Racism, Sexuality, Sin, and Grace

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost 5B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Lamentations 3:22-33
Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

It’s hard to know where to begin, isn’t it.

Because I’ve been on vacation, it’s been three weeks since I stood in this pulpit. And in that time, we’ve been rocked by monumental happenings.

A week and  a half ago, I was sitting on the porch of one of the cabins at Camp Luther near Conneaut, OH. Reception out there is difficult to get, so getting enough signal to access the Internet was a real challenge. Still, I had seen a few headlines mentioning a shooting in Charleston, SC., but, unfortunately, in our current societal climate, it didn’t shock or surprise me.

One of the other clergy present at the camp came up to me and said, “Did you hear about what happened in South Carolina?”

“Yes, a little… I saw there was a shooting, right?”

“Nine people,” he said. “Nine people were shot in an historical black church in Charleston yesterday. I thought you should know.”

You see, that week, while I was on vacation at Camp Luther with my family, I was also serving as chaplain for the week. That meant that I was in charge of worship, but also for providing pastoral care if necessary to campers. This is not what I needed on my vacation.

“There’s more,”he said, which I couldn’t’ believe, but I listened anyway. “The shooter? He was one of us. He was a member of an ELCA congregation.”

Yes, you heard that right. Dylan Roof, a man who proudly waved a Confederate battle flag, a flag flown by armies explicitly fighting for the right to treat Africans and their descendants as less-than-human, a man who lamented the end of white-ruled apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa, a man who walked into a church and spent an hour in Bible study and prayer with 12 other people before standing up, pulling out a gun, and killing 9 of them: this man attended worship at an ELCA congregation.

I don’t know why I was as shocked by that as I was. The ELCA is in no way perfect. But we tend to live in a perpetual state of denial, that these sorts of things only happen “out there”; it couldn’t ever happen here, could it? Dylan Roof proved that it could. That not even we are immune to hate and violence, even though we are a church that preaches grace and mercy and forgiveness. Even we fall short.

It is for this reason that part of our service this morning comes from a Service of Repentance and Mourning, a service that our Presiding Bishop Rev. Elizabeth Eaton and the worship staff of our Churchwide unit put together just this week.

If that had been all that happened in the past ten days, that would have been enough to rock the nation. That was enough of an upheaval. But there was more in store.

On Friday morning, the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, ruled that the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, under its equal-protection clause, guaranteed the right of same-sex couples to legally marry. It ruled that the same amendment to the United States Constitution prevented states from enacting laws or constitutional amendments of their own to ban same-sex marriages and required states to recognize the same-sex marriage licenses issued by other states. An intense legal battle that arguably began to take shape in 2003 ended on Friday.

For some, Friday was a day of unqualified celebration. It marked the end of at least one leg of a lifelong struggle for equality in marriage under the eyes of the law. It meant that their relationships would no longer be valid or invalid depending on which state they lived in. It meant that they as human beings, including their sexual orientation, were finally accepted fully and completely. It was a great, momentous day.

For others, Friday was a day of unqualified disaster. It marked the end of at least one leg of a lifelong struggle for the upholding of their religious values. It meant that relationships contrary to their beliefs would now be held on the same high level as their relationships. It meant that human beings who strayed from their particular religious virtues regarding sexual orientation would be allowed to continue straying. It was a terrible, momentous day.

Both of these events, in different ways, have sent seismic waves through our society and through our church. Things are changing. And changes this big are always accompanied by a companion. That companion’s name is fear.

In the wake of the Charleston shooting, a nationwide call to address racial tensions took the country by storm. The massacre was compared to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, an act of terror in Birmingham, AL, committed by white supremacists that killed four young girls and galvanized the Civil Rights movement. Within days, calls to remove the Confederate battle flag, a symbol appropriated by white supremacist groups representing the ideals of the Confederacy, were answered, and in many public places across the southern United States the flag was removed. Fearing that the symbol would continue to promote racism, retailers began pulling anything and everything related to or depicting the Confederate battle flag, as if in an attempt to erase that horrible bit of our national history.

On the other hand, supporters of the public display of the flag rattled the sabers to defend their symbol. Fearing the loss of their heritage, they fought back, claiming that the flag stood for nothing more than “Southern Heritage” and the pride that those who live in the south have for their land. Fearing the sins of the past, they claimed that the flag did not stand for the racism that was the bedrock principle of the Confederacy, and shouldn’t be associated with it.

There are also those who feared that this attack in a church is but the start of places of faith being targeted. In a sense, this may be true. At least two, maybe three predominately black churches in Georgia and the Carolinas have suffered fires in the last week that are being investigated as arsons. In addition, some people have called for guns to not only be allowed, but welcomed in churches and other houses of worship, and some are advocating that pastors be armed during worship and ready to defend worshipers if someone comes in to harm them. I will never be one of those pastors.

Tensions are still high, with both sides (and all those in between) afraid of what will happen next.

The same can be said of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Thursday. Those who joyfully accept the ruling are afraid that this is only the beginning—that there is still a long fight ahead. That now that the question of same-sex marriage has, it seems, been settled, people will find other ways to discriminate against them. For example, 18 states do not have anti-discrimination laws for employment, meaning a person can be fired without consequence based on their sexual orientation. There are a host of other barriers set against those with a non-heterosexual orientation, such as in the realms of adoption and donating blood.

Those who reject the ruling are afraid that this is only the beginning—that there is still a long fight ahead. That now they will be forced to acknowledge same-sex marriage, or worse, participate. Some vendors have been forced to go against their principles, they claim. Will church pastors be next? Will they be forced to participate? Is this another sign that our country is losing sight of its morals and ethics?

We live in a culture of fear, and frankly, we’re bad at dealing with it. We are. It seems like our response to fear in our society is to batten down the hatches. We withdraw into ourselves and trust no one. We arm ourselves, figuratively and literally, against any opposition. And then we wait.

Maybe if we wait long enough, our fear will just go away on its own. Maybe, someone will try to come and attack us, and when we repel the attack, we will be safe. Maybe the fear will never go away.

I wish I could simply pull up some words from the Bible that would make all of our fear, especially around monumental change, go away. Our reading from Lamentations this morning is a perfect word of comfort.

Written describing the events after the Babylonian exile, Lamentations is a window into the minds and emotions of the Jewish people of the time. The exile, being forced out of their homeland and their capital city destroyed, was a tragically monumental and world-shattering event for the people of Judah. The book of Lamentations, then, is an attempt to make sense of that tragedy and loss and put into words the trauma that afflicted the Jewish people. It includes such hopeful words as this:

“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

And later:
For the LORD will not reject forever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflicted
or grieve anyone.

Such powerful words of comfort gave hope to the exiles that their suffering was not in vain—that this life-altering change wasn’t the end of the world. Whether or not those words actually DID give comfort, I don’t know. But they were meant to. They were written to.

Will they offer us comfort? If I went back and read the entire first lesson again this morning, would it make a difference? Somehow, I doubt it. So I won’t.

But what about our Gospel reading? Jesus Christ is, perhaps—no, I take that back—Jesus Christ is absolutely at the heart of the single greatest world-shattering change in the history of the universe. God incarnate, word become flesh, God literally walking among us. In his life, Jesus lived and walked among a people living in perpetual fear and anxiety about their future under the Roman Empire. He attracted enormous crowds, performed amazing miracles. He rocked the boat like storm waves on the Great Lakes. So intrusive was he to the established order of life that he was executed for it.

He brought others back to life, and wherever he went, people would be desperate to touch him in the hope that they would be healed. And Jesus responds—he heals the woman with the hemorrhage in our story this morning. He raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead. And when he himself was executed, just to mess with everything everyone ever knew about life, he goes and rises from the dead. Nothing, absolutely nothing was out of the realm of possibility with Jesus Christ—he changed everything.

And yet, somehow, I doubt when we read this story this morning, that there was a general feeling of awe and wonder at the amazing works of Jesus. We are too afraid to hear it today. We are too anxious.

This is what fear does. It shuts us down, it locks us out. It makes us numb and immune. I am as numb and immune as anybody. Remember, when I first heard about the Charleston massacre, it barely fazed me. That’s who I’ve become—that’s who we’ve become. I am incapable of dealing with these things on my own. And so, I have to turn it over to God. Which is why, even on this day of repentance and mourning, that I am grateful, for little Bo.

When Brad and Kayla and I set a date for Bo’s baptism, we didn’t know that all of this stuff was going to happen in these past week and a half. And as these events unfolded, and in response to the Charleston massacre our Presiding Bishop called for a day of repentance and mourning, many of my colleagues scrambled to adjust our services this morning, wondering how they would accommodate any special events happening today. I did, too.

But I am glad, so very glad, that today, we get to see our God at work in a way we don’t often get to witness—through the gift of Holy Baptism.

It’s never really been a secret that we live in a messed up, broken, constantly-changing world: just look at this week. And we know God is out there! We tell ourselves that every week, or even every day. But slowly, God’s abiding presence goes unnoticed, pushed away and covered by everything else happening in life. Where is God when a gunman massacres people in a church? Where is God when anger and hate get in the way of love? It can feel like God isn’t present at all.

But not today.

Today, we get to see the grace of God poured out like a waterfall, a rushing river spilling over rocks. Today, we acknowledge the faith in God that little Bo has, that intimate trust he has in his creator, and God’s faith in him. We get to celebrate with his parents, and his family, and his friends, as he is marked a child of God and as the Holy Spirit descends upon him, just as happened to Jesus at his baptism.

Today, we get to see the grace of God in full force, piercing through the thick clouds and darkness that surround us today. We get to see, thanks to God’s grace.

A prominent speaker at the funeral of one of the victims of the Charleston massacre said it this way:

“According to Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God.

“As manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace—as a nation out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.

“He’s given us the chance where we’ve been lost to find our best selves. We may not have earned this grace with our rancor and complacency and short-sightedness and fear of each other, but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace.”

Baptism is the clearest example of that grace, that overflowing love of God that both makes us see where we’ve fallen short, and then fills us with the power of God to go out and do something about it. To get away from fear and stand in the love of God, to speak boldly with the words given by the Holy Spirit, to declare our freedom in Christ from the captivity of sin that binds our world in abject terror. It is an act of God that will not be stopped by ignorance, age, or the ability to form a single word, let alone our own failings such as our racism and our hatred for those we perceive as different.

And so, in the midst of our pain and our suffering and our anger and our hurt, I give thanks for Bo, because today, he reminds me that we, sinful people, are forgiven through no effort of our own. Through Bo, I see the grace and power of God at work even in our darkest days. In Bo, when I fail to find God on my own, when like today the words from the Bible I have heard a hundred times bring no comfort, I see God taking the initiative and sending grace anyway.

We have a long way to go. Racism is not dead, and is in fact alive and well; yes, even here. We will be fighting over issues related to sexual orientation and equality for many years to come. I am sure that the fights will be passionate, and they will be destructive. Things will change, and they will change in way we can’t yet imagine. But as we are about to see through little Bo, that will not stop God from delivering grace, and sending the Holy Spirit to work wonders in the world through our faith and trust in God.

And Bo? He gets it. He knows the love God has for him, and he knows God will always be there for him. May we be reminded also that God loves, and God forgives, us. Thanks be to God for the grace that is sent through no merit or cause of our own doing, grace that wakes us up, grace that forgives, and grace that brings us home.

Featured Image: “Baptismal Font” by Cliff is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

We Have a Problem

On Wednesday, June 17, 2015, Dylan Storm Roof walked into Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. For almost an hour, he participated in Bible study and prayer with twelve other people. And then he stood up, pulled a .45-caliber handgun from his fanny pack, and shot ten people, killing nine of them.

As his victims begged for their lives and asked, “Why are you doing this?” he responded, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” And then, when he had finished murdering nine African Americans out of hate, he turned the gun on himself, found he had no more bullets, and walked out.

Dylan Roof believed in the values upon which the countries of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa were built—that white people were in every way superior to black people. He represented himself with the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, the battle symbol used by armies that explicitly fought to defend the right of certain states to continue enslaving African natives.

He was also a member of an ELCA congregation; he professed to be a member of our church. Two of his victims were graduates of Lutheran Southern Theological Seminary, an ELCA seminary.

Dylan Roof did not come up with these ideas on his own. He was taught who to hate and how to do it. He didn’t hide his feelings—he didn’t have to. Friends of Dylan have come forward and said he was planning his massacre for over six months, but no one thought he was serious. Not enough people spoke out. His racist ramblings were simply accepted. His display of overtly racist symbols was considered normal enough to not raise too many concerns.

When hate and racism are considered “normal”, and their symbols are a source of pride instead of disgust; when we fail to confront the evil in our midst, either because we can’t see it or we won’t; when we as a church, as congregations called to practice the radical love of Christ and to speak out against injustice and hate are too timid to live into that calling; we have a problem.

We have a problem. And the problem is us.

Featured Image: “DC Vigil for Charleston Murders 26” by Stephen Melkisethian is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

This article was originally written for Faith Lutheran Church’s July newsletter, “Faith’s Foundations”.

Going Home Again

Second Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1
Mark 3:20-35

At the end of this week, I get to go to a place I still call home.

Increasingly, it is more and more difficult to get back to my old stomping grounds on the south side of Chicago. Even when I lived in Columbus, OH, which was also six hours away from where I grew up, it seemed like every couple of months I could take a weekend and crash at my parents’ house for a couple nights. Not so much anymore.

It’s always an experience going home. It feels like, for the first twenty years of my life or so, very little changed. There were a few new houses built. A building or two burned down. But the same businesses were on the “downtown” strip, the same coaches were in charge of the baseball and football teams, the same faces were in each church each Sunday. Every weekend back in Hegewisch was like a trip back in time, a trip back to childhood. It’s where I felt safe, and at home.

Now, while it is still truly the same old neighborhood, lots has changed. On one end of the neighborhood is a new underpass beneath the railroad tracks. The old familiar faces are stepping aside so that new faces can take their places. The downtown strip has been spruced up, and buildings I’ve never seen before are there. Now, when I go to Hegewisch, it’s not as much a trip to the past, but a chance to remember the way things used to be while celebrating how they’ve changed. Still, it’s always good to go home.

Unless you’re Jesus.

When Jesus goes home, he’s not welcomed with open arms. He’s not hailed as a hero even though his hometown knows what he’s been up to. News travels fast, even in Jesus’s day. When Jesus goes home, he starts a controversy.

This is only the third chapter in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus has just gotten started in his ministry. But already, he’s called his disciples, cast out a few demons, and healed a ton of people. Pretty extraordinary stuff, I’d say. And people are taking notice—a lot of people. So many people that, when he goes home, Jesus is mobbed by such a crowd that it actually disturbs and disrupts the sleepy little village of Nazareth.

It’s about this time that I’d expect people to be saying things like “Wow, Jesus! You’re amazing! You’ve got your disciples. People plagued by demons come to you, and you throw these demons out of them! People who are blind, sick, disabled—you make them all better! You know, we’re certainly glad you’re here!” It only makes sense that this would be the reaction to what Jesus does.

So how come, when Jesus goes home, he hears things like this: “He’s gone out of his mind!” … what?

Or, my favorite: “He has Beelzebub, and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.” Are… are these people seeing the same Jesus I am? Do they not see what Jesus is doing?

Yes. Yes they do. They see exactly what Jesus is doing. And they can’t stand it.

Now, I don’t want you to think that these are heartless people who are mad at Jesus because he’s healing people. Not at all. Nobody in that crowd is upset that Jesus is removing people’s disabilities, or healing them when they’re sick. That’s all really great! If more people were doing that, the world would be a great place.

No, they can’t stand what Jesus is doing because… well… you see, there’s a proper way to do things, and Jesus just doesn’t want to do things properly.

For example, Jesus calls his disciples, most of them poor, rural folk like he was, and like the people of Nazareth were. But he also called Levi. Think back—what was Levi’s profession? (Hint: in other Gospels, he’s also called Matthew).

That’s right. Levi is/was a tax collector. In Roman Judea, tax collectors were often locals who took on the job of collecting money from their own people and sending it off to support Rome, the occupying military force. Obviously, these are not people well-liked in their communities. So when Jesus takes one of… THOSE people as his disciple, it causes quite the stir. Why couldn’t he pick a respectable person instead of… a government patsy?

What about his healings? Who would complain about that? And it’s true, for the most part, people are ecstatic about Jesus’s ability to heal. That’s the main reason the crowds that follow him are so big—they’re bringing to Jesus everyone who is sick and in need of healing precisely so that he can KEEP healing people.

So what’s the problem? It’s… well, it’s his method. You see, Jesus has this nasty habit—he keeps insisting on healing people on the Sabbath Day. The one day, the one day of the week on which he shouldn’t be doing any work, even good work, and he goes and heals people.

Sometimes, it’s worse. No one could argue that it was a bad thing that he healed a leper of his disease. Leprosy was not pretty, a horrible disease. Jesus literally gives the man he heals his life back. But—and with Jesus, there’s always a but—he goes and touches the leper. You don’t touch a man with a highly contagious, communicable disease like leprosy. I don’t care how loving you are trying to be—you don’t go touching people with disease.

(The whole Beelzebub demon thing is a little stranger, but their objections do make sense. Demons don’t just listen to anyone—if they did, anyone could cast them out. So if demons don’t just listen to anyone, who would they listen to? Someone with authority over them: including, they assume, higher demons. Not everyone would make that assumption, but, it’s an assumption nonetheless.)

By the people’s standards, Jesus is doing really great, really good things. They’d love it if Jesus did more of them. But, by the people’s standards, there is a proper way to do them, and Jesus absolutely refuses to conform to those expectations. He will not follow protocol. He will not do things the way they are supposed to be done.

It doesn’t matter how good the things are that Jesus does, if he doesn’t do them in the right way.

It matters to us how we go about things, and when we don’t do them the way we’re expected to, it rubs people the wrong way. Here are some examples.

  • Nobody would argue that it’s wrong to feed people who have no food. It’s humanitarian and Christian work at it’s most basic. People need food to live, and it’s easy to provide. But in dozens of cities across the country, feeding the homeless in public areas (which is where the homeless live) is illegal. The cities where this is the case argue that it’s not wrong to give food to homeless, but it should be done by properly licensed and regulated shelters and services.
  • Sex education is a controversial topic in schools. Nobody denies that as children grow up, they need to be informed about sex. This is so that our children grow up healthy, understanding their bodies and how they work. But people strongly disagree on what that education should look like. Proponents of abstinence-only education argue that it is the only 100%-effective way of preventing pregnancy outside of marriage and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Proponents of comprehensive sex education argue that it doesn’t hide the truth and facts from children and better prepares them to make sound decisions. Both arguments have the same goal, but disagree on what is proper.

It would seem the people in Jesus’s day have the same dilemma we have. We want good things to happen. But we want them to happen in the right way.

I’m not sure why this is as important to us as it is. But it is important to us, even in the church. There is a proper way of doing things, and no matter how good something is, if it doesn’t fit into our idea of what’s proper, we don’t want anything to do with it.

We would love new people to walk through our doors on Sunday morning, and we would welcome them with open arms—so long as it’s understood that they would adapt to the way we do things.

We would love to have children in worship with us—so long as they cease to be children for that hour and sit still and quiet, spectators and listeners only.

We would love to be the church in the world—so long as we built a building, formed a council, organized boards and committees, and never let them go.

This is how things are done. Changing them would be… very, very uncomfortable.

But why is that? David Lose strikes gold again this week when he suggests that, at the heart of our anxiety about the proper way to do things is: Insecurity.

When I used to go home to Hegewisch, and it seemed like nothing had changed, there was definitely a feeling of security. When I moved away to college, I moved six hours across two states to do it, and it took almost a decade before I felt comfortable there. It wasn’t Hegewish. It wasn’t home. It was so different from what I was used to, and going back to Hegewisch was going back to what I knew and loved—it was something I thought to be unchangeable. Secure.

But I can’t imagine my neighborhood now if it never changed. The neighborhood used to be all old Polish people. But time passes, and most have died or moved away. What if nobody else moved in? Or what if, when a business moved out, no new businesses moved in? Yes, it means the neighborhood will change. New people will come in, and they’ll be the ones coaching sports, and they’ll be the ones in the shops, and they’ll be the ones in church.

That’s okay. It really is. Because when things change like that, something remarkable happens. When we stop wallowing in insecurity and throwing up walls around the way we think things should be done, we suddenly discover that all those people we were afraid of—all those “other” things and ways of thinking out there really aren’t a threat. And neither are the people who hold them.

This is what Jesus was all about.

It wasn’t enough for Jesus to pick people to be his disciples. He picked people others would not normally associate with—poor fisherman, and a tax collector. People who made other people downright uncomfortable and insecure.

It wasn’t enough for Jesus to hang around with people who thought just like he did and who acted like he did. He routinely hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes, and yes, even Pharisees—all people his followers would dutifully avoid if they could help it.

It wasn’t enough for Jesus to heal people from a distance. He got up close and personal. He touched them. He brought the human factor into the equation. He healed them no matter what day it was, or whether someone else said it was okay to do so or not.

It wasn’t enough for Jesus to heal and make whole individuals—he healed and made whole their relationships, their relationships to God and to each other.

In doing so, Jesus even redefines what some of those relationships are. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks, challenging the accepted notion that nobody was more important than family. An idea which Jesus still holds, but he defines family differently: as those who do God’s will.

Jesus knew that the people around him had set ways of doing things and interaction with each other, and in the process, found ways to separate others from themselves. They’d found ways to cut off parts of their community that didn’t adhere to those ways of being or doing things. In their insecurity, they built walls to keep themselves safe and secure.

Jesus has never been about being safe.

Jesus routinely and radically challenged every barrier and obstacle people set in front of him in insecurity. He associated with all the wrong people, he reinterpreted laws that, while meant to help people, eventually hindered and oppressed them. He challenged the prevailing notions of the time, like violence was an acceptable response to anything, or that retribution was available for our use. He preached love for the enemy and resurrection from the dead. He established faith and trust as the basis of our relationship with God instead of rules and laws. He effected healing and wholeness for the entire universe not be wielding power, but by being killed by it.

This thinking, this acting, is not safe. It’s not secure. But neither are we, no matter how hard we want to be. We can’t “go home” again, to the neighborhood and life we used to know. And that’s okay. Jesus didn’t play it safe, and neither should we. Some things are more important.

Featured Image: “Danger” by THOR is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The Holy Spirit Wants Us to Do What?

Day of Pentecost
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Pentecost has always been an interesting day.

It is technically the only liturgical Sunday that we decorate the church red. There are two other festivals that get red—Reformation Day and Holy Cross Day—and red is also used for days celebrating martyrs. All of these days, decorated in red, have something in common: they mark momentous shifts.

Reformation Day, not a liturgical day but a day celebrated by many churches descended from the Protestant Reformation, remembers the 16th century movement that rocked the Roman Catholic church and shattered the unity of Western Christianity, marking a monumental change in what the church was. Holy Cross Day celebrates the cross on which Jesus was crucified, an event that was a seismic upheaval of the relationship between God and all of creation. And martyrs, the last days on which the church is decorated in red, are those faithful who were killed for their faith—obviously, that marks a huge change for them.

On Pentecost, the church is decorated the same way for the same reason: it is a day that marks a dramatic change. Nothing is ever the same again after Pentecost.

Which is also what makes Pentecost different. Reformation Day, Holy Cross Day, and the deaths of the martyrs that we remember with their own days are all remembrances of past events. They are celebrations of days that, while important to us and have some influence on us today, are, ultimately, in the past. That’s not the case with Pentecost.

“But wait!” I hear, “Pentecost DID happen in the past! It’s in the Bible, and that was written at least 2000 years ago. It, too, is a remembrance of a day long ago—an important day, yes, but a day in the past.” Let me tell you why I disagree.

There is an old saying that goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Perhaps a similar one is, “Familiarity breeds apathy.” It’s been 2000 years since the Day of Pentecost itself, and for enough Christians, that’s enough—the Holy Spirit came to the disciples, they started the church, and that’s it. The story is relegated to the annals of history, and becomes just another pretty story depicted in pretty artwork that we admire from a distance and say, “Oh, how nice.” But that isn’t what Pentecost is. Notice, I didn’t say that isn’t what Pentecost was—I said is.

I wish I could say that I took comfort in the Pentecost story. But I don’t. I can’t. I mean, read it.

There’s the sound of a violent, rushing wind. I’ve experienced some high winds that scared the crap out of me, but I’ve never been in a hurricane, or a tornado, winds that I would call violent. Then fire appears out of nowhere, and people start speaking loudly in languages they shouldn’t understand.

There’s nothing comforting about the appearance of the Holy Spirit, and there’s certainly nothing comforting about why the Holy Spirit comes in the first place.

Before the Holy Spirit came, the disciples were perfectly happy with what had happened. Jesus had been put to death, crucified even, but! Jesus had risen again. He had appeared to them many times. What could have been their darkest hour had been turned into their greatest joy. Jesus was back! All was again right with the world. Jesus would continue to teach them, to lead them, to tell them how God wanted the world to be, and with him guiding them, they could spread God’s mission, always relying on Jesus to make sure they were on the right path.

Jesus, however, had other plans.

In a surprising turn of events, 40 after he rises from the dead, Jesus ascends into heaven, leaving the disciples behind. Not really what the disciples were hoping for. They’d followed Jesus, and even though they abandoned him, they returned to him after his resurrection—whether they wanted to or not. But with Jesus gone, what were they supposed to do now? They were still followers, still clinging to Jesus’s heels as he left them.

And then, Pentecost arrives. And that’s when everything changes. In that mighty, violent, earth-sharking wind, and in those blazing tongues of fire, the disciples are transformed from bumbling buffoons into brave, risk-taking leaders, who go to any lengths to live out justice in the world and to spread the good news of Jesus Christ  EVEN AND ESPECIALLY when those lengths were unpopular.

They lived in communities where it was expected—indeed, mandatory—to sell all that they owned and to use the money to take care of the poor in their midst. They weren’t afraid to criticize the society and government around them when it failed to take care of the lowliest and the oppressed—it was no more popular then than it is now. With the Holy Spirit giving them the words, they proclaimed boldly the message and good news of Jesus Christ before arresting officers, before judges, and before executioners.

These are the things, Jesus says, the Holy Spirit has come to do. The Holy Spirit will come to testify on Jesus’s behalf, to boldly proclaim Jesus’s story. You also, Jesus says to his disciples, are to testify on my behalf—and the Holy Spirit will do that through you. Whenever you stand accused, the Holy Spirit will stand with you, and together, you will prove the world wrong. You will speak the truth.

Do you remember what happened to Jesus when he spoke the truth? Not exactly a comfortable life. But why should this story, of an event long past, with the disciples and the Holy Spirit NOT give me comfort?

Because: where do you think the Holy Spirit is now?

Today is not a remembrance of a past event, but a reminder of a present reality.

You see, unlike stories, which are safely confined in the past, the Holy Spirit, that same mighty, violent force; that same fiery presence, is just as present and active today as 2000 years ago. And the Holy Spirit’s expectations for us, disciples of Jesus today, is no different than they were 2000 years ago.

That’s not comforting at all. That’s terrifying. Do you mean that we’re expected to stand up to unjust government, and unjust society, and tell them the truth? That the second of the most important commandments, “love your neighbor as yourself”, is a serious cry to take care of each other without regard for reward? That war is not okay? That the love of money is a lie, and the acquisition of too much is a sin?

These are not popular messages. They may make our friends leave us behind. They may make us unpopular in our homes and in our towns. If it comes to it, telling the good news of Jesus Christ may cost us our lives—ask our brothers and sisters outside of North America and Europe, who live in fear for their lives every time they gather to worship on Sunday mornings.

This is not the life I would choose for myself. This is not what I wanted. There is no way in heaven or on earth that I am strong enough to act like the early disciples. I can’t do it.

But here’s the good news—neither could the disciples. Let’s face it, they were awful followers for the vast majority of their time with Jesus. Following the Resurrection, they locked themselves in a room and wouldn’t have come out if they had a choice. They would’ve lived in fear the rest of their lives because of what might happen.

And then, Pentecost arrives, and with it, the Holy Spirit, breaking through barriers of fear and doubt, reshaping the world in one monumental, dramatic event. Hurricane wind, fire, yelling—all through the Holy Spirit.

And the Holy Spirit entered the disciples. Suddenly, they bumbled no more. They took risks. They faced persecution and death. And we are here because of their witness. Now what do you think the Holy Spirit can do with you?

Featured Image: “too close for comfort” by Alex Miroshnichenko is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

2015 NGLS Worship Presentation

At the 2015 Assembly of the Northern Great Lakes Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I gave a presentation on worship titled The Who, What, Why, When, and How of Worship. It was a presentation that focused on mainly two things: what is all that stuff in the sanctuary, and why do we do what we do?

I have uploaded the presentation in both Microsoft PowerPoint and PDF formats.

SynodAssemblyWorkshop (ppt)
SynodAssemblyWorkshop (pdf)

An ELCA Pastor's reflections on life and the church


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