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Pentecost 2019

Pentecost: the denouement of the Easter season, the answer to all our questions about the resurrection, the church, the mission. Do you think?

The background to this story has Jewish roots in a harvest festival, Shavuot, later to be associated with the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. The reading of the Law would have been accompanied by the sober reminder that at the harvest festival, those who had been landless, homeless, and hungry, would be grateful for their unearned blessings and restoration. And that those still in the chains of hunger or poverty would receive generosity and restoration in terms of land, a sense of belonging, and hope. So at this festival, these Jewish disciples would identify the mission of Jesus with the expectations of a holy society. It is interesting that this story of the reception of the Holy Spirit would be grounded in the very concerns of both the Law and of Jesus around justice, hospitality, and generosity.

At the beginning of the narrative we hear that the disciples are again sequestered in one place. We might remember that whenever they gathered in this way, Jesus has surprised them. This time, the Spirit bursts into their inward looking conversation and throws open the doors of the room. Fire and wind, images of exodus and Elijah, liberation and challenge. Suddenly they remember why they even came to know each other. From their incarceration by fear and lack of focus, they are pulled outside themselves, drunk with the presence of the Christ who has reached out to the whole world from the restriction of the cross to the freedom of the resurrection: Jesus, remembered as the Beloved teacher, transformed into the wild Spirit that severs the chains of oppression and alienation.

Peter, the spokesperson, finds he is no longer afraid of otherness, but welcomes interaction with those not of his language, not of his culture, not of his religion. In finally understanding the freedom offered by Jesus and fulfilled by this event of the Spirit, the blindfold falls from his eyes. He now sees that all people are worthy of freedom, of peace. All people are worthy of love, of a seat at the banquet of creation, this blue and green palace made by God.

I imagine that the disciples now understood that Jesus’ death and resurrection were release from limitation. I imagine they were surprised increasingly by how this explosive experience would bend the fortresses of prejudice in their minds and would cause them to dream of a world only prophesied about. I picture them as dizzy with insight and so full of the power of the Spirit that they were compelled to share this gift of freedom from the shuttered mind, the social barriers. As David danced with the return of the Ark of the Covenant, I imagine them dancing and singing as they discovered the power of Jesus’ spirit with them still, his compassion. But most of all, they would understand his revelation of the desire of God for all people to awaken to the holiness within creation, the holiness that would open us to become communities where the poor don’t simply get remainders — scraps from the table — but where poverty is always being healed.

I think the questions brought to Pentecost then, in that isolated room, are still with us. What do we want from resurrection? What are the messages we see every day about how we are to live? How are we are being freed to rethink our convictions, our opinions? How is the Spirit freeing us to be generous and welcoming, not tolerant of difference, but energized by it?

These are not rhetorical questions. These questions will define which Christian communities thrive and which become holy relics. Jesus is with us when we are the community in motion, the community that can speak the gospel of justice and liberation in many languages, with many cultures. Jesus sits at tables of strangers and engages in story telling and community activism with many partners. Salvation belongs to those who bring hope, who share lives, who act and speak with courage. Peace comes with the awareness that we are each a tiny but important life, living for the community of God, a peaceful, abundant earth, one family throughout the world.

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Seeds at the Cross to New Wine

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 

— John 12:24 —

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 

— 1 Corinthians 15: 35-38 —

These two passages offer very significant clues for thinking about the season from Good Friday to Pentecost. They help us move away from literalism to a rich understanding of Jesus the Christ and of how his resurrection is a promise for us and for all.

On Good Friday, the first disciples were overwhelmed with the awareness that their teacher and friend, their mentor, was in fact as human as they. He died in a particularly gruesome and humiliating fashion. No lightning bolts came to save him. He died with us, sharing even fear and pain with us. For me, this has always been an important insight, a reality that demands that we are born and that we die: some of us easily, some of us horribly. Nothing can save us. We are designed for death. But maybe we are also designed for resurrection!

When family and friends first encountered the risen Messiah, you will remember that they did not recognize him. He had been transformed. It is in relationship that his nature was revealed to followers, sometimes immediately, as in the garden with Mary; sometimes later, after he left the dinner and prayers in Emmaus. Although his presence seemed concrete and corporeal, he was able to appear and disappear mysteriously. All the post-resurrection stories happen only with his followers. There is no mention of any encounters with strangers, enemies, or other friends. John Dominic Crossan (Resurrecting Easter) has pointed out that the Eastern Church maintained its commitment to the idea of a corporate resurrection as the important idea, whereas the Western Church became focussed on personal salvation. Of course, both belong together. It is not possible to conceive of isolation in the company of Christ. Everything happens in community, but it also leads to individual experience. 

Which brings us to the story of the Ascension, a story that is limited by a shift in our knowledge base and the literalism of our era. Buckminster Fuller calls the whole story into question with his famous perspective that in a round world, there is neither up nor down. So if not an up and down movement, than what do we make of this tale? I believe the story of the ascension has everything to do with grief and empowerment. 

Many people who are grieving say quietly that they have either seen their loved one or that they experience their presence. There is a Netflix series call “After Life” about a man struggling grimly with his grief, so much that he views videos of his deceased wife, over and over. Eventually, he is able to move beyond his personal pain to acknowledge that the world still exists and instead of fighting it or hiding from it, he can be a force of compassion and wisdom. 

The ascension story might be about the disciples releasing their grief and their personal sense of disempowerment in order to become the church. Unless the seed falls into the ground…. And that seed is the misdirected hopes, the keenness of feeling abandoned, the confusion around the choices that those first disciples must have felt. Also, the time had come to reassess who Jesus could be for them in the present, rather than clinging to the beloved leader of the past. 

One trajectory for this story is to understand the ascension as the movement from Jesus the mortal, the man, to Jesus, filled with the Spirit of the Holy One, as the Christ; Jesus, the one anointed to show the world that death is a gateway not an abyss. The Christ who — through his transformation from the Beloved to the Christ — becomes for us the sign of inclusivity, and who combines all the knowledge of the suffering and joy of humanity with the cosmic wisdom of the Spirit of the Holy One. 

Jesus, the man of history, would have been an influence but would not be such a world-shaking experience without his transformation. The disciples could not have become the church without turning away from gazing into the skies, waiting for an unrealistic dream. Instead, they look at each other, at their world, at the circumstances of their lives, and they begin to plan their next steps as the followers of Jesus, now the Christ. 

On the day of Pentecost, the story of the gathering of the disciples, for the first time as the Body of Jesus, transforms them also into the body of the risen Christ, no longer limited by other knowledge, or false hope. For themselves and for the witnesses, they become people who — like Jesus himself — reach out to all people, regardless of status or ethnicity. They are filled with the wine of vision and new hope. They come to believe that they have not been abandoned at all but, like the earthly Jesus, they have been anointed for the work of transforming others with compassion, hope, and healing. 

They no longer look like those first fishermen. They are no longer seeds planted in hope, but food for a hungry world.

They discover abilities they did not know they had. They become orators, motivational speakers, powerful in prayer and in the radical messages of acceptance and the destiny of humanity. The gospels certainly are about love, but about a tough love, one that has endured suffering, that has experienced the pain of becoming new, that has had to leave the past behind to grasp for an awe-filled, unbelievable promise. Through these disciples Pentecost calls: “Follow him with us and discover that death is a gate and there is so much more to life than we can know in one lifetime.”

Pentecost is the promise that if we open our minds and our emotions, we too can be filled with the new wine of promise and the courage to live our lives with openness and authenticity. Pentecost is a story about finding the Holy as an experience that comes for those who allow themselves to live on the other side of platitudes and vulnerability. 

“God loves us already and has from our very beginning. The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it is about seeing what is already true: that God loves us already and then beginning to live in this relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.” (Marcus Borg)

At the heart of the institutional church, the Holy Spirit still burns and stirs, no matter how deeply we may from time to time have embedded it in stone and statutes. The wild Spirit will break out and demand freedom and justice, hope and healing, compassion and vision beyond our knowing. 

And from the late Judy Cannato (Radical Amazement), mystic and believer:

Our knowing what we know is an act of self transcendence, and our acting upon what we have learned will lead to greater consciousness still. . . . . We must accept accept the power and grace that is in the emerging universe. . . .This is our moment. Let us live connected and in love. . . .

Do You Love Me?

“Do you Love Me, now that I can dance” was a song performed by the Contours in 1964. There is a delightful YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrlafREM_pE) to go with the song. 

animals dancingNow what might that have to do with John 21? One of the deficiencies of the first followers of Jesus was their need for a validating sign, a proof, that Jesus’ teaching and way to peace and justice was worth risking everything. Some of them had left behind employment and personal security to follow him down the roads and through the villages, even into the great city of Jerusalem. It’s not entirely surprising that they wanted reassurance. First Judas betrayed Jesus to the authorities, perhaps to force a sign as much as for compensation. Then Peter, after Jesus’ arrest, denied him not once but three times, another betrayal of loyalty. 

I reflected this week that everyone wanted Jesus to dance to a different tune, to be something other than a man, or simply show “his moves” to the authorities. Even in this anecdote in John 21, when Jesus asks Peter if he can love him with the kind of passion with which Jesus loved God, Peter demurs. Instead of the word agape that Jesus uses, Peter responds with the word, philios. I love you like a friend.

So then, despite the possibly implied disappointment in Peter’s response, Jesus sets him on a mission. Now interestingly, the text says that it is Peter who is disappointed because Jesus does not seem to trust his answer. 

We continue to be disappointed that Jesus does not provide proofs, that we still must respond to his question, that we are still stuck between waiting for him to dance, and having the world instantly transform into his likeness.
So what do we take away from this story? First, I think some of us will relate more to the
historical Jesus, the apocalyptic prophet, or the healer, or the inclusive, open friend to women, children and the poor. Some of us will relate to the suffering servant who gathers all the pain of the world into his arms on the cross. Others will look to the Christ, the sacred figure who united heaven and earth, who promises a future in which pain and sorrow will.

polar bears dancingSome of us will be blinded by the love we have for the human Jesus or the divine man, and will entirely commit our lives to his service. Some of us will love him more than anyone else, but maintain some distance. Some of us will only form a passing acquaintance, but still name ourselves his followers.  There is space for us to intensify and release. There is room to learn and deepen our understanding of him. Some of us will tango and some of us will waltz with him, but always he will be stretching his love and his life to us, for us and with us. Let’s dance.

Faith and Reason

Faith and reason are two responses to encounters of the Holy. In John 20:19-31, the writer sets these responses apart in the disciples’ comments. For a long time in the church, however, all education, all “science” or knowing existed within the boundaries of religious oversight. Sadly, rather than embracing discovery and invention as Holy gifts, they were frequently perceived as heresy. 

Those religious scholars needed to reread John. Jesus does not chastise Thomas for his questions or for his need for physical proof. Nor does Jesus treat faith without proof as a sign of naïveté or gullibility. Rather, he accepts the different ways his followers accommodate a difficult truth. The gospel of John encourages us to “know” ourselves through integrating  Mystery that becomes reality for us. The disciples come to terms with their grief that things are different than they imagined, but that Jesus is and was and will become the Christos they loved and would only begin to know after the resurrection. 

So I don’t think the story of Thomas is about a schism between faith and reason; rather, faith and reason form the base for spiritual development. Faith is bedrock that promises a foundation of relationship with the Holy, a spiritual home for the seeking heart and mind. Reason — questioning — is also a Holy gift that impels beyond the truth of today into the unfolding truth of tomorrow. 

Judy Cannato said, “All our knowledge leads us to greater consciousness. Our knowing what we know is an act of self-transcendence, and our acting upon what we have learned will lead us to greater consciousness still.” (Radical Amazement)

At this time in history, we have folks who want to hide from learning about life, faith, the universe, while equally there are people asking deep spiritual questions that our religious institutions are just beginning to entertain. It is an exciting time for the church as we release ourselves to learning and to more profound consciousness.

In The Gnostic New Age, April DeConnick, says, “Gone is the God of damnation. Gone is the focus on sin and retribution. In its place is the God of Love that the Gnostics claimed to know. Separation from God and reunification with the sacred has become the story of salvation…. To be successful, religion today must promote personal well-being, health, and spiritual wholeness.” 

I would say that the latter values have been held safely by the mystics and the cloistered for all of these centuries. At this time, though, faith and reason are beckoning us into an adventure, an ark to a renewed world, an exodus into liberation, a wilderness of testing and fulfilment. And at the end, whenever and whatever that may be, we are promised joy.

Christos Anesti!

Bunnies and chicks, chocolates and maple candies, spring flowers and sunshine: the ingredients of our Easter celebrations. Oh… church, too! I think Jesus would have loved all the intercultural props for the service that celebrates his resurrection into the Body of his followers. I am convinced that we are made for delight, for affection, for appreciation of the goodness of life. On this morning, we celebrate that healing is as real as pain, that death is an event in a life, not the end of life. 

Today we laugh away how imprisoned we have been by doubt and fear. Now we see how life could be, how we can remake the world in the image of sacrificial love, of peace, of enough for all. With our linear thinking, our over-confidence in knowledge, we forget to trust the impulse of our experience that will always draw us to beauty, to mystery, to the horizon where Christ is calling. 

Consider the lilies this morning. Artfully designed by the Creator and arranged by loving hands, they focus our vision on how we could work together with the Holy One. This is how life might be if we saw ourselves as co-workers with God. Such tiny specks in the universe, yet we have been asked to be the ones who give meaning, who provide for the safety of the other creatures and the earth. We have been commissioned by God to maintain this planet, this first home. We have been called to live resurrection, to speak resurrection, to become resurrection. With all the world, our song must be awe and praise and thanks. 

Do not fear that prompting in your heart. You have nothing to lose but isolation. Open your heart in community and discover that together we are on the path. If God were a verb, I would say that we can only “god” in community. By ourselves, we can prepare, we can send love and peace in prayer. But as we “god,” we discover how much may be achieved, how wonderful it is to sing together, and finally how much we lift each other in hope.

And so enjoy the chocolate today. If you are alone, go out to a restaurant and sit at the bar, enjoying the company of others, or call a friend to wish them happy easter or happy spring. If you are toiling under the demands of a big family dinner, remember what a miracle each life is. 

Christos Anesti! Christ is risen! 

And so may our hearts and love for each other rise with such beauty that Christ is revealed in our lives. 

Alleluia! Amen!

The Coming of the Light

Who has found the place of Wisdom? the prophet Baruch cries out. The place of Wisdom is filled with light and music.

— Baruch 3:20 —

All creation, from the stars above to the little mice that creep through the pantries of the world, praises the joy of living. Most of us are only visitors to the halls of the Holy, but we do catch glimpses from time to time through the lens of creation and through prayer, and those moments open our hearts and make us hunger for more.

During evening prayer we sing, “May our prayer rise up like incense before you, the lifting up of our hands as the evening sacrifice to you.” (Psalm 142:2) We give thanks for the gift of Jesus who teaches us that all life is sacred, that meaning must be assigned to all sacrifice, that the time for violent solutions has ended. When we all subscribe to this, war will become abhorrent to us, there will be no need for retribution any longer. The sweet smell of incense rises with our commitment to acts of peace and justice, with our prayer for transformation for ourselves as the body of Christ in the world.  

In the dark of night, the stars shine above even if we cannot see them and the purposes of God, like the stars, lead us to save ourselves, even when God seems absent. Within the womb of the world, new life is stirring, kicking away barriers and opening a way. God births us with pain and with love, trusting that we will find our way home, creating joy and gratitude with our passage through life. 

On this holy night, when grief becomes new sight, when we discover that nothing has been lost but everything is being changed; on this night we fan the flickering flames of our faith, and our dream of a redeemed and healthy world. For a while, we can stop sitting by graves and walk into the garden of springtime hope. We are invited to leave behind the binding cloth of death, shift what had seemed to be boulders, and wait for dawn, for the Beloved who is different and yet the same, the mystery of resurrection.

Church of the Broken-hearted

Again this year we gather to remember the death of Jesus — then — and the meaning of his life for us today. We do not gather to remember a dead hero. We do not gather to beat ourselves up with guilt. Rather, we gather to collect the promises and commitments we made on Ash Wednesday. Good Friday is the culmination of our Lenten devotions, our opportunities to minimize the suffering in our world, to devote ourselves to creating hope and the possibility of its fulfillment. 

For Jesus’ brutal death to continue to have meaning, we must accept his living presence in our lives. That means we intentionally lead lives of prayer and action. Our prayers require openness to our own historical complicity in the manufacture of violence, prayers that will lead us to acts of justice and reconciliation. We offer our commitment to grow into the Way that Jesus modelled for us, lives of peace-making, lives of compassion. 

At the centre of the cross is Jesus’ heart filled with the pain and hurt of life. But his arms reach out to the world in love. Christians, perhaps, should have been called the people of the broken heart. We stand at the foot of the cross like the bandits, unsure of our worthiness, not always sure what we believe. We stand at the foot of the cross with the women, who shared the pain of Jesus’ passing. 

And today we are here again, to recognize what it may cost to live a life of love and integrity. We kneel in gratitude that the story does not end with martyrdom because we know that Jesus’ love continues to connect us from birth to death, from crucifixion to resurrection. Through his broken heart then and our broken hearts now, the light of Grace shines through to remind us that we live in the presence of the Holy, the Source of all Being, the path that with all creation leads to transformation. Leonard Cohen said that everything has a crack in it and that is how the light gets in.