Spirit of the Disciples

The movement of the Holy Spirit can be found throughout human history, from creation, through Jesus, the disciples, the apostle Paul, and up to today in the here and now, through people like you and me.  This five-part series is a retelling of those stories, and starts when the beginning begun.  Missed the beginning?  Rewind to part 1

But Jesus was only on the earth for 34 short years.  After he left the Holy Spirit would need to change yet again, God realized.  For one thing, the disciples were always getting scared, especially after Jesus had died.  At one point they huddled together behind locked doors, gripped with fear (John 20:19).  It certainly seemed like the apostles could use some comfort, God thought.  Jesus knew his disciples well, and fortunately knew they’d need a hand when He had left them.  Jesus promised his disciples a helper, a comforter, telling them that the Holy Spirit, who the Father will send in my name, will teach you many things and remind you of everything I have said to you (John 14:26).  If only it were that easy.

The disciples, in typical fashion, didn’t remember this promise, and continued to live in fear.  This fear subsided, at least for a time, as the disciples huddled in the upper room after Christ had ascended to the heavens.  God decided to fulfill the promise his Son made to the disciples by again using some elemental flair, this time through wind and fire.  First a wind came from heaven, filling the house.  Tongues of fire then descended and came to rest on each and every one of them.  What’s more the disciples were guided by the Spirit to speak in other tongues (Acts 2), which must have surprised just about everyone gathered there that day.  The Spirit of the Disciples now helped people connect with each other in new tongues and in new ways, all through the language of the divine.

Perhaps most importantly, not only did the Spirit descend on the disciples, but the disciples believed they were now endowed by the Spirit, sent from God, and mediated to them by the risen Christ.  It is this belief, that the Spirit was with them, that enabled the early Church to first form, then flourish.

The Spirit in Jesus’ life reminds me of the Parable of the Sower found in Mark (4:3-20), Matthew (13:1-23) and Luke (8:4-15).  In the parable the sower scatters the seeds, but not all fall on fertile soil.  While we model Christ in sowing seeds of the kingdom, could where they fall and what comes of them be considered an action of the Spirit?  In this way the Spirit is the wind that scatters seeds from Christ’s hands, the fertile soil it falls onto, the rain that draws life from a tiny pod, and the sun that grows us upward.  Upward, and upward, bringing us closer, once again, to our Creator.

Spirit of Christ

The movement of the Holy Spirit can be found throughout human history, from creation, through Jesus, the disciples, the apostle Paul, and up to today in the here and now, through people like you and me.  This five-part series is a retelling of those stories, and starts when the beginning begun.  Missed the beginning?  Rewind to part 1

While the Spirit moved throughout ancient times in varied and powerful ways, parting waters, and bringing life from dry bones, still, God felt sad.  These children of mine, God thought, even with all this help they have from my Spirit, they do awful things.  They rape, they pillage, they plunder.  They keep destroying this creation I love, hurting me, hurting each other.  They are selfish and greedy, God realized, always wanting to do things their way.  God reflected on the rules given to God’s children to help them live and knew, deep down, that nothing had really worked all that well.  God had given over 600 rules through the priests, and the people failed to keep them.  God had given the 10 commandments through Moses, really easy rules, God thought.  I mean, how hard is it not to kill? Or to keep your hands off your neighbor’s wife?  But still, God noticed, the people couldn’t keep those either.  It’s time for a new approach, God concluded, time to do something new.

First God streamlined the rules, settling on just two.  Love me, and love each other, that should be simple enough.  God also realized that when it had gone the best was back in the Garden of Eden, when God had walked and talked and taught alongside Adam and Eve.  They had rejected God after these perfect moments, yes, that’s true.  But maybe they could learn something instead from God’s son, Jesus.  It was certainly worth a shot.  But for this plan to work Jesus would have to be different than God, both fully divine and fully human (1 Tim 2:5).  Jesus, sent by God, in the form of a man, gave God the chance to walk and talk and teach humanity once again.  Maybe they will listen to one of their own, and yet one of my own too, my Son, God pondered.  It was a chance God was willing to take.

This God-become-man, in the form of Jesus, created another challenge; God’s Spirit would need to evolve too.  This Spirit now makes Jesus the kingdom of God, in person, God thought.  It’s the power of the Spirit, moving Jesus to perform amazing acts like driving out demons, healing the sick, and bringing the kingdom of God to the poor.  The Spirit would not be something Jesus possesses.  Rather, it would be the power to make the Christ ready for anything he would experience in human form.  Ready, even, to surrender his own life.  And it is this Spirit that moves Jesus to voice, not my will, but thine, be done (Luke 22:42). With the Spirit guiding Jesus, and the divine walking alongside humankind once again, all things were now possible.

Spirit of Creation

The movement of the Holy Spirit can be found throughout human history, from creation, through Jesus, the disciples, the apostle Paul, and up to today in the here and now, through people like you and me.  This five-part series is a retelling of those stories, and starts with Part one, when the beginning begun.  

Once upon a time, before the beginning begun, there was God.  And God was all, and was in all.  But after being everything there is for trillions and trillions of years, as you might imagine, God got lonely.  And in that moment God thought, you know what?  It’s time to play.  It’s time to create.  So God got going.

When God got going, God brought along something very special.  Something that was also there before the beginning begun, and is the very essence of Godself.  God brought along God’s Spirit, and the Spirit of God, in the midst of nothingness, hovered over the waters (Gen 1:2).  The Spirit then moved at God’s command, busily drawing light from darkness, separating water from sky and then land, splitting sun from moon, planting vegetation of all kinds, and filling the earth, the air and the waters with all sorts of living and breathing creatures (Gen 1:3-25).  Then God then asked the Spirit to create humankind, making man and woman in God’s own image.  God then gave them a very important job: tend to all that has been created, for it was created for you.  (Gen 1:28).

God, for a time, walked among creation, chatting at length with Adam, telling of all the tips and tricks that would be needed to tend this most beautiful garden God had created.  (Gen 2:8-25).  Adam and Eve were God’s children after all, God loved them, and eagerly looked forward to spending time with them each and every day.

But this perfect family, this perfect arrangement would not last forever.  One day Adam and Eve decided that perhaps they didn’t need their Father.  Or at least they didn’t need to listen to the one rule that Father God had given them.  And even worse than that, finding themselves now naked and afraid, God’s children were ashamed (Gen 3:10).  This break in trust, break in relationship, between created and creation, made God very, very sad.

But God just couldn’t leave well enough alone.  What good parent could? I love those kids, and all the creation I’ve given them too, God said.  They may not want me.  They may think they can do without me.  And do without this perfect garden, but oh boy, what a mess they will make on their own out there.  What shall I do, God thought?  Then God had an idea.

The kids may not want me around, but still, they need my help.  With that God decided, that, while God and the kids were going through some troubled times, God’s Spirit, in ways great and small, could help the kids along their way.  And the Spirit could move in God’s world, and in all of God’s people, teaching, encouraging and inspiring all that God had created.  And all that God had deemed good, from when the beginning begun.

And, from that moment on, the Spirit came to be the embodiment of the creative work of God in our world.

Learning From (and for) Our Children

As the alarm went off this morning at 6am on this, the day after November 8, 2016, my wife and I awoke to a certain sadness.  If you are one of the 65 million people, or 52.5%, that participated in yesterday’s general election whose candidate will not be our next president perhaps you feel the same.

My wife and I wondered aloud the night before how best to explain the election results to our six-year-old daughter.  We excitedly took her with us to vote yesterday, in the hopes she’d remember the day as a moment of history.  Of when as a people we’d decided that yes, women truly can be and do anything they set their minds to.  The day of girl power was not to be.

My daughter, predictably as ever, walked into our bedroom shortly after the alarm went off, and my wife gave her the news.  “Why do some people say he’s mean?” she asked.  Still groggy, and not quite ready to answer with the honesty and care her query deserves I reply, “that’s a good question, let’s talk about it tonite.”  These are teachable moments, for sure, but for now that perspective, and those words, remain elusive.

I kiss my wife goodbye this morning as she leaves for work, see tears in her eyes, and resolve right then to take a good long jog, hoping to sweat a bit of this out.  The two of us bickered some last night on the couch as the results came in, and I realize now that emotion has turned to mourning.  We are grieving.  There is a certain sacredness to these tears, to this sweat.  Over time our tears, our sweat will bring healing.  Will bring wholeness.  But we’re not there yet.

As I go back into the house to make lunches for the kids my daughter notices her flowers outside look droopy.  “Daddy, can I water the flowers?” Of course, I reply, let me get you a cup.  In the next room I hear my three year-old-son stirring.  Now awake he’s playing with his favorite sound book of late, Farts in the Wild and pressing the elephant farts button repeatedly.  I hear the elephant trumpet with their trunk, which then proceeds to a loud step-fart-step-fart-step fart rhythm of humorous melodies.  I can’t help but smile.  The lunches now made, I grab a hat, and shuffle the kids into the car for school.  It’s a Chicago Cubs hat; my favorite team won the World Series in epic fashion seven short days ago.  More smiling.

Somewhere in these small, mundane moments it hits me:  I’m looking for meaning in all the wrong places.

Somewhere along the way we’ve lost sight of the Ten Commandments, which speak plainly about the ills of things like theft, lying, and adultery.  As a society we’ve misplaced the Golden Rule, which implores us to do unto others as we would have done unto us.  A quick glance at your Facebook feed likely shows ample evidence of that.  Hearing that white evangelical Christians voted for our next president by a whopping 81-16 percent margin gives me pause.  As a pastor it’s difficult to imagine how we, as a people of faith, reconcile this with our shared Judeo-Christian values.

It’s natural to want our leaders to model these values of course, to bring morality, ethics and good character into all they do.  But that doesn’t always happen.  And those choices aren’t always available to us.

But I do know this.  In the coming days, weeks, months and years there are kids lunches to be made.  Plants to water.  Fart books to read.  Our children have much to teach us.

There are also Ten Commandments and Golden Rules to discuss.  Girl Scout meetings to attend.  Cubs games to watch.  Crucial learnings to be handed down on topics like bullying, sharing, and using kind hands.  Our children have much to learn from us.

And, as a member of a faith community, there are sick to be healed.  Hungry to be fed.  Homeless to be housed.  Regardless of our politics our faith traditions call us to this.  EVERY. FRIGGIN. DAY.  We faith communities have much to teach our country.  And much to do in our world.

For now, while I find myself still mourning, still in need of healing, of wholeness, I find purpose.  Purpose as a husband, father, and Christ follower.  There is much to learn, and much to teach, in the here and in the now.  And in this unsettled moment, for me, that is enough.kids2

Please Be Seated

This message was given at First Congregational Church of Lake Worth, friend and Pastor Jason Fairbanks was out of town and gave me the opportunity to cover Sunday morning todos at his congregation, a most excellent group there.  The message is a reflection on the text from Luke 14:1,7-14.  Enjoy!

Show of hands, who here has ever planned a wedding reception? Or at least been married and played a role in planning your reception? Many of you, right? Weddings, and the receptions that follow them, are part of the fabric of our culture. It’s been fifteen years since my wife and I planned ours, tho after chatting the other day about our planning the memories came rushing back. As the host, for the big day, you want things to go just so. Thus all that planning.

For our reception first there was the booking of the site. We wondered, would our guests be willing to drive from the church we married in, in Michigan City Indiana, for half an hour to the reception site, in Valparaiso? We didn’t know, and nervously booked the room hoping they would. Most, but not all, of our guests did. Then there was the task of selecting food. For hors d’oeuvres would a tray of cheeses and a tray of fruit do it, or did we need to add a veggie tray too? For the meal were two options ok, or did we need three? And did any of our guests need a vegetarian option? Then there was the music. We ended up having a Jazz trio during hors d’oeuvres and the meal, and then had a DJ after that so everyone that wanted to could dance the night away.

A big decision, at least for us, was whether to have, or not to have, an open bar. Financially, that’s no small thing. After some debate with my now-wife, and some shuffling around of our wedding budget, we decided to go with an open bar. Reflecting back on that night, and considering our friends and family, at least many of them, that ended up being a very good call.

And then there’s the important task of assigning guests to tables. At least that’s how we did it for our wedding. But before you can assign people to tables you have to hone in on who plans to attend. Who’s RSVPed, who hasn’t, who needs to be bugged, again, and again, and again, for their answer. My wife and I reminisced about putting all our guest names in an Excel spreadsheet and trying to figure all this out with precision.

The task started out simply enough, initially we aspired to assign tables based on who would get along together and who wouldn’t. After that initial sort we found ourselves considering all sorts of other criteria, and asked ourselves all kinds of questions, all designed to yield, we hoped, the optimal table assignments for everyone. We asked questions like who did we think would dance? They should be near the dance floor. And who did we think would leave first? Perhaps they should go closest to the exit doors. And – this is a fairly important one – who among our guests had temperamental bladders? They, of course, should be seated closest to the bathroom. It was our attempt at making a perfect, wedding utopia.

Assigned Seating
In speaking with my wife about our wedding reception, which ended up being super fun and memorable, we couldn’t remember any overly large drama when it came to seating assignments, at least as far as we know. But that isn’t always the case.

To help prepare this message I asked Facebook friends to think about the wedding receptions they’d organized and to share stories about how people were assigned to tables, and how it all worked out, be it good, bad, or ugly. And share they did, within a few hours of posting on Facebook I was knee deep in anecdotes, some of them insightful, others just plain funny. Here’s just a small sampling of wedding reception seating stories that people shared.

Friend Mary remembers that her son was not too good with RSVP’ing for weddings when he was in his 20s. Once, he showed up at a reception, after driving for three hours, without an RSVP. This wedding reception also assigned guests to tables, and there was no place for him. The bride’s family, not wanting to turn him away, squeezed him in at the back table with the band. And even tho he was seated at what some might consider a lower ranking table it turns out he had a pretty good time. Last summer, when her son had his own wedding to plan, and needed to assign guests to tables, Mary tells me he finally understood the purpose of sending in that RSVP. Lesson learned.

And while not quite a wedding, seminary friend Sara describes a high end diplomatic function she went to in Eastern Europe once, where her American boss, who was aiming to impress, selected three ‘low number tables’ for colleagues and families to sit at. But the organizers of this function didn’t do things the way Americans do – low table numbers at our events are often for the important people. Table 1 is the wedding party, that kind of thing.

Instead, the tables were numbered somewhat randomly, and those low number tables had no special meaning. Even worse, it turned out that tables one, two and three were right next to floor-to-ceiling, loud, humongous audio speakers. All that effort to select what was assumed to be the best seats in the house, Sara tells me, and they ended up at tables where they couldn’t even hear themselves speak. She describes that night, and that experience, as embarrassingly awful.

College buddies Joel and Kate recall accidentally placing a vegan couple with the daughter of a chicken farmer.  You can almost imagine what kind of conversations they had.

Unassigned Seating
But not all wedding receptions have assigned seating. Shari remembers going to a wedding reception, without assigned seats, when her youngest daughter got married. The reception was the first mandatory post-divorce gathering she’d had with her ex. She watched, and chuckled a little, as her ex’s family all clamored for the best seats at the reception. Meanwhile, Shari and her husband walked around visiting guests and enjoying the company of friends. Her ex and their family got their seats of honor, she remembers, but were surrounded by others who also mostly cared about snagging those special seats. She on the other hand, had the freedom to enjoy the company of the entire room, seeing many friends and neighbors she hadn’t seen in years. Let them have the seat she concludes, freedom to travel is so much richer.

Friend Nicole chose not to do seating arrangements for her wedding, including not having assigned seats for herself and her husband. She figured if her own guests wouldn’t let her sit, well, then they shouldn’t be at the wedding anyways. And, what do you know, when the newly married couple arrived at the reception they found themselves without a seat, at least until some friends got up so they could sit down. But that didn’t end up mattering much, Nicole tells me, because mostly she and her husband, that special evening just danced and danced and danced.

So what do you make of all these wedding reception stories of who sits where on the big day? Thinking on this some it almost seems like there’s a certain social order we tend to be drawing from, or at least our own personal versions of a social order. As hosts we draw on this assumed order when assigning guests to tables. As guests, when we get to pick where we sit, there’s a decision to make – do we try and snag those primo spots, or just sit wherever and enjoy the festivities? Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Scriptural Seating
Two thousand years ago many people of Jesus’ time placed a similar value on where they sat for wedding receptions. The gathering Jesus found himself at in our gospel reading also did not have assigned seats. And, while scripture doesn’t specify, I’d wager that the wedding that’s described didn’t use RSVPs either. But, similar to modern-day receptions, ancient reception-goers also loved to vie for the best seats in the house.

Palestinian wedding feasts in biblical times often featured couches where guests would recline, with the center couch being the place of honor. Similar to our weddings, the host got to pick who sits where. The center couch went to the social elite, according to their wealth, power or office.

Jesus, at this gathering noticed people coming in and choosing the places of honor, and told a parable about going to a wedding reception. “Don’t sit down in the best spots, in case someone more distinguished than you arrives,” he says. Why not? Well, because then the host may come to both of you and say hey, give this person your place. That sounds like an incredibly uncomfortable social situation, at best.

It reminds me of stunts I’ve tried to pull in airplanes at times, and this is a bit of a confession. Every so often, when stuck in the middle airplane seat on a long flight, I’ll try to casually get up and slide into another open seat, hoping to go largely unnoticed. Those aisle seats are the best, they really are. But then, on occasion, the person holding the ticket for the seat I just plopped into arrives. Oops! That seat wasn’t ever mine to begin with, and now I’ve got to sheepishly get out of that great aisle seat, lower my head in shame, and head back to the middle seat I really didn’t want in the first place. I hate it when that happens.

This moment, of embarrassment, of shame, of being put in my rightful place, which sometimes really is the middle airplane seat, is exactly what Jesus is trying to help us avoid. And really, that middle seat entitles me to those same crappy airline pretzels anyways, what was I thinking trying to pull this stunt?

Instead, Jesus offers us this: sit at the lowest place, so that when the host comes, they may say, friend, move up higher, and you will be honored. Keeping with our airplane seating shenanigans, that’d be like choosing to sit in the back row of the plane, picking that middle seat, you know, the one near the bathroom, and hoping, really hoping, a flight attendant will come up and offer you a spot in first class. That, my friends, this alternate way to live into the world around us that Jesus suggests, is radical, radical thinking.

Jesus concludes the parable by saying that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. In a way, this passage is the biblical doppelganger to the parable of the laborers, in the vineyard, of Matthew, chapter 20. In that passage Jesus concludes that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. This kingdom he keeps referring to, one that humbles the exalted, exalts the humbled, puts the last first and the first last, it’s so very different than what we’re used to. In our culture it’s all about number one, and looking out for number one, a notion that Jesus time and time again turns on its head.

Pay It Forward
But Jesus wasn’t quite done with teaching at this wedding reception just yet. Next he turned to the host that had invited him, saying, “when you host a meal, do not invite your friends, or relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return. With that guest list, you would be repaid. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid in heaven.”
This concept, of doing something for others that can’t possibly be repaid, is the central theme of the movie Pay It Forward that came out in 2000. To give you a sense of what this film is about I’d like to play the trailer for the movie.

“Is it possible for one idea to change the world?” this trailer asks. Is it? In the movie, the boy, played by actor Haley Joel Osment, has an idea for a 7th grade social studies project. His idea is simple, help three people, who in turn help three others, and so on, but there’s a catch: the help has to be something really big. Something the person you’re helping can’t do by themselves.

We watch as an unemployed reporter witnesses his car being totaled. Within seconds, out of nowhere, a lawyer walks up and gives him a brand new Jaguar. Trying to figure out what this is all about the reporter tracks this pay-it-forward movement, and from that learns:

• The lawyer’s daughter, suffering horribly from an asthma attack, was helped earlier by a gang member. The gang member had given up his place in line in the Emergency Room, even though he was bleeding from a gunshot wound.
• The gang member was helped earlier by a homeless woman. This homeless woman helped him escape being arrested by the police.
• The homeless woman had been helped earlier by her daughter. The daughter had sought out her mom in an effort to reconnect with her grandson.
• And finally, the daughter, played by Helen Hunt, was helped by her son, the seventh grader that came up with the idea in the first place. What did he do? As part of his efforts to begin to pay it forward, indirectly, he’d helped mom get back on the road to recovery from a nasty addiction to alcohol.

Kingdom Seating
What if this idea, of helping others that can’t possibly repay you, what if that, as Jesus tells us, is the key to being blessed in the here and in the hereafter? When we volunteer at the homeless shelter, we pay it forward, to those many in society deem as less than. When we tutor a child, on our own time, without pay, because we feel called to give back, we model Christ, letting the children come to us to be blessed. When we give to aid organizations, to help people halfway across the globe – people that we’ll likely never meet – again, we help to pay it forward, and play our part in healing a broken world.

In these moments, when we help others, without any expectation of being repaid, and without regard to age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, orientation, social status or creed; we invite them all to the grand reception Jesus describes. Perhaps in these moments, where all are not just welcome, but all are present, and are cared for, all have a seat at Christ’s table, perhaps in these moments we catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God that is to come. And perhaps, in these moments, we bring that kingdom a little closer to earth, in the here and in the now. May it be so.  AMEN.

please be seated