Saturday, June 14, 2014

“Spirit of Pentecost: Then and Now.” Pentecost A (June 8, 2014)


Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.  These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
 “‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.
 I will show wonders in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
    on the name of our God will be saved.’[c]

John 7:37-39
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.

****
Will you pray with me? Holy One, you speak to us in word and flame, in spirit and in water; give us grace to hear you, to open our hearts to your spirit descending upon us anew. May our words and actions reflect the love and care we have had from you. In all your names, amen.

Pentecost—the birthday of the church! When my birthday rolls around, I like to take stock, see where I am, what I have done and felt and shared since my last birthday. Sometimes there has been a lot—deaths, moves, new friendships or relationships, new involvement in the community. And some years, it has been quieter.

Since this is the birthday of the church, let’s take stock of where the church is, what has changed and how. The disciples were waiting for Jesus to return—well, we are still waiting. They weren’t quite sure what to do next—yes, that is us, too. There are so many books and blogs and articles out there, all of them claiming to have the best idea for what “the church” should be doing—or not doing—right now.  Some observers laughed at them; but others were intrigued. Some of the people could understand what some of the disciples were saying—they heard their own languages spoken—but no one was speaking every langue. Today? The church has become many churches—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, United, Baptist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormon, and on and on. But each one speaks to a group of people—we may not be comfortable with some of those groups, but each of them finds God speaking to them in their own language within that group.

So we are in pretty much the same situation, aren’t we? What can we learn from that Pentecost experience that we haven’t yet?

I want us to notice two things. One is that this was not a new holiday, a new church feast. Pentecost is rooted in Jewish tradition—it is a celebration of the giving of the Torah, or commandments—literally “words”—given to Moses. In Jewish tradition, this took place fifty days after the Passover, and in a mystical way, all generations of Jewish people as yet unborn were also present at that giving of the Torah, and so they also accepted it and took into their hearts.

Now, the second thing I want us to see is this—the early church, the disciples, took this holiday and grafted new meaning onto it. Just as future generations took on the responsibility of Torah, just as that was a universal event for Jewish people, the early Christians made it a point that everyone in the world was to be part of this—thus everyone heard a disciple speaking in their language. No one was left out. That’s why there is a long list—the bane of readers on this Sunday—of all the countries that people came from, that first Pentecost. That list pretty much covers the world as it was known at that time—and I like to think that some people spoke in tongues that hadn’t been invented yet, like French and Esperanto—and some that have yet to be invented.

And how is this possible? The disciples deny the use of mid-altering substances—i.e., they are not drunk. No, this is the work of Spirit—that comforter, that advocate that Jesus promised. And yes, this is a new way of experiencing God’s actions in the world. The ancient Jewish prophets fell into “prophetic frenzies” but those were something different—human understandings of events, not God speaking through Spirit and these human, which is what Pentecost is.

It’s not that Spirit wasn’t present in the world before Pentecost—clearly Spirit was. At Jesus’ baptism, for example, Spirit descended in the form of a dove. But now, this time, the disciples—and us, too!—are able to be open to Spirit, to take in the message of Spirit, and—here’s the important part—share it with the world.

That seed of Spirit is in, with, part of, each and every one of us. The Hindu greeting “Namaste,” recognises God’s presence in each other. Spirit can speak to spirit, sharing the good news, sharing the pain or struggle—whatever is needed.

So where are we, how have things changed since that first Pentecost? Not so much, eh? We are still gathering together, remembering Jesus and his teachings, sharing the meal he gave us, experiencing the presence of Spirit, taking God’s message of love and acceptance out into the world, trying new ways of sharing an ancient story…

The work has not been completed, and won’t be. Not until the end. We don’t know when that is, or will be. And that’s OK—we have enough to do. The tasks we have been given are not simple or light, but are our tasks. And when God gives a task, God also gives the abilities to perform it—maybe not in the ways we think are “proper” or “logical” but in ways that will and do work.


My friends, as you go through your week, recognise God’s Spirit present in others. In word or action, acknowledge that presence; remind yourself that God is as present in that person as God is present to you. Remember the flame of Pentecost—given to each person, and shared with others, through the blessing of Spirit. Share and remember. In all God’s names, amen.

"Rising" Ascension A (June 1, 2014)

Acts 1:6-14
So when the disciples had come together, they asked Jesus, Teacher, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? He replied, It is not for you to know the times or periods that are set by Gods own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two people in white robes stood by them. They said, Galileans, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath days journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

John 17:1-11
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Holy One, the hour has come; glorify your Child so that I may glorify you, since you have given me authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given me. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Holy One, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy One, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

***
Will you pray with and for me? Creator God, full of surprises, be with us as we seek to explore what it means to have you present in our lives. Remind that as Jesus rose, so too will we rise, in spite of everything--we will rise.

The world lost a gifted person this week--the writer and teacher Maya Angelou died on Monday. Her best-known book is titled, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," an autobiographical novel of her early years. She was honoured with many awards, honorary degrees, and the Medal of Freedom from President Obama, the highest honour the US can give to a civilian. Her work is celebrated for its honesty and truth, as well as its powerful imagery. Her life was very difficult, especially as a child, and yet she was determined to live as an independent strong, creative woman. With talent, grace, determination and faith, she rose above the trials, pain and struggle to share her voice with the world. One of her most famous poems is titled

And Still I Rise--Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

She rose.

Christ's ascension is one of the events that even the gospel writers seem to have trouble with.  They describe it happening in different places and at different times. Artists have had difficulty with it too, sometimes depicting Jesus as levitating, sometimes way up in the clouds--in one famous case, a ceiling fresco, Jesus' feet are all that is visible, sticking out of the ceiling in a 3-D interpretation of what the Ascension looked like for the disciples.  Jesus is described as "being taken up" or withdrawn or rising--as if he were on an elevator drawing him up to heaven.

So what do we do with these vague and uncertain stories of how Jesus departed from his friends? I think that first of all, we accept that we won't get an exact description--Biblical writers in general are not very descriptive--but we do understand that something mystical and beyond human language occurred. But in the end, the disciples understood that Jesus' work on earth was done, and that they would receive continuing help from another source, which would be sent by or from God--the Holy Spirit. No longer confined to Palestine or a specific time span, Jesus rises up to embrace the world of all places and times.

In Jesus' ascension, we see a foretaste of our own rising--with Jesus, we too will rise above. How, when, why and where we cannot say, but we will rise, too.

Like Maya Angelou, we rise above whatever keeps us from relationship with God, above our worries and fears, above all that has conspired to keep us down. We can rise above our struggles--with addictions, with relationships, with finances, with health challenges--we can rise above then because we know they are not the end of the story. No matter what is thrown at us, no matter our struggled and pain, we can and will rise above it, drawn ever upward by God's unfailing love for us.

God's love and care doesn't mean we are protected from the hard times or from sadness--but God's love does give us an anchor that holds us firm in spite of everything the world throws at us. God's love leads us through the storm of pain or struggle and upwards to peace and rest.

Just as Maya Angelou wrote:
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise

We too can rise. In spite of what we have experienced, in spite of what has been done to us, in spite of what we have done, still we rise in the knowledge of God's love and care for us.


Remember this, my friends--Nothing separates us from the love of God, and that love draws us home to God. Let go of the pain or shame of your past; let go of your griefs for today; let go of your fears for tomorrow, and simply rest in God's love, knowing you will be lifted up with love. In all God's names, amen.

"Draw the Circle Wider" Guest Message, Wesley United Church (Amherstburg, ON) May 25, 2014

Isaiah 55: 1-5; 12-13                                                                           
55 “Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.
3 Give ear and come to me;
    listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
    my faithful love promised to David.
4 See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
    a ruler and commander of the peoples.
5 Surely you will summon nations you know not,
    and nations you do not know will come running to you,
because of the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has endowed you with splendor.”
You will go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
    will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
    will clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
    and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
    for an everlasting sign,

    that will endure forever.”

Galatians 3:28
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.                                                                                          

John 14:15-21                                                                                            
15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask God, who will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept Spirit, because it neither sees Spirit nor knows Spirit. But you know Spirit, who lives with you and will be[ in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.  Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in God, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by God, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

***
Will you pray with and for me? God of Grace, pour out your blessings on this time; give us all the wisdom and courage to speak and hear and share and be your truth and love for us. Give us hope and strength as we seek your justice for all your people. In all your names, amen.

It is indeed a pleasure to be here, and to share with you a bit of my story. That’s not because I am special, but because I can only tell my story. Other people have other stories; I can only tell you mine.

As you may have guessed, I grew up in the US, in Michigan. I grew up in the United Methodist Church—and when I say “grew up,| I mean pretty much lived there. My mother was raised in the Methodist church, my parents were married in the Methodist church, I was baptised and confirmed in the Methodist church. When I married, it was in the Methodist church, and my son was baptised in the Methodist church. And when I finally responded to God’s call to ministry, after a career as an information specialist, I went to seminary—Wesley Seminary—and earned my Master of Divinity.

That heritage, and the church, has been very important to me throughout my life. When my parent divorced, it was the director of the church youth group and my friends in that group who stood by me. The church was always a place where I felt at home and appreciated—I served as an acolyte, played in the bell choir and sang in the youth choir—and then the adult choir and was active in the youth group. I even preached my first sermon there, at the age of about 14, for the youth group’s Easter sunrise service! When my then-husband and I moved into a house across the street from a Methodist church, I was once again at home and welcome—I served on several committees—worship, education, fellowship—was the church librarian, sang in the choir, and so on and on. After my son was born, he was baptised in that church—and still, at the age of 25, considers that his home church.

And so off I went to seminary. What a transforming time it was! Wesley is one of several seminaries in the DC area, and, with the others, formed a consortium. Students were required to take at least one class at one of the other seminaries, and could take more than that if they wished. Remember also that Washington DC is a very diverse city—and the student body at Wesley reflected that. We had students from literally around the world—Russia, Korea, Nigeria, India, Nicaragua, Kenya—and from many different denominations. The Conservative Jewish rabbi who taught the class in Jewish Thought and Theology in a yarmulke, the Catholic priest in his friar’s robes, and others less colourful but no less diverse—Presbyterians, American Baptists, Quakers, Lutherans.  In fact, a chapel service was held each year to celebrate that diversity—always one of the favourite chapel services! And yes, sexual orientation was included in that diversity. 

It was one of the many blessings of my time at seminary—the diversity of the students and staff, the challenges of the coursework, the emotional and spiritual growth. One of the central tenets of the seminary was to tell your own truth—not what a theologian had said or what the professor taught, but the truth as we understood it. This was most obvious in our Biblical study courses and in our systematic theology class, in which the project in the first term was to write our own creed, or statement of faith, and in the second term, to rewrite it.

The importance of this really came home to me when I began serving a country charge right out of seminary. It was very clear that I had to be my authentic self—not what they wanted me to be, or what they thought I was, but simply me. And so I realised I had to speak my truth to the congregation I served—but I was not speaking that truth. I came out to myself and a few trusted friends, but could not come out completely.

“Coming out” is a term that means to be open about one’s sexual orientation—it happens over and over as a person meets new people and changes jobs and so on. It doesn't mean a big announcement—it is really in the small quiet things, like putting your same-gender partner’s name on a form under “spouse,” or putting a photo on your desk at work of you and your same-sex partner. Things that differently-gendered—or straight—couples don’t even think twice about are flags that out a lesbian, gay man, bisexual person or transgender person.

Now, as you may or may not know, the United Methodist Church in the US does not permit gay men or lesbians to be ordained or appointed to Methodist churches. I happen to identify as bisexual, so when I came out to those few people, a couple of them suggested I try to contest the church law, and argue that the Book of Discipline doesn't mention bisexual people, so I should be ordained. Well, I had just seen what happened when a transgender person tried to come back from the leave of absence she took during her transition. I did not want to experience the hurtful and un-Christian attacks she had gone through. And I aso had family reasons. And finally, I didn't want to be identified as just that part of me—I wanted to pastor with all of myself, not be seen for only one facet of myself.

So I transferred to Metropolitan Community Churches, and was ordained at MCC Washington DC, and then was called to Windsor, to serve MCC Windsor.

While that path was difficult for me sometimes, it was easier than most. I had not grown up with the idea that lesbians, gay men, bisexual people and transgender people (LGBT for short) were evil or sinful or going to hell—in fact, I didn't grow up with a clear concept of hell. And homosexuality simply wasn't something that was discussed in my church home. In my family, it wasn't ignored but it wasn't emphasized—it was simply a part of who a person was. In fact, in my well-read family where literature was of vital importance, I read the poetry of May Sarton and Walt Whitman and the historical fiction of Mary Renault—so I was aware of what “lesbian” and “homosexual” meant. My parents treated the topic matter-of-factly, and in retrospect, I can see that they were very progressive on social questions. So when I came out to my family, I received nothing but support and love. That is something that many LGBT people do not receive. Youth who come out to parents who do not accept them are often evicted from the family home, and account for a good percentage of homeless youth. Living on the street, as many are forced to do, sometimes leads to sex work and illegal drug use. Other youth, even if they stay in the family home, face so much anger and bullying that they choose to take their own lives. I don’t have the exact numbers, but LGBT youth complete suicide at a higher rate than non-LGBT youth—and completed suicide is highest among transgender youth. This is why so many LGBT groups are so passionate about the support needed for LGBT youth through gay-straight alliances in the schools and training for teachers, coaches and other people who work with youth.

While the UMC officially had no use for me, and would have expelled me if I had not left first, I found a lot of support there as well—mentors, superiors, and other church members lamented the loss to the UMC of not only me, but several others who have left the UMC for the same reasons. Others, in other denominations and faith traditions, have been publicly shamed in front of their community of faith, been demonized, defrocked, shunned and silenced. It is painful enough for a church member to be expelled from a congregation--I don’t know if I can express to you how painful it is for an ordained person to have that ordination removed. We who are ordained have responded to Spirit’s special call on our lives—have gone through a maze of study, requirements, interviews, psychological tests and review boards—sustained by our sense of call, our sure knowledge of where we needed to be in order to be what we were created to be. To have that removed, to be told we were deluded, that we are so evil we cannot possibly serve God’s people effectively—that is, in a very real sense, a death sentence to us. And yet, LGBT people are told this all the time, by many faith traditions. A clergy friend remembers telling her childhood pastor that she thought she was called to ministry. He responded that she needed to listen more closely, that God didn't call women to ministry. The world has moved on from there, but now it is LGBT people who are being told that God doesn't call them to ministry. Who are we to decide for another group that they—as a group, whether it is women, or First Nations people or people of colour or people living with disabilities—are never called to ministry? Who are we to put limits on God? On an individual basis, of course we should be testing the call and ensuring that individuals are fitted for ministry. But to decide pre-emptively that someone, by virtue of membership in a group, is not called is the height of arrogance.

I was one of the lucky ones. I did not lose my family. I had to transfer from one faith institution to another, but I did not lose my calling. I lost a few friends, who were caught up in their own fear and narrow-mindedness—friends who I thought would be able to see beyond the label to me and continue to love me. I was wrong. But I wasn't thrown onto the street. I have never been physically attacked. I have never been harassed at home or at work. I have never been refused service at a hotel or restaurant or store. I was not denied custody of my son. He was never told by my ex-husband’s family that I am a terrible mother or prevented from seeing me. I have never been told I deserve to be imprisoned for life, or that I deserve to die. But all those things have and do happen, not only in faraway places like Nigeria and Uganda and Russia, but here in Canada, in Ontario, in Essex County.

But there is hope. And it doesn't lie solely in the determination and courage of the LGBT community, working in the political system or through education or through simply living quiet lives, living examples of who LGBT people really are. I believe that members of faith communities can be the strongest allies to the LGBT community. So much of the homophobia, transphobia and biphobia of society is based on misunderstanding and mistranslation of Biblical passages that it is vital for our allies in faith communities to speak up and say, “We stand with our brothers and sisters in the LGBT community. We acknowledge our ancestors caused pain and death and we will work to overcome prejudice and hatred based on spiritual teachings.”

I don’t have time today to review those readings—the “Clobber passages,” as they are called, from Leviticus, Genesis, and Romans—but I will sum up the discussion by saying simply that Biblical study must take into account translations and context. I would also remind us that the circle of Christianity has always been widening—starting with Jewish converts to include, at various times, pagans, Romans, slaves, people of colour, women…the circle ever widens.

Listen again to the words of Isaiah: 55 “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you, because of the Holy One your God.” What a lovely, gracious invitation to all God’s people! Nations you do not know… And Paul in his letter to the Galatians says that we are all one in Christ—no divisions, not between slave and free, not even male and female. The Gospel writer John reports Jesus saying, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by God, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” There are no conditions set on that love—no disqualifying statements or requirements. Simply love God—for God loves you.

Homophobia, biphobia, transphobia—it is not about just discomfort with people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. It is about denying the humanity of people who are LGBT. Those who would deny us basic rights—to live safely wherever we can afford to live, to a legal bond to the one we love, to raise our children in safety, to work in safety, to pursue a vocation we feel called to, whether that is clergy or teaching or banking, to simply be who God created us to be—would deny that LGBT people are human beings. If that is not said in so many words, it is made clear in their actions. We in the LGBT community cannot do this alone—we need and want the support and encouragement of our allies.

Do you speak up when someone makes a racist comment? Then do the same when you hear a gay slur. Do you allow your children to listen to music that advocates the abuse of women? Then don’t allow them to listen to music that demonises LGBT people. In the final analysis, it is our allies—people just like you, here and now—who will tip that balance of the world towards love and acceptance. No minority can do it on our own. Although the struggle is ours, we cannot do it without you, too.

I would leave you with a final thought, from Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, a tireless worker and pioneer for civil rights in that country. He said, “I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid. For me, it is at the same level.” 

In all God’s names, amen.

“Never Alone” Easter 6A (May 25, 2914)

Acts 17:22-31
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, the One who is over all of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,  and is not served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now God commands all people everywhere to repent, because  God has fixed a day on which God will have the world judged in righteousness by one whom God has appointed, and of this God has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

John 14:15-21
Jesus said, ”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Creator, and God will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees God nor knows God. You know God, because God abides with you, and will be in you.
”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in God, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by God, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

***

Will you pray with and for me? God of Grace, pour out your blessings on this time; give us all the wisdom and courage to speak and hear and share and be your truth and love for us. Give us hope and strength as we seek your justice for all your people. In all your names, amen.

Paul was a traveller—a travelling evangelist, actually. Here he is in Athens, one of the cultural capitols of the day—something like New York or Vancouver or Los Angeles—where new thoughts are thought and new religions born and creativity allowed to flourish. The Areopagus was both a place and a group—an elder’s council, named for the place where it met, Ares’ Hill. They didn't have legislative power—they made no laws and didn't govern Athens—but this was the place where new ideas were shared and tested. Sort of a Speaker’s Corner, if you are familiar with that spot in London where anyone can speak on anything. Paul points out a curious thing—among all the gods and goddesses and demi-gods and goddesses worshipped in Athens with statues and temples, there is one quiet pedestal that is empty, with no statue. The dedication is to “The Unknown God.” Paul seems to think that the Athenians are covering their bases, just in case, but I think there is more to it than that.

The Athenians are recognising that there is more to divinity, to being God, than humans can grasp, and so while they worship specific gods for specific things, they know that there is divinity that is all-encompassing, not linked to only women, or only warriors or rulers or the home. This is the Unknown God. Paul does approve their worship, but he says that the Unknown God is not unknown at all, but is the one God he worships. He points out that the Greek poets had known there was but one God, and that humans longed for union with that one God—In God we live and move and have our being.

When we look at what the writer we know as John is saying, though, he seems to be at odds with Paul’s statement.  He says that the ones who keep God’s commandments are the ones God loves, but Paul says that everyone is close to God.

To understand this, we have to look at the historical context.  Acts was written before the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem—the most devastating event in Jewish history, and surely the signal, people of the time thought, for the return of Jesus. The setting in Acts, then, is one of anticipation—Christ will come back and judge the nations, just any day now! Thus the sense of urgency for Paul, to tell all the people he could about Christ, the appointed and anointed one.

The gospel of John, however, was written in a different time, when the temple had been destroyed and Christians were facing persecution and division, being barred from synagogues for heresy, and fearing for their very lives.  They have been expecting Christ to return any time, to no avail—not even the destruction of the Temple brought his return—and they are afraid and discouraged. What is left for them? What are they supposed to do? How long are they expected to wait for Christ to return? Now what? So in John, it is vitally important to claim only one God, and to encourage the people who are fearful, discouraged and uncertain by reminding them that they have a unique knowledge of God, and that God is with them always, even in the midst of this persecution and strife, even when God cannot be seen. It is a different perspective, a new way of understanding Christ as having returned in a different way than what was expected. No, Christ didn't come back in a thunderclap, or as a baby, or as an avenger. Christ—or God, for they are the same—is present with us as Spirit, the Spirit of God, always present, always loving.

And this is the commonality between Paul and Acts—God is with us, God loves us. We may not always recognise God’s presence, we may call God by another name, even—that Unknown God—but God does not leave us. We are not orphaned—we have a loving Parent who is present with us even when life is difficult and painful and more than we can bear. God is with us in those dark hours, although we might not believe it. Because we love God, and God loves us, we are never alone. This is not a Hallmark card love, either—puppies and hearts and lace. This love is the love that stands strong through hurricanes of despair, through the gut-wrenching pain of betrayal, the soul-numbing grief of loss, and the dark night of fear. This love can bear us up through all of this, strengthened by the strife and horror and uncertainty.

God is with us always—known or unknown, in fear and in hope, God’s love surrounds us, holds us up. Even when we can’t see God’s presence, or even name God, we are not alone.

No matter how difficult your road becomes, in spite of uncertainty, of fear, of loss, know that God walks that road with you and loves you. No matter who you are, where you are, what you fear, remember this. God loves you, God loves you, God loves you.


In all God’s many names, amen.

Friday Five (a day late) -- Friday the 13th Edition


Friday's meme from RevGalBlogPals:

1.  Are you superstitious about anything?  Like, lucky socks for competition, special necklace for preaching, etc.?
Not really. Although I used to plant mums in my favourite NFL team’s colours every fall, just in case.

2.  I’m going on vacation on Tuesday.  I have never been so ready for vacation.  What are you looking forward to?
A trip back to DC to see my son before he heads off to Basic Training for the Army Reserves; Windsor PrideFest; officiating at the wedding of two dear friends.

3.  There is a lot going on in sports right now–World Cup, Basketball finals, and much more.   If your life were a sport, what would it be, and why?
If my life were a sport…hmmm. Triathalon, I think…or maybe pentathalon. My life shape has changed several times, and each change has been pretty dramatic. From Midwestern college kid to military spouse to information guru to seminary student to pastor…

4.  Hey!  Remember orange push-up ice cream treats?  What happened to them?  What is one of your favorite summer treats?  Ice cream sandwich, popsicles, frozen grapes, fruit pizza, DQ Dilly Bar, etc.?
DQ Peanut Buster Parfait. But I also love my mint iced tea, mojitos, and mint chocolate chip ice cream. So, basically, anything minty.

5.  So there is this thing called “Listserve” that picks one random person per day to write an email to like a million people world-wide.  It’s pretty cool. Some people make music suggestions, offer sage advice, or plug their latest interest/project.  If you could write a note to a million people around the world, what would you say?

“Everyone has had a different road to travel, and everyone has had hard times. You may not know the difficulties someone else has experienced, but we have all gone though some pain. So be gentle with each other; we each have a story to tell, and sharing those stories can bring us together. What you perceive as odd or wrong may be life-saving to someone else. Don’t condemn someone else’s choices and decisions—you have no idea what led them there or why it is life-giving to them. It is enough that it helped them survive. Remember that your choices and decisions may look as strange to them as theirs do to you. Accept that their path is different from yours, and unless you or someone you love is suffering actual, identifiable harm, let them be. Don’t judge—you will never know all the truth.”