Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Happy Pentecost!

Vigil of the Pentecost & Whitsunday
“…and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3b)

“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian Church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins—mine and those of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.” (Luther’s Small Catechism; explanation to Article III of the Apostles’ Creed)

Happy Pentecost, everybody!

I hope it’s happy in any event. If there were ever a day for rejoicing—besides the Resurrection of Our Lord—it would certainly be the Day of Pentecost. If we take Saint Paul’s words to the Corinthian congregation to heart, we see we don’t need to be speaking in tongues in order to know we’ve received the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Spirit is faith in Jesus Christ.

But don’t kid yourself. This isn’t just about assent to a doctrine. To have the Holy Spirit is to embrace the powerful presence of God in our lives. In the quote from the Small Catechism above, Luther enumerates all the blessings of the Spirit. Forgiveness of sins and eternal life are pretty cool gifts, but so is the knowledge that we’re blessed by God with various abilities and the wonderful news that we are tied through the Spirit to one another.

In the midst of the social distancing requirements of the coronavirus pandemic, I find it tremendously comforting to know that we still have community in Christ. Indeed, I’m feeling the Holy Spirit at work when I hear parishioners speak of how they long to gather once more, of how they miss one another’s company. This is the Spirit present with us.

Of course, God didn’t give us the gift of the Spirit just to have companionship. When we look at the lesson appointed for the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, and John 20:19-23), a few things stand out. First, the miraculous gift of tongues in the First Lesson isn’t just about personal ecstatic experience (funky and delightful as that may be to those who are gifted with it!). The gift of tongues was given that all people would know about Jesus. Similarly, in the Gospel lesson, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples and tells them they have the power to forgive or retain sins. According to Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, the office of forgiving and retaining isn’t about deciding which things are naughty or nice. “Sin” in John’s Gospel is the lack of accepting the power of God in Jesus. If we, as disciples, “forgive” or “release” someone from sin in this context, we’re actually bestowing on them the message that God loves them, Jesus loves them enough to die for them, their past shame is wiped out, and they are an important part of the body of Christ in the world. To “retain” their sin would be to neglect this proclamation.

The other great thing about the Holy Spirit is that she gives us abilities to grow and enrich the body of Christ. I dig the way Luther says we’re “enlightened” with these gifts. All of us are blessed with some natural abilities. The light really comes on in our hearts, however, when we figure out that A) We didn’t choose to be good at what we’re good at. God gave us these abilities as a gift of grace, and B) God gave us these gifts to be used for God’s glory. It’s rather a weird thing, but acknowledging our abilities as both gift and responsibility makes us both humble and proud at the same time (Don’t you just love a good religious paradox?). But the pride is a good pride—the satisfaction of knowing we’re doing what God has intended us to do.

As we continue to wait patiently through this pandemic, I urge you to consider how the Spirit has blessed your life. You may not find yourself miraculously praising God in Swahili (unless, of course, you actually speak Swahili), but you have been released from the grave sins of doubt and despair, you are connected to the Church of Christ, and you have been given marvelous gifts. What should you do but rejoice?

Thanks for reading, my friend. Stay safe.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A Good Time to Pray (Reflections on Easter 7, Year A)

4 Earnest Prayers for Disciple Makers | Living the D-Life
“All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer…” (Acts 1:14a)

Believe it or not, we’re all the way to Easter 7. My how time flies when you’re locked-down during a pandemic! The First lesson in the RCL for this Sunday (Acts 1:6-14) comes from Acts 1. Jesus is ascending to sit at the right hand of the Father, and the disciples are standing around looking at the clouds with their mouths hanging open (wouldn’t you?). Nevertheless, before Jesus splits, the disciples have to ask him one more time if this is the time when God will restore Israel to her former glory (They just can’t seem to get this earthly kingdom thing out of their heads!). His answer is basically, “Gosh, guys. I dunno. That’s up to my Dad. But you guys need to wait here in Jerusalem because something really cool is about to happen.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d find that a rather disappointing answer. It’s so vague. It’s like asking Governor Wolf when southeastern Pennsylvania will be open for business again. When can we come back to church? Nobody knows the answer. We’re just told to wait.

So what do you do while you’re waiting? Verse 14 tells us they devoted themselves to prayer. Now, I’ll bet many of us have a lot more time for prayer these days now that there’s no place for us to go during a pandemic. Still, worry about the unknown, boredom, frustration, and members of your family doing the rumba on your last nerves don’t exactly create an environment conducive to prayer. But pray anyway.

Okay, Pastor, you say, what shall we pray for? In the gospel lesson (John 17:1-11[i]) Jesus is just finishing his prayer. He asks his Father to protect the saints, to keep them strong in the Word, and to keep them unified. He might’ve been praying for us in our current situation. He rather pointedly is not praying for the world (v. 9). When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Why? Because the world will never get better unless the saints of God are willing to make it better.

Perhaps our prayers at this time should not be to change our circumstances but, rather, to change ourselves. Scientists, doctors, and government authorities will do battle with the coronavirus. Our responsibility is to use this opportunity to enter into a deeper relationship with God and with each other. Our job may well be to cultivate empathy, gratitude, and a sense of purpose so we can really know the joy Jesus prays for us to receive (v. 13).

What will happen to our congregation when this pandemic finally subsides? Will we have one big “Welcome Back” mass and then go back to business as usual? Or will this time be used to God’s glory? Will we discover within ourselves a new sense of commitment as God’s people in mission to the world? It’s something we should pray about, don’t you think?

May God bless you and keep us safe, secure in the Word, and in contact with one another.

PS- For a video of this sermonette, click here.

[i] To really get this you might want to read all of John 17.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Never Orphaned (Reflections on Easter 6, Year A)

Famous Artwork: The Last Supper - WorldAtlas.com
If you knew you were going to die—or if you were going on a long journey and knew you’d never have the chance to see someone you cared for again, what would you say to them? Wouldn’t you want to give them something that would cause them to remember you? Something that would stay with them and live with them after you were gone?

In the gospel lesson appointed for Ester 6 in the Revised Common Lectionary (John 14:15-21), that’s where we find Jesus. Here he’s giving something of a “farewell speech.” It’s the night of the Last Supper. He’s already washed the feet of the disciples, and Judas has already left to go rat him out to the authorities. He doesn’t have a whole lot of time left to be with these guys. So what does he do?

He promises them an advocate or helper will come to be among them when he’s gone. Of course, we know he won’t be gone too long this time. He’ll be put to death the next day, but by Sunday God will have him up and around again. He’ll hang out for the next forty days, popping up here and there—just long enough for these followers to get used to the idea that life in him is eternal—and then, on the fortieth day (the day we’ll celebrate this Thursday, May 21st, The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord) he’ll be gone once more. They won’t see him in the flesh again this side of the Pearly Gates.

I guess they moped around for the next ten days (and you could hardly blame them), but then—BAM! On the fiftieth day, the Day of Pentecost, they found Jesus was right back with them. He was in them, with them, and among them as their helper and advocate. In fact, they came to understand that he had never left them at all.

When we’re kids, our parents are supposed to teach us and guide us. They say things like, “You’ll understand this when you’re older!” Then, suddenly, we are older. We go off to college or to the military, we get married, we move away. Eventually, our parents leave us for their home in Heaven. But we find—for better or worse—that they never really leave us. All the things they’ve said or done or given us or demonstrated have become, in some way, a part of us. We might even find that we call on them in time of need. We ask ourselves, “What would Mom say about this if she were here?” or “What would Dad do in this situation?” And we find, sometimes to our surprise, that we really do understand now that we’re older.

This is Jesus’ promise to us—to be with us in the Spirit of Truth. As Saint Paul says in our First Lesson, we don’t worship a God who lives in shrines made by human hands (Acts 17:24). We can’t even worship in our shrine made by human hands now because of the coronavirus epidemic! Praise be to God that the Spirit of Christ lives in and among us, granting us wisdom and courage to face the current hour.

May the Spirit of Our Lord, who dwells in the Father, also dwell in us!

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Can I Get a Witness? (Reflections on Easter 5, Year A)

The Stoning of Saint Stephen - Wikipedia
Nobody said being a Christian was going to be easy.  In the First Lesson for Easter 5, Year A (Acts 7:55-60) we see Stephen paying a pretty hefty price for his faithfulness to God. This poor guy gets stoned to death just for doing the right thing. But, hey! Righteousness, we’re told, is its own reward. If you think you can escape the problems of this world through your obedience to God, you’re kidding yourself and you’re turning God’s favor into some kind of transaction. The problems of this world will always find you. Those problems, however, will take on a different and less frightening look when they’re encountered with a clear conscience and the knowledge that you’ve done what God has called you to do.

Stephen, our hero this week, is described as being full of the Holy Spirit. He’s tasked with helping to create the loving community. He’s one of the first deacons, and his job is to make sure the widows and orphans of the community are taken care of and that the charity done for them is done without partiality. He’s pretty good at this job, and most folks like and respect him. He really knows his scriptures, and when he get5s into theological debates with non-Christians, he speaks logically and intelligently. Unfortunately, some bad guys get jealous of his popularity and accuse him of blasphemy. He defends himself with great verbal skill and speaks God’s truth to the powerful priests—even when he knows this won’t go down well with them. Righteous to the end, he even forgives the guys who are throwing rocks at him!

In the old Lutheran Book of Worship collect series, the Prayer of the Day for Easter 5 asks God to help us love what God commands and desire what God promises. God has called us to create the loving community—a pretty tricky ask when we’re all sheltering in place during a quarantine. Nevertheless, like Stephen, folks at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia are finding ways to connect and be the body of Christ with and for one another. Some who read this message do so because a church member has copied it out and mailed it to members without internet access. Some of our members are doing the grocery shopping for elderly homebound members. Some are planting a garden of vegetables to donate to our Lutheran food bank. Some are gathering as a family, reading the weekly lessons, and watching the sermonette video, creating their own mini-church. Some are doing Bible study on Zoom. Some will soon gather—properly masked, of course—to make meals for neighborhood shut-ins. In these ways and more—and in spite of the pandemic—God’s people are doing their best to make Christ known.

During this crisis many people are willing to put themselves out for love of their neighbors. You don’t have to be a martyr like Stephen, but I think it’s important to remember that the word “martyr” literally means a witness. So keep looking for ways in which you can be part of the loving community. We’re all called to witness so the world can see the unconquerable love of Jesus Christ.

God’s peace and blessings to you all—and stay safe!