Tag Archives: Spirit of God

What We Do Have

Sermon for 9 June 2019 – Pentecost Sunday

On this Pentecost Sunday, listen to a reading from Acts of the Apostles 2:1-21. Listen for God’s word to us.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

On Monday, Sharon Shields and I attended a rather interesting workshop. We went because of the title: Turning Sacred Space into Kingdom Cash. Admittedly, I was not expecting to sit through a full-blown lecture from a Professor of Finance about the steps to take in order to become a Social Entrepreneur. I wasn’t so sure what to do with his in-depth description on vetting market opportunities that included things like benchmarking to other commercial ventures and regulatory constraints and elasticity of consumers and profit maximizers. I looked around the room as he spoke and wondered if he forgot that we were a bunch of church leaders (mostly preachers); not young adults sitting in a university level business class! What did fascinate me in his presentation was his passion for church-based social enterprises. And the descriptions given at the workshop of not just one but three different church-based social enterprises this professor and his students have been about in the last few years.

Let me tell you about Spring Back – a church-based business that not only is improving the work force, but also is making money in serving the social good. Spring Back is comprised of men from the Isaiah 58 ministry of Belmont Church who are coming out of prison and trying to get their lives back together. At a warehouse off Trinity lane, Spring Back employees these men to whom Belmont Church has been ministering. They report to work for pay each day to take apart mattresses. Now, if you’ve ever tried to get rid of an old mattress, then you know absolutely no body wants them! Even the local dump would rather not take them because they are a huge fire risk. Spring Back teaches the men how to take apart each mattress which is made from something like 85% recyclable materials. Foam on one pile, steel on another. On and on they go with discarded mattress after discarded mattress until a profit actually is earned from the recyclable materials!

We heard too, on Monday, of a Farm to Table social enterprise of Nashville that is taking unused land to grow vegetables to sell to local restaurants. This Farm to Table business trains homeless men and women so they are able to work the land for pay. When harvest comes, two bushels of every crop are donated to local food banks while the rest is sold to restaurants wanting fresh, hearty homegrown food. Like Spring Back, it’s a social enterprise our Finance Professor would call a hit with its triple bottom line!

But I have to admit that the church-based social enterprise that blew my mind away was one called Three One Three. Founded by a passionate millennial who also was with us on Monday. While we listened, Brennon told what his Nashville-based Three One Three is all about. He explained that 3-1-3 or three hundred-thirteen days a year, which is all six days a week excluding Sunday, too many church buildings sit empty. As he spoke, I remembered reading the words a member of the twelve-step group now meeting here on Saturdays wrote just a few months back about lots of people today being disgusted with great big church buildings that lock their doors tight to everything but their own worship on Sundays. I can’t tell you how long I’ve sat year after year throughout the week as a pastor in church buildings where I was the sole human being for hours on end. Sometimes trying to work out of such offices is just creepy with the creeks and bumps empty old buildings can make. As a millennial who knows all about the contemporary craving for community, Brennon told about Three One Three’s co-working space located in a church building that otherwise sits empty 24 hours a day at least six days a week. Three One Three worked with the local church to transform some 10,000 square feet of under-used space into desks, private offices, and communal gathering spaces. Small business owners who prefer working alongside others in order to connect throughout the day or who would rather not tie-up their funds into permanently leased office space have membership in Three One Three. Kinda like getting your YMCA card for the year. Folks pay a monthly fee to have access to all they need to run their small business out of under-used church space. Three One Three members have the great experience of getting to know other Three One Three members – talking at lunch and at breaks about things like their latest struggles at home, their great new ideas in their work, their fears and their challenges in everyday life. Brennon says that kingdom-like conversations take place in church buildings that otherwise would be sitting empty. What’s more, in one year, over three-thousand people – mostly millennials and others who would never consider attending a Sunday worship service – have crossed the threshold of the church building where Three One Three is housed. A few even have become church members. Regardless if the church ever attracts them into the rest of their ministry, that’s three-thousand people being brought into a caring, supportive space where they can connect with Three One Three hosts and other Three One Three users to begin creating community. People come together. Under-used church space gets used. And cash is generated for congregations to further their mission – ensuring they carry on the work entrusted to them by God. Isn’t it absolutely amazing what happens when church folk take stock of what they do have that can be re-purposed to serve the social good?

It’s the kind of thing being preached that first Pentecost when the wind blew and the passion burned like flames dancing over each disciple. The Spirit of God was stirred up among the first followers. Though skeptics poked fun and curmudgeons complained, the Apostle Peter proclaimed that the prophesy of Joel was being let loose in the world. The Spirit upon all flesh! Sons and daughters making way for a new future. Youngsters seeing grand new visions. Elders dreaming dreams! It’s recorded in the gospel of John that Jesus himself once declared they would do greater things than he (John 14:12)! And look: they did! We have! God’s work will not be stopped! The Spirit stirs among us and the Church of Jesus Christ is carried on in bold new ways!

Pentecost is one of my favorite Sundays of the year! Because Pentecost asks us to pray for God’s Spirit to guide us anew! We may not be the kind of church that re-purposes our 13,000 square feet of upstairs under-used space the other 3-1-3 days of the year in a co-working social enterprise. But what do we have as a congregation that the Spirit of God might want used anew for the thousands of residents living around this building? Monday reminded me that as a congregation, this church has been entrusted with nearly nine acres of land in the middle of a beautiful neighborhood. According to the demographic information we now know from the quick overview given during our Capital Campaign, the people living closest to this facility report that they’re mostly not interested in religious institutions. Whether that’s how it’s always been in Hillwood-West Meade or not, those who first came together to begin this congregation had the vision of being located in the middle of this neighborhood for strangers to come together. For neighbors to become friends. For those in need to not have to walk alone. Times were different then, but the church set forth using this building to provide that for which local folks had an appetite. It’s never too late to go back to that beginning. We find our way forward, remembering the past purpose of this church, as we envision what will satisfy the cravings of the community today.

It’s easy to get really uncomfortable with some of the directions churches today are going. Then we can remember the people we know who have no church home. People who have been rejected by family members that get themselves shiny for worship each Sunday but live with such hateful hearts six other days each week. I know children I have loved for years who have grown into adults who aren’t about to get out of bed Sunday mornings to move through rituals that seem empty to them even if it’s always been done that way. I can see in my mind’s eye sisters and brothers of every age who think what we’re about here is irrelevant. Non-sensical. And totally boring. You know such folks too – your own neighbors and friends and family members who we haven’t yet figured out how to reach because we haven’t learned the language that makes sense to them.

I want the Spirit to stir among us again. The mighty winds of God to blow away the chaff of church and re-ignite in us a passion to take the good news of a gracious God out into the streets. I’m not talking about shouting hallelujah on street corners or anything crazy like that! But how about dreaming new dreams around the best things of Christ. Things like caring for those who are hurting. Loving those who feel totally lost. Using this space – this land to connect those who are lonely. Giving hope for a better tomorrow to those who feel nothing’s worth it anymore. None of us have all the answers alone and we might need to take the time to ask youngsters to tell us their visions for the future. We might have to ask those older than us what dreams they have for tomorrow – the best of life they want to make sure those yet to come enjoy.

Pentecost is our time to re-open to the Spirit. To renew through the fresh winds of God that are blowing. May every last one of us listen. Look. Dream. For it is absolutely amazing what happens when church folk take stock of what we do have that can be re-purposed to serve the social good.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

 

Around the Table

A Sermon for 19 May 2019 – 5th Sunday of Easter

A reading from Acts of the Apostles 11:1-18. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

In Take this Bread: A Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-first-Century Christian, Sara Miles tells of the first day she walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco, California. Raised by parents who wanted nothing to do with the religion for which each sets of their parents had been overseas missionaries; at forty-six, Sara walked into the building down the street from her house one day. From the start, she was struck by the beautiful, sun-drenched rotunda of the space where chairs where configured in a circle around that to which every detail of the building’s architecture pointed. Sara writes: there, “in the center of the open, empty space (that) was ringed high above by a huge neo-Byzantine mural of unlikely saint figures;” there, was a table (p. 57). That morning, for the first time, Sara heard the words she would hear every other time she gathered with others for worship in that place. Amid simple a cappella songs, the standing and sitting that accompanies the pageantry of most any Episcopal service, the listening, and the joyful dance that led worshippers up to that table; Sara heard a woman announce: “Jesus invites everyone to his table” (p. 58). Though never having received the bread and fruit of the vine before; Sara went forward to taste and see.

Sara would come to learn that this little church intentionally had been crafted by two priests who had grown weary of ossified Episcopalian worship. From the building, to the rock-hewn baptismal font out back, from the beautiful liturgy, to the body of believers who were “mostly highly-educated, liberal, middle-age San Francisco professionals, with” in Sara’s words, “a sprinkling of Republicans, older people, and younger families . . . a congregation of 150 artists, scholars, theater designers, psychologists, and composers” – many of whom had spent years away from religion but were looking for a way back into a congregation that would accept them for who they were. Doubts, difference, and all. Sara stood among them around that table that winter morning and as she ate the crumbly bread and drank from the cup of sweet wine, Sara writes: “Jesus happened to me” (p. 58). From that first time around that table, her life dramatically changed.

I’m not sure what would happen if someone like Sara came into our midst. ‘Cuz within a year, she went to her new priests to ask if it would be possible to begin handing out bread from that very table to the ethnically and economically different, hungry people who lived all around St. Gregory’s building but never set foot in the door. From the moment Jesus happened to her. From the moment she first heard the words, “Jesus invites everyone to his table,” Sara – a woman who started out as a chef in New York long before women were accepted as chefs. Having ingested Jesus at that table, Sara wanted to feed others too! From nothing, she began what would become one of San Francisco’s busiest food pantries. And when they couldn’t keep up with the need, Sara found ways to replicate the model at various locations nearby. She firmly believed what was said each week in worship: Jesus invites everyone to his table! With loaves of bread literally given from that same table every Friday, the face of St. Gregory’s Episcopal church began to change.

Long has the church struggled in sharing The Table with others. As early as the first days of the Acts of the Apostles, the first followers of the Way weren’t so sure with whom it was okay to eat. As Jews who had gotten on board behind the wandering rabbi from Nazareth, they believed that it wasn’t kosher to dine with those who were different from them. It makes no sense really that they clung to this notion, because the gospels tell story after story of Jesus sitting at table with those who were not considered ritually clean. In fact, when a woman from Syrophoenicia reminds Jesus that even Gentile “dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” her faith is blessed. Her daughter instantly healed. The One the apostles had been following – the One they had been watching welcome those often-considered outsiders, touching those thought untouchable, inviting the most unlikely to come follow. Jesus, the One from whom the first disciples had been learning, ate in the homes of tax collectors and Pharisees. The gospels tell the stories of a Holy rebel. The ultimate table-turner who freely shared what he had been given. How in the world could those to whom he had entrusted his mission so blatantly missed his point?!

According to Acts of the Apostles, Peter is swarmed in Jerusalem for eating with uncircumcised men! It happened that Peter – the one often considered Jesus’ lead disciple – was off on his travels. Preaching the good news of the Risen Christ. Healing powerfully in his name. Staying in the city of Joppa, Peter was asked to come to Caesarea by a man named Cornelius. Long years Cornelius had prayed to God. Giving alms and dedicating his whole household to the LORD despite the fact that he was a member of an Italian Cohort – a centurion serving Rome, who himself was not a Jew. It can be hard for us to understand all the fuss. Most of us today don’t even know the background of our ancestors. We don’t build our guest lists based on whether or not each guest is circumcised! Oh, we have the safe circles in which we mostly live and move and have our being so that many of us may never have sat down to supper with someone who wasn’t born in the United States. We may never have eaten with someone who doesn’t speak our same language. We might know a few folks of another religion. But have we intentionally invited them over to our homes or set up a date to meet for dinner after work? Maybe we’ve experienced such divergent ways when traveling internationally for a mission trip. But how often in the past week have we entertained at our tables those who are radically different from us?

For me the question is an unfolding journey. Because I was raised in a small town in Wisconsin where it was drilled into us as youngsters that “If you’re not Dutch; you’re not much.” Difference spanned the gamut of from which part of the Netherlands did your grandparents come? In our little town of 1,800, we worried about how blonde your hair was and if you were ready every summer to participate in Holland Fest. All four churches in town believed they were so very different, though all four were a part of the Reformed Theological Tradition. And you wouldn’t dream of becoming friends with the one or two Catholics who went to services outside the village limits. We were proud to be Dutch – counted among the much who worked hard. But it didn’t take too many years of living until it was clear to me that my own mother was a red-head and my best friend in high school was a dry-witted brunette. None of us really were the same – but if you wanted to color outside the lines, that too would have to be done outside the village limits. In Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “God made us different that we might know one another, and . . . how we treat one another is the best expression of our beliefs” (p. 225). Had I never met those different from me, I literally would not be here today. Neither would you. Despite how awkward it can feel sometimes when we’re not sure if we all agree on the same table etiquette, why in the world would we refuse to eat with those who are different from us?

It would take a startling vision from God for Peter to abandon his prejudices. On the roof at the home where he was staying in Joppa, Peter found himself in a dream-like trance while he prayed. Something like a sheet descended from the heavens with all sorts of animals in it. It’s recorded that Peter was hungry and a voice told him to go ahead and eat. Protesting that the animals held in the sheet weren’t all ritually clean, Peter refused to eat. Lest we think the vision is just about what foods to eat, the voice Peter heard clearly told him – three times: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15). Wasn’t that how they were treating the Gentiles? Not so sure they were clean in the eyes of God, though according to the story the Creator of all made all good. Very, very good!

It certainly can complicate things trying to eat with those who are different from us. ‘Cuz like did you know that not everyone in the world wants to drink sweet tea? And I can tell you as a first-hand witness that not every Presbyterian Church in this country has ever even heard of pimento cheese sandwiches! When we sit down at table with different people, we might have to learn how to eat other foods. Literally finding that the Jewish family down the street is grateful to stop to observe a holy Sabbath rest each Friday night. The Buddhist neighbor could teach us a lot about keeping centered in peace through silent prayer. Someone who’s not even sure there is a God might be the first one at our door in a crisis – their commitment to relieving human need coming from their own experience of compassion when catastrophe struck their life. The other night I was blessed to listen to a passionate, young African American women tell about the way she has begun a Soulful Sunday circle in a local park. As she held my broken foot to offer me healing energy, she talked of the young people who join her to sit in the quiet on the earth, be guided in a heart-centered meditation, and re-grounded to go back out into the world for another week.  . . .  Isn’t it amazing to think of us all at one Table? Bountifully eating our fill of food that truly nourishes?

About us all dining together, one biblical commentator writes: “A change of heart comes when one sees the Spirit at work in the stories of strangers, recognizing in them the same Spirit that is working in one’s own life. People need first to see God at God’s surprising work. Theological reflection comes afterward, either to bring what has been seen into coherence with past thinking, or to make a reasoned break with that thinking” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2, Lewis S. Mudge, p. 252). That’s how Peter and the believers in Jerusalem finally understood. As Peter eloquently proclaimed to Cornelius and those gathered in Caesarea: now “I truly understand,” he said, “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears the LORD and does what is right is acceptable to God” (Acts 10:34-35). For indeed, God gives the Spirit to all that leads all to Life! (Acts 11:18).

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)