst of the storm. Sometimes, the very act of crying out leads the psalmist to greater peace and faith, but sometimes, as in Psalm 88, the psalmist ends with the words, “Darkness is my only companion.” If prayer is nothing more than a psychological trick to conjure up inner tranquility, it is a lousy one. Why then have people the world over continued to offer prayer in good times and bad?

The purpose of prayer, as I have come to understand it, is this: Prayer brings us into a deeper relationship with God.

People, religious and secular alike, naturally share their joys and concerns with each other. This is how friendships are made. Intimacy requires trust, vulnerability, and non-judgmental love between friends.

In the Church, we do this sharing in the context of worship because we believe there is a third party present in the conversation, beyond the one who speaks and those who listen, and that is God. We share our lives with God, not to obtain any specific results or special favors, but so that our relationship with God might grow over time. Conversely, there is also a time in our service when God gets to share God’s joys and concerns with us: in the reading of the Scriptures and the proclamation of the Word. In this part of the liturgy, we stop talking and listen to what God has to say. In this way, our worship becomes a kind of back-and-forth conversation in which our relationship with God can grow.

The purpose of prayer is to deepen our relationship with God. And it is this kind of prayer that God always answers with a resounding YES.

In today’s gospel, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. After teaching them the now-famous words of the Lord’s prayer, Jesus says to them, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

There is an interesting detail in what Jesus says here, but it is lost to those of us who read the passage in English. In Greek, the language in which this gospel was written, the grammatical form of the verbs Ask, Search, and Knock is not that of a one-time event, but of a continual process. It would be more accurate to translate these words as “keep asking,” “keep searching,” and “keep knocking.” And the end-result of this process is that God will “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

In other words, Jesus invites his followers, through prayer, to enter into an ongoing relationship with God, the end of which is the gift of the Holy Spirit: God’s own self, dwelling within us. This, my friends, is why we pray.

God is eager to be in a relationship with each of us. The act of prayer is nothing more or less than us reciprocating God’s desire. We bring to God the joys and concerns of our lives because they matter to us, and we matter to God. We bring to God the bigger problems of the world because the world matters to God, therefore it should matter to us as well. We pray because we want to grow closer in our relationship with God.

For those who would like to pray, but have trouble getting started, I can think of no better place to begin than with the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples in this passage. Sandy Lipsey and I noticed a couple of years ago that the Lord’s Prayer is one of the most universal elements of Christian worship. Not every church accepts the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, nor do they celebrate Baptism or the Eucharist in the same way. Not every church likes the same hymns or translations of the Bible, but every church looks at the Lord’s Prayer and says, “Yep. That’s a good one.”

If you want to start praying, start with that, at least once a day. You can also take a minute to name your personal joys and concerns of that day. For an expanded spiritual diet, try reading a psalm and a passage from the Bible. And, when all else is said and done, don’t be afraid to just sit in silence. One of the true marks of close friends is when they can just be together, enjoying each other’s company without a word being said. It is no different in the friendship between us and God.

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Eat This: Eucharist as the End of Consumerism

I noticed this week how the word “consume” appears several times in today’s Scripture readings. The first is in the gospel, just after Jesus’ disciples have been snubbed by the residents of a Samaritan village. They ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But Jesus “turned and rebuked them.” I imagine him giving them a look and huffing, “Seriously, you guys?”

The other appearance of the word “consume” is in the epistle, when St. Paul cautions the Galatian Christians, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

This recurrence of the word “consume” got me thinking about the culture we live in. We call it a “consumer economy” because we don’t produce much anymore. We consume things. Comedian Aziz Ansari points out the ridiculousness of this. Talking about a popular ice cream shop, he notes that they no longer serve in sizes Small, Medium, and Large. Instead, they have: Like It, Love It and Gotta Have It! That’s the kind of idolatrous thinking we’ve been brainwashed into believing in this addicted culture. We think the ultimate good can be measured by “More, more, more” for me, myself, and I. We know that money can’t buy happiness, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying.

We don’t just relate to consumer goods and services this way. We do this with people too. We objectify each other. We treat each other like things instead of people. And once we do that, it is not long before we begin to consume each other in our lust for violence.

I think this is precisely what we see happening in today’s gospel. The disciples feel that they have been wronged by the people of this Samaritan village, so they react with a violent impulse that has been born out of years of prejudice and objectification of the Samaritan other: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But Jesus is having none of their racist nonsense. He rebukes them and moves on.

In the same way, Paul writes to the church in Galatia about the results they can expect if they continue to treat one another like objects. It’s quite a heavy list: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

In some ways, I find this list comforting because it sounds so familiar. I bet if you were to flip through the TV channels for ten minutes during prime time, you would find an example of everything on Paul’s list. America has built a very successful economy around it.

But Paul warns us that this way of life has consequences: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

The end result of the objectification of our fellow human beings in this consumer economy is that we will eventually, inevitably begin consuming (and being consumed by) one another. Left to our own devices and desires, we the members of the human race will sow the seeds of our own self-destruction. We, the consumers, will be consumed.

The good news is that God is not content to leave us to our own devices like that. God intervenes in the person of Jesus Christ. In the mystery of the Incarnation, God takes on flesh and dwells among us (“moves into the neighborhood,” as Eugene Peterson says). Living among us, Jesus loves us and shows us that another way is possible. We do not have to consume and be consumed by one another.

And when we, the consumers, can stand to hear no more of this wisdom, we turn on Jesus in a final, desperate attempt to shut him up and silence forever this voice of truth. And Jesus, much to our surprise, offers himself willingly as the target and scapegoat for all our blind rage and violent hatred. He absorbs it into his body.

Jesus Christ did not have to die on that cross because of God’s wrath toward humanity; he died because of humanity’s wrath toward God. God didn’t need Jesus to suffer and die. We did. We couldn’t stand to believe that a love so holy and pure could exist, so we did everything in our power to silence him. And Jesus took it willingly.

On the night before he died, Jesus sat at table with his disciples. He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after supper, he took the cup of wine and said, “Drink this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

In the sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ offers his broken flesh and spilled blood to be consumed by us in an act of ultimate, cannibalistic violence. When you think about it, it’s really offensive and gruesome that we do this.

Jesus took our sins upon himself by offering himself as the willing target for our rage. He died for our sins. He died because of our sins. In the Eucharist, Christ offers the divine Body and Blood to be consumed by us, so that our violent consumption of one another might stop forever. Christ says, “Eat this instead. Eat me!” Christ absorbs our violence into himself, so that the cycles of violence might end once and for all.

But that’s not all. The story doesn’t end there. There’s a Trojan horse in this epic tragedy.

Jesus didn’t stay dead. He couldn’t. The saving work of God wouldn’t be complete otherwise. We know that, on the third day after these things took place, Christ rose from the dead, triumphant over the powers of death and hell.

Jesus willingly absorbed our violence into himself and, by rising from the grave, proved that the love of God is stronger than the power of death. All the hate, violence, sin, and consuming selfishness in the world was not enough to keep Jesus in the grave.

This is why I believe that no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or how evil you’ve been, you cannot out-sin the love of God for you.

Whatever tomb you try to put Jesus into, he comes bursting out.

In the Eucharist, we consume the broken Body and drink shed Blood of Jesus. But the Trojan horse is this: you now have Jesus inside of you. The crucified and risen Lord of the universe is being absorbed by the cells of your body. His Blood now flows in your veins. The divine resurrection energy now electrifies your nervous system. As Paul writes in Romans 8:11, “The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you.”

This changes everything. Not only has Jesus stopped the old cycle of violence by his death; he has begun a new cycle of life and peace within us, his people on earth, the Church. Remember what they say: “You are what you eat!” And so are we: we are the Body of Christ.

Christ’s resurrection calls the Church to become a new kind of community in the world. Our calling is to stand in solidarity with victims of violence and degradation wherever they may be found in the world. The “little ones” who are being consumed by the powers-that-be of this world are our brothers and sisters. We listen to their voices and work alongside them to create a community where people are not consumed, but all of us live out the call of God to the Jewish prophet Micah: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

Here at North Church, we follow that calling, we build that kind of community by listening to the voices of people who live with mental illness. For us, there is no dividing line between Giver and Receiver. Every needy person among us has a gift and a ministry to offer; likewise, every donor, volunteer, and minister has a need: an empty space inside that cannot be filled with the consumer products this world has to offer. So, we work together, hand-in-hand, to build a new world right here, where every person has an opportunity to be seen, known, and loved for who they truly are: the Image of God, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Scandalous Gospel of Grace

IMG_0793Here is a recording of today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo.

Today we celebrated the 152nd anniversary of the founding of the congregation.

Today is also the day we moved into our new worship space at First Congregational Church. This was the last Presbyterian sermon to be preached from this historic pulpit. Photo of the procession by Edie Trent.

Click here to read the biblical text.

Nicholas the Wonderworker

No Easy Answers

I want to toss a couple of sentences your way and see if you can tell me where in the Bible they come from:

“God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void…”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…”

“Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”

How did you do?

If you know your stuff, you might have raised an eyebrow at those last two. They’re not actually from the Bible. The first is a line from the third verse of the most famous Christian hymn: Amazing Grace. The second is from the Nicene Creed, the most widely acknowledged statement of Christian faith, written in the early 4th century. Neither of them comes from the Bible itself, but most of us in this room would almost certainly honor these statements as true, maybe even sacred.

We Protestants in the Reformed tradition pride ourselves on having a biblical faith, but the fact of the matter is that the content of our faith goes beyond the Bible itself to include several golden nuggets of sacred tradition that were mined from the mountain of history and refined in the furnace of the Church universal.

This might sound like a shock at first, but it shouldn’t. Jesus told his disciples, quite explicitly, that this would be the case. Christ says, in today’s gospel, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

Jesus seems to have recognized that his Church would still have work to do when it came to hashing out the particulars of Christian doctrine after he was gone. He also recognized that we would need help in this process, which is why he promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide us in the direction of truth.

We Presbyterians, who form part of the Reformed Protestant tradition, believe this is exactly what happened, but we also realize that being led by the Spirit often turns out to be much messier than we expected at first.

Take, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity, which we are celebrating today. The Trinity is the Christian’s core concept of God. We believe in one God who exists as three distinct persons (i.e. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Each person is divine, yet they are not three Gods, but one. How does that work? We have no idea. We call it a ‘mystery’, which is just a fancy way of saying we don’t know. The Church has decided she would prefer to stand in awe before the open question, rather than answer it with some kind of simplistic formula. We affirm that there is only one God, but this single Deity is also a Community: a Divine Ecosystem.

How did we come up with this idea? It is never explicitly laid out this way in the Bible. Nor was there ever an angel who floated down from heaven with the word ‘Trinity’ engraved on a stone tablet. We got this idea from the bishops of the early Church, who met together in community and debated the issue over a very long period of time (several hundred years, in fact).

It all came to a head in the 4th century at a meeting called the Council of Nicaea, presided over by Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome. The debate was fierce. On one side was Bishop Nicholas from the town of Myra, who supported the doctrine of the Trinity: that Christ was fully divine and co-equal with the Father and the Spirit. Later history would call him “St. Nicholas” and develop all kinds of legends that connect him to the holiday of Christmas. He didn’t actually live at the North Pole or fly around with reindeer, but he was based on a real person: St. Nicholas of Myra, who took part in the Council of Nicaea.

On the other side was the very popular priest Arius, who believed that Christ was the first and greatest of God’s creations, existing even before the universe itself, but not entirely equal with God.

When Nicholas decided he had heard enough of his opponent’s arguments, he walked right up to Arius and slapped him clear across the face. When the other bishops immediately confronted Nicholas about this outburst, he replied that he saw the devil sitting on Arius’ shoulder and was simply trying to shoo him off. Unfortunately, they didn’t buy his excuse and Nicholas was ejected from the meeting.

Now, I’ve sat through some really tense church meetings, but I’ve never seen anything so bad as somebody getting cold-cocked by Santa Claus!

Most Christians today forget that there was a time when beliefs about the Trinity were divisive and controversial. They were unsure of what to believe. The heated arguments of bishops threatened to tear the Church apart. What kind of a future would there be for the Church if they couldn’t reach a conclusion about their most central beliefs? People were justifiably frightened.

But you know what? The Council of Nicaea eventually came to a resolution on that contentious issue. They produced a document outlining their position. As a result, we now have the doctrine of the Trinity permanently enshrined in the Nicene Creed, which we will recite later in this service. The Trinity has become so central to our faith, most Christians take it for granted.

Jesus was right: the Holy Spirit spoke through the Council of Nicaea and guided the Church “into all the truth,” but it wasn’t pretty. It was messy. It got ugly. It was difficult. But God still worked with it.

People tend to have this romanticized idea of divine guidance being like a light that shines down from heaven while choirs of angels sing, but most of the time, it’s not like that at all. Most of the time, people don’t know what God’s will is for sure until after the fact (sometimes centuries after). We get to look back and see how God led our ancestors in the faith. It all looks so clear and obvious for us, but we forget that it wasn’t so clear for them. These imperfect Christians had to do the best they could with what they had at the time. They thought about it. They prayed about it. They disagreed with each other. They fought about it. And in the end, they made a decision and took a step together, hoping it was the right decision and trusting the Holy Spirit to guide their feet while they ran this race. And today we call them saints.

The life of faith is no different for us today from what it was for those who lived long ago. We have no guiding light or heavenly voices to make life’s decisions easy for us. We do the best we can with what we have. We think. We pray. We argue. We act. Repeat.

Over the past year, this congregation has faced a series of difficult problems, for which there are no easy answers. We engaged in the New Beginnings assessment process that led us to face some uncomfortable facts about our congregation’s financial state. We reflected on our deepest beliefs about what we believe church is at its heart: that the Church is a community with a mission before it is a building. We made the bold decision to relocate in light of those deep beliefs, held up next to the facts of our current situation. And now, the time is approaching for us to act on this decision that was made by our members who participated in New Beginnings.

Over the next few weeks, leading up to our 152nd anniversary Sunday on June 12, we will be breaking camp here at 603 N Burdick Street and pitching our tent a few blocks away from here in the chapel of First Congregational Church on Bronson Park.

The session decided to pursue this space-sharing relationship with this congregation after a careful consideration of three potential sites in the North Side and Downtown neighborhoods. First Congregational Church seemed to us to be the best available option for partnership, based on practical concerns for space and money, but more importantly because it is a community that practices its ministry with a set of values that is remarkably similar to our own. Moreover, the people of First Congregational Church have treated the people of North Presbyterian Church with the utmost respect, as equal partners in ministry, throughout this process.

Many of you have asked me whether we will be accepted and treated kindly by this new host community. I can tell you now, with a very high degree of confidence, based on our interactions with them so far, that we will.

After much questioning, deliberation, prayer, listening to the members of this church, and consideration of available options, we, the members of session, are unanimous in our belief that this relocation to First Congregational Church is the call of the Holy Spirit for North Presbyterian Church at this time.

This has been a difficult decision for all of us. I dare not tell you that I know exactly how you feel, especially those of you who have worshiped in this space for many decades. Obviously, I do not feel that pain in the same way or to the same degree that you do. But as your pastor, I do feel it. I feel it because I care about you and your well-being matters to me. I have seen the pain in your eyes and heard it in your voices.

I have felt the pain of this transition in my own way as the work I am doing with you now has become very different from the work you called me here to do two and a half years ago. In addition to orchestrating this relocation and caring for grieving people in the midst of congregational redevelopment, I have also taken on responsibility for coordinating the Togetherness Group since late last fall. And, beginning last month, these increased responsibilities have come with a significant reduction in my work hours and salary.

I tell you this, not to arouse your pity, but to show you how I am feeling the pain of this transition with you, in my own way. My family and I are choosing to sacrifice for North Church because we believe the ministry we get to do here is worthwhile. We believe in you and this church, but even more, we believe in the Holy Spirit, who has called us to minister together in this place at this time.

I know that we will have much grieving and healing to do in the coming season; I plan to be here so that we can do that work together. I won’t give up on you and I pray you won’t give up on me either. I implore you not to give up on one another. And I charge you not to give up on the Holy Spirit, who “draws straight with crooked lines” and “guides you into all the truth.”

Our ancestors in the faith had no idea where or how the Spirit was leading them in their lives, just as we have no idea where or how the Spirit is leading us today. But we can look back and see how God was faithful to them then, so we can trust that God will be faithful to us now.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
to guide the future surely as the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.

Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
his voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.

I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Do you believe that today? If so, that’s a good start.
Let’s see where it goes from here.

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Moments of Clarity

Pentecost sermon from North Presbyterian

Click here to read the biblical text.

I have a close friend in Canada who lives with Schizophrenia. Several years ago, when he suffered his first major psychotic break, he was in pretty bad shape. In a delusional state, he walked several miles on foot from the town where he lived to the nearest major city.

Once there, he was tired and bored and wished he had something to read. Reaching into his pocket, he found a pamphlet of Christian literature. As he looked over it, he thought to himself, “This is what I need!” So, right there in the middle of the street, in downtown traffic as the horns of frustrated commuters surrounded him, he knelt down and prayed.

And as he prayed, something remarkable happened: he had a moment of clarity. He realized that something was wrong in his brain and he should go home and get help. So, he turned around and walked the many miles back to his house. When he got there, his mother was worried sick. The police had arrived and were trying to locate him. My friend walked through the front door and said to them, “Hi. I am a danger to myself and others. I need help. You should take me to the hospital.”

Today, I’m happy to report that my friend went to the hospital, stayed there, and got the help he needed. Today, he continues to lead a meaningful life with the help of medication and therapy. He went back to school, became a father, and is currently seeking ordination in his church.

And beautiful thing is how it all began with this brief moment of clarity in the middle of downtown traffic.

I begin with this story today because it is a perfect illustration of the biblical term prophecy.

Words like prophet and prophecy have been misinterpreted and misunderstood in Christian history. For many people, prophecy has become a kind of fortune-telling about the imminent end of the world. Popular authors scour the book of Revelation for clues about when and how Christ will return to earth. When many people think of prophets, they conjure up images of mysterious, occult figures like Nostradamus, who claim to have special, insider information about the end of days.

It will come as no surprise to most of you that I think these so-called “prophecies” are absolute and total bunk. Christians should pay no attention to them. I wholeheartedly affirm, along with the apostles and the historic Church, my belief in the second coming of Christ, the final judgment, and the resurrection of the dead (as we recite each week in the Creed), but I don’t dare to speculate about the details of when or how those events will happen.

When the disciples asked Jesus himself about these things, he responded in no uncertain terms, “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If Christ himself doesn’t know when or how it will happen, I think the rest of us can absolve ourselves of the responsibility for figuring it out.

So then, prophecy, in the biblical sense, has nothing to do with predicting the end of the world. To the contrary, it has everything to do with interpreting the present.

This morning, as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, we read a story from the book of Acts where the Holy Spirit descends upon the gathered community of Jesus’ disciples after his resurrection and ascension. The majority of sermons on this passage focus on the first part of the story, where the really interesting and dramatic depiction of the Spirit’s arrival takes place. But I want to focus our attention this morning on the much-neglected second half of the story, where St. Peter stands up and interprets what is happening to the people around him. This part of the story is prophecy at its finest.

The events of that day were confusing, to say the least. There were reports of inexplicable wind and fire. People were suddenly able to speak fluently in previously unknown languages. The crowd didn’t know what to make of it. The most rational explanation was to dismiss the pandemonium as a whole lot of drunken nonsense.

But that’s when Peter got up and began to offer some perspective about what was going on. Like any good Presbyterian, he begins by setting these seemingly random events in the context of Scripture. Citing a passage from the book of Joel, Peter showed the crowd how it had always been part of God’s plan to “pour out [the] Spirit upon all flesh”: male and female, young and old, slave and free. We are, all of us together, the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are all prophets.

Unfortunately, the lectionary cuts us off at this point, just as Peter’s sermon is getting started. If we were to keep reading, we would hear him shift the focus from Scripture to recent events. At that point, Jesus had only recently completed his earthly ministry with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his grandstanding in the temple, and a showdown with religious and political leaders that ended in Jesus’ execution. And then, as if the story was too good to end there, Jesus’ body suddenly disappeared. Rumors began circulating. Some said that Jesus had risen from the dead while others protested that his disciples had merely stolen his body and hidden it in order to make a stir.

Peter, inspired by the Spirit, spoke up in that moment and said to the crowd (about Jesus): “This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”

What Peter does here is tie together current events, recent history, and the biblical text with the cord of the Spirit. He showed them how everything that was happening around them was not in fact a series of random events, but the unfolding of the divine plan in history.

Peter interpreted current events to the people from a spiritual perspective. He brought clarity to their confusion and reality to their delusion. This is the work of prophecy in the world. It is a gift of the Spirit. And it continues to this day.

It continues in the Church’s ministry of Word and Sacrament. Every Sunday, before we read from the Scriptures, we say a Prayer for Illumination. This practice, introduced into our liturgy by the Reformer John Calvin, leads us to acknowledge our dependence on the Holy Spirit’s insight in order to properly understand the Scriptures. The Bible was never intended to be an inerrant book of science or history, in the modern sense. Those Christians who treat it as such misunderstand the Bible’s purpose and true significance in the life of the Church today. Presbyterians believe the Scriptures to be the “authoritative witness” to the person Jesus Christ, who is the revelation of God to the world. We refer to the Scriptures as “the Word of the Lord” because we believe they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, therefore we depend upon the Holy Spirit to illumine our hearts as we read the text, so that we might hear God speaking to us today through these ancient words.

In a similar way, the Spirit’s ministry of prophecy continues in the Church through the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer we say before receiving Communion, we recall the saving deeds of Christ and tell again the story of the Last Supper. Then we call upon the Holy Spirit to descend upon us and the physical elements of bread and wine, so that our celebration of this meal might be a sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. Unlike our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we do not believe the elements are literally transformed into flesh and blood. But unlike many of our fellow Protestants, we also do not believe this Sacrament to be a mere memorial of past events. We believe Christ is really, spiritually present, therefore we need the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of our hearts, so that we can receive his Body and Blood by faith as we partake of the bread and wine.

These two ways, Word and Sacrament, are two of the main ways that the Holy Spirit’s ministry of prophecy continues in the Church today. Of course, they are by no means the only ways that the Spirit continues to work in the Church. I could keep going about Baptism, confirmation, ordination, reconciliation, marriage, anointing, music, prayer, or church government. All of these are ways that the Holy Spirit continues to work in the life of the Church, but we would be here all day if I went into detail about each of them.

The Holy Spirit works in our lives outside church as well. I already spoke about my friend’s “moment of clarity” in the midst of a psychotic break. Many others, especially those who are in recovery from addictions, can tell about similar moments when they decided it was time to get clean or sober. Most of them describe this moment as pure grace: that clarity came to them, not from them. They say it felt like something (or someone) was speaking to them, but without words. Not all of them are ready to believe that it was “God” (as we understand God) who spoke to them, but you can visit any Twelve Step recovery meeting in this town and find people there who say, “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” They credit their ongoing recovery to the work of a Higher Power. I, personally, have no trouble affirming that this too is the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives.

The Holy Spirit is all around us and within us, continuing that ministry of prophecy today: gifting us with moments of clarity in the midst of our confusion. The Spirit is at work today in the pastor celebrating at the Communion table and is also at work in the alcoholic struggling for one more day of sobriety (and sometimes, the Spirit works both of those things at the same time, in the same person). The Spirit is at work today in the friendly usher who joyfully greets worshipers on their way into church and is also at work in the sceptic who barely scraped together enough faith to make it to church this morning (and sometimes, the Spirit works both of those things at the same time, in the same person).

The Spirit is at work today, confronting us with moments of clarity and leading us to let go of our delusions. The Spirit is at work today, inviting us to follow where Jesus leads and to trust that our life (as individuals, the Church, and the world) is not a series of random events, but the unfolding story of God’s love for us.

Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, know this: the Spirit is at work in you today. Trust this and remember that you are loved.