Zooming into Pentecost – Again

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John Stuart, used with permission

I’m glad to see that so many of you remembered to wear red today. I know it’s not as easy to remember as wearing green for St. Patrick’s Day or red and green for Christmas. Pentecost isn’t one of the big cultural holidays. But it wasn’t always so. In fact, from early times Christians have come up with some pretty wild ways to celebrate Pentecost and remind folks of the fiery tongues and mighty wind that we read about in Acts.

Most of these customs come from medieval Europe when church festivals were the dominant force in daily life. And Pentecost was one of the biggest days on the church’s calendar. So for instance, in some churches when the priest said, “Come, Holy Spirit,” the choir would make whooshing noises in imitation of the wind. Although, in some countries, like France, the effect was achieved by sounding trumpets. In Italy they scattered red rose petals from the ceiling of the church. In Finland there’s a saying that if you don’t have a sweetheart by Pentecost, you won’t have one during the whole summer. In England, there is the charming custom of cheese rolling associated with Pentecost. It’s not clear what the origin of that is, probably originally a Pagan rite, but since the 15th century cheese has been rolled down hills, and people have competed to catch it.

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“St. Stephen’s Cathedral – ‘Holy Ghost’ Hole” by pennhoosier is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The one I like best, though, is the Holy Ghost hole. It seems that many of the great cathedrals were actually built with Pentecost in mind. Hidden in the domed and vaulted ceilings were trap doors that were used just on Pentecost. During worship, some brave parishioners would climb up onto the roof and at the appropriate moment during the service, they would release live doves through the trap doors, through the painted skies and clouds of the cathedral ceiling. The doves would come swooping down on the congregation as living symbols of the presence of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, the choir would make whooshing and drumming sounds, like a holy windstorm. Then, finally, as the doves were swooping and the wind blowing, the trap doors would open again, and bushels of rose petals showered down upon the congregation, symbolizing tongues of flame.

Even smaller churches had these holes in their roofs. But instead of live doves, a large painted disk portraying a white dove surrounded by golden rays on a blue background was lowered by rope from the Holy Ghost hole as the choir hissed or whooshed or drummed. Then, as the disk hovered over the congregation, rose petals would rain down upon them. In some places lighted straw was tossed down instead of flowers. But, as you can imagine, the danger of setting the congregation on fire led to the eventual demise of this custom.

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Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it? That tricky Holy Spirit, so difficult to define and explain, inspired those medieval folks to come up with some pretty creative ways to do it. Today, many churches try to keep up the holy chaos by filling their sanctuaries with red balloons or red geraniums, using red paraments and vestments, and inviting members to wear red. If we were able to meet in person and share food together, we might have a Pentecost cake to celebrate the birthday of the church This church festival encourages us to break out of the usual routines, engage our creativity, push the boundaries and sail on the wind of an uncontained Spirit.

Pentecost on Zoom – again?
But here we are in our second Pentecost on Zoom (although Zoom does sound a little rushing-wind-like, doesn’t it?). Still, no balloons, no cake, no red flowers on the altar again this year. It might be hard to enter into the spirit of Pentecost. Although last year was more challenging. Pentecost Sunday came just six days after the murder of George Floyd. And we had the idea of the breath of the Spirit juxtaposed with a man gasping, “I can’t breathe.” This year, while many of our societal ills are as pressing as ever, we are beginning to see a light at the end of the long tunnel of our pandemic isolation. As restrictions are loosened, we might feel as if a fresh breath of air is blowing through our windows.

But we must admit that emerging from isolation is not completely anxiety-free. Even though the CDC announced that we could take off our masks if we’re fully vaccinated, there’s been a lot of confusion and hesitation among some. As we do move toward greater freedom, we must also acknowledge the traumatic time that the past fourteen months has been. And we need to be gentle with ourselves and with others as we all try to navigate the “new normal,” which could be different from one day to the next – at least for a while. 

And what about church?
Last week I was part of a video seminar on planning for doing church post-pandemic. One of the best words of advice I heard was: make a plan, have a roadmap for going forward, but be ready at any time to change that plan. Being able to pivot quickly will be crucial. I thought about that advice as I re-read the letter that was supposed to go out to the congregation about our plans for reopening in September. Then the CDC announcement came and there was a flurry of excitement and confusion about what this could mean. Gov. Newsome has said that California will be fully open on June 15. But what does that mean for doing church? The letter we wrote needs to be updated; the plan to send it out was put on hold until we can get better clarification on what guidelines will still have to be followed. 

I’ll be honest, it’s been frustrating. Promised updates have not come through. Some protocols are buried in long memos about other venues, businesses, schools, etc. Most of the guidelines are still from the time before most people have been vaccinated. I did get an email last week from the San Francisco Interfaith Council with an update from the SF Department of Public Health. Finally on page four, there was information for church’s about creating fully vaccinated sections. But still not much information about what this means in terms of singing, passing the peace, and receiving Holy Communion. All this is to say that we’re watching closely as the protocols develop. The health and safety of every person is the bottom line, so there will be no rush to return until we’re clear on how to best ensure that. 

Hybrid Church???
In the meantime, other plans for our return to the church building are going forward. One of the things that I would say a majority of congregations have learned is that some form of online presence is here to stay. And just as we scrambled to learn how to do Zoom Church last year, our new challenge is to learn how to do hybrid church, that is a combination of both in-person and online opportunities for worship – and other church activities. At our book discussion group last week, I asked two questions (we’re reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together and the first section is all about the church community): how has Zoom Church made being in community better; how has Zoom Church made being in community more difficult? The answers weren’t really surprising, but I think that it will be good for us all to answer those questions for ourselves as we think about returning. 

But returning to what? I have been realizing more and more how we are about to enter into a time of unknowing in the church such as we have never experienced. I don’t mean unknowing the beliefs of our faith. One of the speakers in the seminar told the story of talking once about the future of the church and changing the church and a man spoke up to say that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. And she said, “Yes, but not the church, you know, or maybe yours is, and maybe that’s why you’re losing members.” That is to say that indeed Jesus Christ is the same, but how we communicate that through the church must adapt. 

Our dilemma right now is that we’re not yet completely clear on how we will need to adapt. So we’ll keep making a plan, and we’ll hold it lightly enough to modify or change it as needs arise. Michael and I will be attending a three-part seminar on “How to Do Hybrid Church” starting this week. The sessions (out of Luther Seminary, St. Paul) are at 7:00 am our time, so your prayers are definitely welcome. Thankfully we’ll have access to the recordings so we can go back over what I may have dozed off through. 

The benefit of being there live is that we’ll meet and talk and share with other worship leaders who are working on these same issues. If there’s one big lesson I’ve learned from this past year it’s that none of us can go it alone, especially these days. So, hopefully we’ll gain a good support network of hybrid church developers. 

I’ve learned a lot already. Two things, in particular. One: whenever we do go back into the church building, doing church will not be the same as it was before. It may never be the same as it was before. And two: hybrid worship is not simply setting up a laptop on the altar and logging into Zoom. There is a bigger concern. And that is: how will we be a community in the “new normal”? What will we need to do to maintain and nurture our congregation as a community of faith? How will we invite others into being part of this community? 

Become disillusioned
In the Bonhoeffer book he talks about the need for us to become ‘disillusioned’ about what we think church is. That is, we have to let go of things that are not necessary for being a spiritual community. These might be things we treasure, that have had great meaning for us. But as we adapt and change, our treasures may have to be examined and maybe even relinquished. I can imagine how disconcerting this could be, especially if we have disagreements about what is needful and what is not. 

I’ll give you an example of one of my disillusionments. When we first went into lockdown, I had a vision for when we would return to our building. We would have a big ‘Welcome Home’ celebration and invite members, former members, neighbors, community dignitaries to come. Maybe we’d even have my installation. It would be a grand way to begin getting back to normal. But now I’ve come to realize that that vision is not realistic. Our return will be different. I have had to relinquish my idea of what that day should be and be ready to plan accordingly when we know better what will be. 

And I’ve come to realize that focusing on the protocols and guidelines is really not the most important thing before us. “When will we return to the building?” – even “How will we return to the building?” are the wrong questions. “Who are we going to be when we return?” is the overriding question. 

That might sound intimidating. After all, it’s easier to make decisions about nuts and bolts issues, especially when we finally get good information. The existential questions are not so easy to nail down. But isn’t this just what Pentecost is about? 

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Matthew L. Skinner, who is a professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, wrote this for Pentecost 2011. His words made sense then, but even more so today. He said: “Pentecost observances are more than a celebration of the past. They are not merely an end to Easter or a chance to launch summer programming. They are not opportunities for stoking nostalgia about the church’s supposed glory days. Who needs those? Pentecost is an invitation to dream. For when a community of faith quits dreaming dreams, it has little to offer either its members or the wider world. Like any good dream, these dreams involve adopting a new perspective on what’s possible, rousing our creativity to free us from conventional expectations. They help us see that maybe what we thought was outlandish actually lies within reach.” 

There are those who say that the pandemic has forced the church to change in ways that it should have been doing all along. We were already in the midst of a decline. And while some saw that as an opportunity to try new things, others dug in their heels. Now we don’t have a choice. There’s no going back to normal. Now we really do have to rely on the Holy Spirit. And we have to rely on each other. In baptism we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own. We are the community of saints – sinners, too. We’ll need to remember that as we work together to create the new presence of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd on the corner of Burlingame and Channing. Will we always agree? Nope. Will we always love and respect one another as beloved children of God. Oh, yes.  

The Age of the Spirit
In 2014 the late Phyllis Tickle, who was a leading author and speaker in the progressive Christian movement, wrote a book entitled The Age of the Spirit. Her hypothesis was that we have had the Age of the Father, which was the Old Testament with its teachings, its ways of understanding God, and God’s ways of interacting with Creation. Then came the Age of the Son, marked by the birth of God in human form and the growth of the church. Emerging after that would be the Age of the Spirit, when humankind would relate primarily to the third member of the Trinity. This time would be marked by a decreased importance in church structures, sacraments, creeds, and clergy, when all people would begin to relate more directly to the Divine.

That doesn’t mean we just forget about God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer. But it may be time for the oft-neglected Spirit to come into her own. 

Pentecost

We just might be there. Which means every day could be Pentecost.  Every day could be an experience of the lively Spirit of God, blowing freely and wherever God wills, God’s gentle and occasionally wild presence, that transforms lives and communities, breaks down barriers, and gives life to weary and uncertain persons and communities. revives the dry bones.

Are we ready for a holy adventure? If so, strap on your seat belt, put on your helmet, and get ready. We just might be in for a wild and exciting ride. Happy Birthday, Church!

Amen 

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Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost arrived, the disciples all met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them.

Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans! How does it happen that each of us hears these words in our native tongue? We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome – all Jews or converts to Judaism – Cretans and Arabs, too; we hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!” All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” But others said mockingly, “They’ve drunk too much new wine.” 

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd: “People of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem! Listen to what I have to say! These people are not drunk as you think—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! No, it is what the prophet Joel spoke of: 

‘In the days to come – it is our God who speaks – I will pour out my spirit on all humankind. Your daughters and sons will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. Even on the most insignificant of my people, both women and men, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. And I will display wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire and billowing smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon will become blood before the coming of the great and sublime day of our God. And all who call upon the name of our God will be saved.’”

A Pandemic Pentecost

shutterstock_1715579038Pentecost Sunday 

On Tuesday September 11, 2001, I was on vacation at the New Jersey shore. With my friend Sissy from New York City, I watched the towers fall and then watched as fighter planes and helicopters flew up the coast. On Friday the 14th, we watched Billy Graham preach at the memorial service at the National Cathedral. In between, I was on the phone to my administrative assistant and organist back in Buffalo, because I knew the service we’d planned for Sunday the 16th just wouldn’t be adequate.

And then there was the sermon. I used to have the habit of squeezing out every possible second of shore time, so I wouldn’t leave until Saturday afternoon. I used to joke about the PA Turnpike sermon I’d write in my head on the 8-hour drive back to Buffalo. But 9/11 upset my usual way of planning worship, thinking about scripture readings, and sermon themes. And frankly my own emotions and my own attempts to process what had happened were churning in my head and heart. After driving several hours, I came to the beginning of an outline. I recognized that there were at least three parts to what I believed needed to be said. The first was our need to mourn. I don’t even remember what the order of service ended up being, but I imagine it would have included a psalm of lament.

I also believed there had to be a component of self-reflection and repentance – in no way NathanandDavid excusing the actions of terrorists, but trying to understand how policies and actions by our own country could have negatively affected others. It’s a risky thing to do when emotions are running so high. Patriotism can be defined by a “my country right or wrong” stance. But I knew that as people of faith, we had to go beyond pure emotion into courageous soul-searching.  Again, I don’t remember what I did. But thinking about it now, I might have taken the story of the prophet Nathan who confronted King David about his misdeeds with Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah and called him to repentance.

I’m a little fuzzy on the third theme, but I believe it was about our response and our actions going forward. Anti-Muslim attacks had already begun. Racist slurs were being bandied about unchallenged. The question arose: how would we, the Church, be a witness to Love in the midst of a national crisis? I know that we attended the open house held by our neighborhood mosque.

And, of course, it was not long after that the congregation and I began our odyssey into interfaith dialogue, which ended up leading me to the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. And now to here, the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Burlingame, where we find ourselves in another national crisis (actually multiple crises) and questions of how the Church can be a faithful witness in the midst of it all.

. . . this week has felt like the week after 9/11

UnknownI’ll be honest, for me this week has felt like the week after 9/11. I’ve run the gamut of discouraged, disheartened, resolved, shocked, resigned, angry, afraid, overwhelmed – as I’m sure as many of you have, too. We’ve been experiencing one crisis piled on top of another. We continue to try to negotiate terms with a deadly coronavirus; there are now over 105,000 deaths in the US alone; mask-wearing has become a politicized hot potato. Leaders struggle to deal with both life-threatening health issues and economy-tanking unemployment. Then another Black man dies in police custody, and cities are burning. We knew the pandemic disproportionately affected people of color, and now the ugly scab of racism has been violently ripped off to further expose what has been called “America’s original sin.”

Protests, riots, looting have broken out in cities across the country. Evidence of white outside agitators is making a bad situation worse. And let’s not even mention climate change. The biggest threat we’ve ever faced as a species has been put on the back burner, so to speak.

And it’s Pentecost. It’s one of my favorite holy days because it’s supposed to be very upbeat, giddy almost, celebrating diversity, envisioning the future. symbolized by tongues of fire coming down on the disciples, as the Holy Spirit empowered them for ministry. Someone described the Acts Pentecost story as the one for extroverts, while the one from John’s gospel, with gentle breath rather than wind and tongues of fire and multiple languages, is Pentecost for introverts.

But this Pentecost day, it’s impossible to hear a story about breath without hearing a man begging for his life: “I can’t breathe.” Or to read of tongues of flame and all the fire language in the liturgy without seeing a police station burned to the ground. Today, these symbols of Divine presence and power collide with horrifying human sin. And what are we to do with that?

I didn’t have a long drive on the PA Turnpike to work it all out, but sheltering in place has brought me to the same conclusions. As people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we are called to lament, repent, and act. But this time around I turned to a tradition I first learned through priest, theologian, writer Matthew Fox. Maybe it will help you, too.

Via Positiva
This spiritual process consists of four paths. The first is called the Via Positiva – the experience of awe, wonder and delight. It might sound strange that I begin here given the dire circumstances we’re in. But Pentecost is the ultimate Via Positiva experience. Listen to Fox’s description: “The experience of divinity is light. Awe is what triggers our intuition and wakes us up; it ignites and surprises us—like falling in love with another person or with music, science, flowers, poetry, and the earth.”

The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives should be such an awesome, illuminating encounter that we are set on fire with love – for God, for ourselves, for others, and for the world. So even in the midst of tragedy, we can’t neglect to celebrate this amazing Spirit. We need a little awe and wonder right now.

Via Negativa
The second path of our spiritual process is the Via Negativa, the path of darkness, emptiness, silence, and suffering. Via Negativa recognizes that grief is a trigger for waking us up to truths within ourselves. When we don’t deny ourselves the opportunity to feel, and express, and lament our griefs, we can recognize how powerful they are – and also how connected we are to one another, to the earth, to God. It can be painful, yes, but it can also be powerfully cathartic. In a worship service created by Matthew Fox, the Via Negativa is experienced by literally weeping and wailing, expressing through the body the suffering of the world. And not for just a few seconds, either. You do it long enough to get over your self-consciousness and allow yourself to go deep and wrestle with those truths you’re willing to find. This can be where repentance begins.

I was recently very moved by a book called White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism because it helped me see some of the ways that my defensiveness as a person who considers herself ‘woke’ has prevented me from doing the work I needed – and continue to need – to do. The Via Negativa took me into lamentation for my part in a system of oppression that is baked into the DNA of our nation. And even the Church.

Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US was writtenby Lenny Duncan, an ELCA pastor. It’s a really good book. One of the things I like about it is that he calls it a love letter. He’s critical of the church, yet he’s in love with the church. He calls us out, but he also calls us in – into a bold new vision for the ELCA and the broader Christian community. He urges us to follow on the path of Jesus to turn the values of the world upside down and inside out. But it takes willingness on our part to do the work.

In an article today, Michelle Obama lamented, “I’m exhausted by a heartbreak that never seems to stop . . . But if we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it. It’s up to all of us — Black, white, everyone — no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out . . .  it starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own and ends with justice, compassion, and empathy that manifests in our lives and on our streets.” 

Via Creativa
Through lamentation and soul-searching, we are able to move on into the Via Creativa, the most elemental, innermost and deeply spiritual aspect of our beings. This is where we begin to imagine a better way.  

Fox says, “Imagination brings about not just intimacy but a big intimacy, a sense of union with the cosmos, a sense of belonging and being at home, of our knowing we have not only a right to be here but a task to do as well while we are here.” Through our creativity – whether that is nurturing children, making art, gardening, writing, teaching, building houses – we connect to the Divine in us and bring the Divine back to the community.  

Our imagination, our ability to tap into our creative spirit, is what moves us to the second part of repentance. We don’t just feel sorry for our actions; we turn and go a different way, the way back to God. And that leads us to the fourth path where we bring all of our grief, love, and creativity.  

Via Transformativa
Via Transformativa provides a way for our creativity to  move into areas of compassion and justice. Creativity by itself isn’t enough. Obviously, we humans can take our creativity to negative places. Creativity can make bombs, for example. So creativity needs direction. That’s where our spiritual teachings come in: to channel our imagination into ways of compassion, healing, justice, and gratitude. That’s the purpose of being Church, to move into these ways together – honestly wrestling and confessing, grieving and letting go, visioning together how to channel our corporate creativity for the sake of the world.

So how does all this relate to the chaos that is all around us on this Pentecost Day?

  1. It gives us permission to celebrate – even with symbols of breath and fire. I call on each of you to take in as much awe and wonder as you possibly can. Stare into your child’s beautiful face. Marvel at a cat’s paw or the perfect symmetry of a flower. Or how about this – look at your own face with delight. Ignore the imperfections; we all have them. See the unique masterpiece that is you. Say “Wow!” out loud.

  2. It gives us permission to grieve. We have so much to lament; it can indeed feel over-whelming. One place we can go is the Psalms. Like Psalm 44:Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O God? Awake, do not cast us off forever!
    Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
     
    For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.
     
    Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

    And don’t be afraid to express all your feelings in your prayers. Surely God’s heard it all, and knows how you’re feeling anyway. Allow yourself to be immersed in the Via Negativa. Cry and scream for George Floyd, for all the others on a list far too long, for our ‘original sin,’ and for everything else that weighs heavily upon us in this time of crisis. People in biblical times would cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes. We’re too civilized for something like that – or so we think. Maybe a good collective, national cry or scream is what we all need about now.

  3. Here’s where it gets pretty radical. I choose  to believe that by following this path, we’re opening up some space for a new thing to be born. I’m going to trust in the creative power of God to bring it into being. And I’m going to trust that we can do the same thing as a congregation – even in lockdown. Our collective imagination, fueled by the Holy Spirit, knows no limits.

    We might adopt this “Prayer of Good Courage” as our mantra:

    O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Christ our Savior.
  4. The Via Transformativa is the promise of Easter and the reality of Pentecost. It is real. It is ours. It is what will channel us into those paths as yet untrodden, into ways of mission and ministry that will contribute to the healing of the world. This is no pie-in-the-sky naiveté. God has done it before and will do it again and again, despite how the powers of this world conspire against us. I’m under no illusion that things will suddenly get better. As they say, it’s a marathon not a sprint. But that’s no reason to give up.
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    Even though I am – and maybe you are, too – still in Via 
    Negativa, I can see the mountaintop. So let’s take our red balloons, flowers, shoes, shirts, whatever we’ve got and march on, defiant in the face of adversity, confident that God – Creator, Christ, and Spirit – goes with us.

Amen!

 

ACTS 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they all met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them.

Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans! How does it happen that each of us hears these words in our native tongue? We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome – all Jews or converts to Judaism – Cretans and Arabs, too; we hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!”

All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” But others said mockingly, “They’ve drunk too much new wine.”

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd: “People of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem! Listen to what I have to say! These people are not drunk as you think—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! No, it is what the prophet Joel spoke of:

‘In the days to come – it is our God who speaks – I will pour out my spirit on all humankind. Your daughters and sons will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. Even on the most insignificant of my people, both women and men, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. And I will display wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire and billowing smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon will become blood before the coming of the great and sublime day of our God. And all who call upon the name of our God will be saved.’”

JOHN 20:19-22
In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Temple authorities. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Having said this, he showed them the marks of crucifixion. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus, who said to them again, “Peace be with you. As Abba God sent me, so I am sending you.” After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

 

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The Building Is Closed. The Church Is Not.

images-1Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

I bet you never imagined that going to church would be one of the biggest controversies in today’s news. Protesters and some government leaders, insisting that churches reopen, have claimed the headlines, along with a smattering of responses by others insisting  that we remain closed. Many congregations have members on both sides of the issue, which is causing quite a dilemma for their pastors and lay leaders. I’m grateful the ELCA has taken a firm stand on it. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has been unequivocal in her position that we do not open until it’s safe for all our members. On Friday, the bishops of the three synods in California also issued a “Joint Letter Against Re-opening for Public Worship.”

Even Martin Luther is being quoted from his response to the bubonic plague in his time: I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others.

Of course, those in favor of opening would claim that today the presence of Luther’s contemporaries is needed, that the church is an essential service that should not be denied. And as much as I don’t agree with their decision, I certainly get the longing for in-person church gatherings. As much as we rightly claim that the church isn’t a building, we miss being together. As much as I’m grateful we have the technology to be together virtually, it’s not the same as sharing the peace with a handshake or hug or placing the body of Christ into your hand. Although, current information is telling us that these actions, among others like singing, may have to be abandoned, at least for a while. It’s all rather complex. When the time’s right, reopening will take a lot of prayerful, thoughtful deliberation about how to do it responsibly. But in the meantime, we wait.

depositphotos_90132822-stock-photo-airport-waiting-roomThe Waiting’s the Hardest Part
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like waiting. Waiting for something to happen is like being at the airport. You’re not at home anymore, but you’re not where you’re going either. You’re in a middle space between here and there. Even when you’re not looking forward to something, the waiting is still hard. For example, you need surgery. Who wants to go through that? But you can’t go back to not knowing there’s a problem that needs correcting but it’s still two weeks before you go into the hospital. You’re in a middle space and time. Or you might remember from a couple of weeks ago, I talked about a book I’m reading called How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re GoingLeading in a Liminal Season. Liminal is that middle space, the waiting area between one point in time and space and the next.

Like today. This is the seventh and last Sunday of Easter. Next Sunday is Pentecost, one of the Big Three days on the Christian calendar, along with Christmas and Easter, although we don’t hear much about it outside of the church (that’s not true in Germany, where the Monday after Pentecost Sunday is a national holiday).

shutterstock_1190629858Wear Something Red!
I happen to love Pentecost, maybe because it doesn’t have any of the cultural trappings around it. Maybe also because it’s not something you can easily wrap your mind around. It’s a matter of wonder that we can get at only with symbols like fire, wind, descending doves, red balloons, everyone wearing something red to church to imagine the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, which became the birthday of the Church.

But it’s not Pentecost yet. We have to wait one more week for the fifty days of Easter to be complete. Although our tradition does say that something happened on the fortieth day, that after appearing alive over the course of the forty days after the resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven. The number forty should ring bells with us. It’s one of those biblical numbers that signifies something really important. In this case, forty days represents completeness; Jesus’ work on earth was finished. People back then would have gotten right away that the story of Jesus’ ascension was like the prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven by a whirlwind in a chariot of fire. And as Elijah passed on his mantle to a successor, his protege, Elisha, so does Jesus; he passes his mission on to the disciples – and then through them and the Holy Spirit to the Church.

But before Jesus left, he instructed his followers what to do until the arrival of the Holy Spirit: that dreaded word – wait. By leaving them again, Jesus threw them right back into that middle space again, neither here nor there, waiting for the fulfillment of a promise they didn’t really understand. And here we are, too. Ascension Day was Thursday and we’re now in the midst of the ten-day middle space until Pentecost – waiting.

Not in an upper room, but sheltering in place. For some, stopping work or school; waiting for a vaccine, waiting for an all-clear from medical professionals to go back to work, school, church, etc. Again, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of the social distancing and voluntary quarantine. By the way, did you know that ‘quarantine’ literally means forty days? It’s the waiting time that ships in 14th/15th century Italy had to stay in isolation before passengers could go ashore during the bubonic plague.

There’s a lot of commonality in the isolation, uncertainty, and enforced waiting of the disciples after the ascension, the passengers on 15th and 21st century ships, and us – longing to get back into our daily routines of work, school, family, church, and life. As Tom Petty sang, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

You Take It on Faith, You Take It to the Heartheart_faith
But the line right before that is, “You take it on faith, you take it to the heart.” And faith is where we’ve got to take it. And this passage from Acts just might point us to what might get us through our quarantine.

Jesus told the disciples, “You’re going to have to wait a while longer. Go back to Jerusalem and wait.” So they went back to the room where they were staying.  And here, the details of all these people isolated together in an upstairs room, is kind of humorous. There was Peter, and John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus; Simon the Zealot; and Judas son of James. Also some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary, and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. That’s a lot of people in one room! But it also conveys the seriousness of this liminal time. And while we’re waiting with them in our own context – we can take a lesson from them: “they devoted themselves to constant prayer.”

No binge-watching for them. Constant prayer. At first that might seem like a no-brainer, especially for those early followers. But when it comes to ourselves, sometimes we might find it difficult to pray or even to know how to pray. Then I suspect that many people feel guilty for not praying enough.

A Quarantine for the Soul
But you know what: sometimes we make things way too complicated. I like what the late Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel had to say about it. He said that to pray is to open a window of the soul to God. Just meditating on that phrase for a while, imagining what that would be like – is a fine prayer in itself.

Heschel is also the one who said,
Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.

He also said,
It is gratefulness that makes the great.

Which reminded me of the mystic Meister Eckhart, who said,
If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

And when I read this from Heschel, I think I experienced radical amazement because he wrote this in 1945:
Prayer clarifies our hopes and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification, a quarantine for the soul.

A quarantine for the soul.  In the midst of a quarantine that can sometimes feel soul-draining, the antidote is to quarantine ourselves in prayer. According to the crowd in the upstairs room, the best thing we can do as we wait for the end of this pandemic and for the spiritual renewal of Pentecost is open up our souls and pour out our hearts to God.

What Does It Mean to Be Church?
Now, make no mistake: as much as isolation takes us out of the world, it does not mean that we neglect our responsibilities to our world. What’s the old saying: you can’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good? Or as the two messengers in white said to the astonished disciples, “Why are you standing around looking up at the sky?”

Improv on “We are the Church” | Gifts in Open HandsEven in this liminal time, the coming of Pentecost is the perfect time to think about what it means to be church. For some, it obviously means getting back to business as usual with no concern for the risks. For some, it means a way to make a political statement. Church can and often has been co-opted for less than Christ-like reasons.

All the more reason to spend time about it in prayer. I’m imagining when we do get to go back to meeting in person that we will do a lot of praying and reflecting about what it means to be church post-pandemic. All the more reason to anticipate the arrival of the Holy Spirit into the realities we face today. In what ways, both old and new, will we pick up the mantle that Jesus has passed on to us?

I sure would love to be working on these questions now. I sure would love to be at 301 Burlingame Avenue this morning instead of on Zoom. I sure would love to be scheduling visits with all of you. And I am sure that you have your “I sure would love to . . .” list, too.

But Jesus says, “Wait.” And so we will. Dedicating ourselves to care for one another and to constant prayer as the day of Pentecost approaches. Not that I’m expecting the corona-virus to adhere to the church calendar and disappear amid wind and fire. But I am expecting that we will be renewed by the reminder of what has always fueled our lives as followers of Jesus – power from on high, the Holy Spirit of God. Just knowing makes the waiting a little easier.

We take it on faith, we take it to the heart, even when the waiting is the hardest part.

Amen

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ACTS 3:1-14

After the Passion, Jesus appeared alive to the apostles – confirmed through many convincing proofs – over the course of forty days, and spoke to them about the reign of God. On one occasion, Jesus told them not to leave Jerusalem: ”Wait, rather, for what God has promised, of which you have heard me speak. John baptized with water, but within a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

While meeting together the disciples asked, “Has the time come, Rabbi? Are you going to restore sovereignty to Israel?”
Jesus replied, “It’s not for you to know times or dates that God has decided. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

Having said this, Jesus was lifted up in a cloud before their eyes and taken from their sight.  They were still gazing up into the heavens when two messengers dressed in white stood beside them. They said, “You Galileans, why are you standing here looking up at the sky? Jesus, who has been taken from you – this same Jesus will return, in the same way you watched him go into heaven.”

The apostles returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, a mere Sabbath’s walk away. Entering the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying—Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus; Simon the Zealot; and Judas son of James. Also in their company were some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary, and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. With one mind, they devoted themselves to constant prayer.

 

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