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The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19
Psalm 46
Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-28, (29-31)
Matthew 7:21-29

Is your life any different because you have a “relationship” with God (define “relationship” as you need to)? If so, how?

How is your life different because you believe in Jesus Christ? How is your life different because the Spirit is present with you and for you?

We (Laura & Matt) are on a journey together, and our reflections are often our attempt to share a bit of that journey with you. You see, we seek to know God deeply because we believe, deep in our beings, that God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. That relationship, historically, is based upon a covenant – a promise God made long ago to be faithful to humans. In exchange, we as humans are expected to be faithful to God.

But – Wow – what does it mean to be faithful to God?

In knowing God deeply, we (Laura & Matt) believe that we (humans in relationship with God) are called to live life differently. Differently how? Well, boiling it down to the ancient teachings that shaped Jesus, we are called to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and soul and mind and body. And we’re called to love our neighbor. The circles we (Laura & Matt) run in have a fairly generous definition of those two laws (commandments). Loving God is not a Sunday morning pursuit; it’s not a mission project pursuit; it’s not a small group pursuit--it is how we live in society, recognizing God first, and remaining in covenant relationship regardless of our time constraints, the economy, the latest fad, our base desires for the things we see around us. Loving our neighbors? We really are trying to be all-inclusive here. We believe that we are called to love humankind in total – without prejudice, without judgment.

Wow – this is hard stuff to do.

Keep in mind, that list above are the ways we Believe we (Laura & Matt and all humans in relationship with God) should live.

We struggle in conversations about how much a person can do. We struggle with prioritizing our resources of time, energy and money to build the Kingdom. And we struggle to be in relationship with one another and the world in a way that reflects God’s love for creation.

Striving toward something and achieving it are two very different things. They require constant reminders, constant nudges, constant thought. Oh, and let’s not forget Grace. It requires some Grace, too, because we are not perfect.

It can be a little exhausting. It is difficult to honor all of the commitments we choose to make while also living in a world of commitments we may not choose to make.

The season after Pentecost in the Christian Year is known as Ordinary Time. The Hebrew scripture readings during Ordinary Time this year are focused on the book of Genesis and the historical roots of the Tribes of Israel. There is so much material in this set of readings about the nature of God…and as followers of Jesus, it is tempting to read it seeking some support for the New Testament. We like to pay close attention to these readings. This is a good series of texts to read as foundations for faith.

This week, we read the story of Noah and the flood. It’s a story that Jews and Christians alike know from early childhood. But the story raises some deep questions about humankind in relationship with God, about God’s power, and about obedience. The passage this week opens with a grand endorsement of Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.” The story goes on to give the detail of God’s instruction and to describe Noah’s obedience. We all know how the story ends, right? The dove reappears with the olive branch, the waters recede, the crowds cheer, and everyone goes on their merry way building a new creation, right? Not quite. Blameless Noah ends up in a drunken, naked heap once things return to “normal.” It seems obedience is hard work and may even have some rough edges to it. Even so, his children become key players in the ancestry of Israel—Abram, Isaac, and Jacob are descended from these sons of Noah.

The Psalmist echoes some of the presence of God that is introduced in the Genesis story. God is “present,” God is in the midst of the holy city, and is with us as our refuge and strength even as the mountains tremble and the seas foam.  The writer here seems to have an understanding of the constant presence of God…in good and in bad, in feast and in famine, in chaos and in stillness….maybe even in obedience and disobedience.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome also tells us something about God’s presence and his nature. God was present in Jesus Christ, in all of God’s righteousness, and through that presence, God renewed relationship with humankind. As in the history of the Israelites, God cannot bear to see humankind stray so far. The letter also suggests a response to God’s presence and righteousness – Faith. But if you read on, Paul isn’t talking about and easy, static faith – “Jesus is my Homeboy” kind of faith. He’s talking about faith that acts. Faith that “upholds the Law” (Love-God-and-your-neighbor-with-all-that-you-are-kind-of-faith).

In Jesus’ teaching from Matthew, we are given a familiar and helpful image of building a house upon the Rock versus a house upon the Sand. It’s not enough to hear the teachings and nod in agreement and go home and ignore the evening news as people starve and die of disease and live in abject poverty. No…you have got to Love your neighbor. Actively.

And so, we’re left wondering, what does it mean to really walk with God as we are told that Noah did? What does it mean to be still and know – to really Know – God? What does it mean in faith to uphold the Law?

Part of the joy of being in community is being in dialogue with others about walking with God. We learn so much from one another. We would like to think that walking with God affects Everything we do – even when we cannot see the immediate impact on the Kingdom. That means that every light switch we turn off is an act of obedience. Every kind word or action shared is an act of obedience. Every piece of “trash” we pick up off the roadside and recycle is an act of obedience. Every offer of help to a stranger (even the strangers we Know) is an act of obedience. Ultimately, every breath we take is an act of obedience.

Wow – this is hard stuff to do.

  • What help do you need to be present with and obedient to God?
  • Are there areas of your life where you feel like you are really obedient? Areas where you feel like you would rather not even look?
  • What is the hardest part of this Walk with God for you?
  • What is the action behind your Faith?

You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem* on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

If you will diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, then the Lord will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and mightier than yourselves.

Deuteronomy 11: 19 – 24 (NRSV)

Trinity Sunday

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Psalm 8

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Matthew 28:16-20

Responsibility can be one of those things we gather to us with pride or something we shy from.  In reality, we all have Responsibilities in some way all the time.  We are Responsible for taking care of our own bodies; we are Responsible for caring for our children or parents or other family members; we are often Responsible for fulfilling the duties of a job; we are Responsible for being members of a variety of communities; we are Responsible for maintaining the “stuff” (homes, cars, boats, books, clothes, etc) we acquire.

In many instances these Responsibilities give us meaning in life, they bring us purpose, they help us know who we are and how we fit in to the world.  Responsibility is a part of living.  Responsibility is a part of being a Human. 

Responsibility can also be a difficult and intimidating burden.

The texts this week show us three different examples of individuals with authority / power (The Creator, Jesus, and Paul) giving specific instructions and conferring some specific Responsibility to / on humans in specific contexts.

In the Creation story in Genesis 1, we see The Creator making all that you and I know today out of nothing – ex nihilo.  This is no small feat.  Imagine nothing but a formless void and then suddenly BANG…or BOOM…or BLIP…or AHHH (whatever your cosmology) all that we know and name as Earth exists.  So whether that took just a few days or millions of years, it happened.  The thing that is the interesting in the Lectionary thread this week shows up on Day 6 when The Creator…or God among gods (or God among Godselves; or God amidst Wisdom, Spirit, Power)…says “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.  And then The Creator gives a directive to this new Humankind, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.  See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.

Wow.  Humans are created and are immediately given the Responsibility to care for everything they see.  According to this story, they did not even get a good orientation session to their own bodies or to their new neighborhood—they just suddenly had Responsibility for it all.

How long do you think it took them to be able to sing the type of song we find in Psalm 8?  Were they immediately at Peace and full of Joy and praising The Creator for the creation?  Or were they (like we imagine we might be) a little overwhelmed?  Were they pleased to be “given dominion” over All Things or did they look at it all and wonder what they were supposed to do first? And really, the Psalms were written for a scattered nation…over what creation did these Jewish people have dominion?

Then we fast forward to Matthew and see a slightly similar situation with Jesus and the disciples.  Jesus has taught them, has led them, has been killed, has been Ressurrected, and now they meet him out on a Galilean mountain where he tells them "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." 

Can you imagine what that might have felt like to the disciples?  Remember, in Matthew’s Gospel it is not until this scene on the mountain that the disciples see him after the Resurrection, and this is one of the first and last things Jesus says to them.  He gives them the instructions, the commission, the Responsibility of how they should live their lives from here forward. 

And then he disappears.  No follow up.  No further details.  He gives them the Responsibility of making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them everything Jesus had taught them, and then he leaves it up to them to figure out how to live this Responsibility out.  They are given the basic tools they need, and then they are sent out to do the work on their own.

The passage from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth is his closing…a benediction…a sending forth.  It is out of the mouth of Paul, not an apostle but a disciple – one baptized in experience.  His direction to the people is very similar – sudden onset Responsibility.  But his direction comes from his own experience and belief.  He advises this church to seek Peace and assures them that they are accompanied by God the Father/Mother/Parent, God the Son and God the Spirit.

As God’s good creation, we were created with Responsibility.  And with it comes some anxiety, some worry, some concern.  And also with it comes the presence of the Divine.  Spirit, Wisdom and Power can be wrapped around us helping us discern the How of our Responsibility.  We wonder if we are we living up to the charge that has been given us?  Are our actions, our choices, our deeds worthy of the creation for which we were created to be Responsible?  Do we really look to that Spirit, Wisdom and Power to understand How?  Maybe we need to ask for instruction.

Touch me, take me to that other place

Teach me, I know I'm not a hopeless case

See the world in green and blue

See China right in front of you

See the canyons broken by cloud

See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out

See the Bedouin fires at night

See the oil fields at first light

And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth

After the flood all the colors came out

It was a beautiful day

Beautiful day

Don't let it get away

From “Beautiful Day,” Bono, 2000

Prince Caspian's Call

"This is going to be like Batman Begins, isn't it Mom?" Paul said with a deep sign as I finished my post-movie analysis this afternoon. He was referring to my obsession (a point of both embarassment and great amusement to my 12-year-old sons) with the 2005 movie that I am convinced had deeply spiritual themes. But it's not such a stretch to read a religious message within "Prince Caspian", the movie Rosa and I saw this afternoon. The movie is based on the book by C.S. Lewis who was clear that the stories were meant to be religious allegories.

But the Christian themes are much more explicit in the preceding "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (both the book and the movie). Many of the reviews I scanned on Rotten Tomatoes were pleased that in "Prince Caspian" the religious messages were more "subtle", and the emphasis was instead on telling an exciting action story. One exception is Ty Burr, reviewer for the Boston Globe, who had this analysis:

"Prince Caspian" may be effective entertainment, but Walden Media, the production company backed by Christian billionaire Philip Anschutz, has given American family audiences something they really don't need at the moment: A primer on the benefits of holy war.

I totally disagree, but I think it's fascinating that the more subtle, more complex spiritual message of this movie seems to have largely slipped by the reviewers. This is all the more odd because the characters constantly ask each other the central question: Why doesn't Aslan come and intervene when we need him? Why can't I see Aslan? Why has Aslan been absent from our world for so long? This is a very real spiritual question, and the fact that Aslan does appear in the movie doesn't mean that it has a simple answer.

I think the whole movie (and the book) is a somewhat playful exploration of the idea of "call". Now, this is such a big theme at KC that I realize I was primed to find it in the movie, but hear me out. The story starts because Prince Caspian calls Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy back to Narnia because he is in crisis. But they don't appear to him instantly, and when he finally runs into them, he's disappointed. "I thought you'd be older," he tells them, clearly surprised to encounter "saviors" who are about his own age. As the Narnians kings and queens try to help Caspian, they each do their own share of wishing they'd be rescued by someone else. When Aslan fails to appear as they had hoped or expected, they even have an encounter with some evil powers who have been waiting to be called on.

But in the end, they have to call up from themselves the bravery and ingenuity to battle their opponents. Only then does Aslan appear, but instead of arriving as the external savior they have each been calling for throughout the movie, he comes as one who calls even the sleeping trees and the water to wake up to the life which lies within them. In the end, Aslan just stands as a proud witness to a world that has come fully alive.

When you see the movie in this light, one of the most beautiful scenes becomes one of the most emblematic: early on, when Peter and his siblings have just arrived in Narnia, they explore a ruined castle, slowly realizing that a great deal of time has passed since they last visiting Narnia. They recognize a secret door, and enter into a basement chamber, well-preserved and containing four large gold chests, each under a statue. Each child opens up his or her chest and discovers there the fine clothes and armor of their Narnian selves. Lucy holds up a dress and exclaims, "I was so much taller then!"

The magical wardrobe is gone, but now these chests become the doorway to discovery. While before the children discover the cosmic powers of good and evil, now they discover their own true selves. Stepping into these selves, they become taller, braver, and wiser than those whose lives are shaped by lies and deceit and domination. The world they go on to create is therefore more expansive and free.

This message is far from a call to "holy war". In fact, it may well be its antidote.

A Much Deeper Approach to Civility

As many of my loyal readers know (okay, as all three of my loyal readers know) I find the approach to encouraging "civility" described in P.M. Forni's book, "Choosing Civility" a bit simplistic, and yes, a bit irksome. But when I had the opportunity back in March to talk with Valerie Gross, the Executive Director of the Howard County Library about the much-touted "Choose Civility" campaign spearheaded by the library, she pointed out that the Forni's book isn't the only book highlighted by the campaign. There are lists of books on the library's website that engage in issues around civility, and the library would soon sponsor an event focused on another book, "Seasons of Life" by Jeffrey Marx which profiles the life and work of Joe Ehrman. Ehrman is a former defensive lineman for the Colts who now devotes his life to his organization "Building Men for Others".

That event took place this past Wednesday morning, and to my delight and surprise it took the whole conversation about civility way past manners, way past issues of personal space, way past rules and went right to the heart of the matter: if we want to improve civility, we need to develop a community that "affirms the value and worth of each human being".

Ehrman's talk was preceded by a seemingly endless series of introductions and speeches from all sorts of Howard County elected officials, all of whom affirmed that civility was already a big value for our county and one that they embraced and addressed in every aspect of their work. Once again I had this feeling of that the whole campaign was about everything and therefore not really about anything. But from the moment that Joe Ehrman stood up to speak, I knew he was going to cut the crap. His opening story--really a joke to remind people to turn off their cell phones--gave him the opportunity to say that racism is the "original sin" of the United States, and that our country was founded on the genocide of one people and the enslavement of another. That got my attention--and made it clear that his talk was not going to have the self-congratulatory feel of all of the preceding speakers.

A few other things Ehrman did which I deeply appreciated:

1. He based civil behavior in self-reflection. Within the first five minutes of his talk, he said that civil behavior is based in empathy, and that empathy requires self-reflection. He called this "mindsight", the ability to take a look at what is going on inside your own mind, and recognizing that our experience of the world is highly conditioned by messages that we have received from our culture and our families of origin. Some of those messages serve us well, and some of them don't. By growing our understanding of the basis for our own behavior, we grow our capacity to understand other people's behavior. And we become more able to empathize with other people, which increases our ability to treat others with dignity and respect--the basis of a civil community. Ehrman's approach is the opposite of a rules-based approach (the one taken by Forni) and while he didn't dwell on this point, I could see it was the basis of everything else he said.

2. He constantly said what he meant by "civility". Every time he said the word, he followed it by the phrase "affirming the value and worth of each human being". Finally, the word actually means something! Finally, it doesn't imply something about cultural hegemony that I'm not sure I really want to affirm. Now all we need to do is issue the next set of bumper magnets, formatted exactly like the ones that say, "Choose Civility in Howard County". The next set should say, "Affirm the Value of Each Human Being in Howard County." Now that's something I'd put on my car. Heck, I'd even contribute to the cost of generating magnets like that. Anyone want to join me?

3. He took responsibility for the ways in which he has been part of the problem. The focus of Joe's speech, and of his message, was that at the root of the most serious social problems that confront our country today is deep confusion about what it means to be a man. Masculinity has become a matter of "athletic ability, sexual conquest and economic success" which explains why professional athletes are the most important role models and heros to boys in our country today. Ehrman didn't just describe himself as an innocent victim of this misconception. He was clear that while he didn't create these false ideas, he has been driven by them as a young man and had perpetrated them, even in his semi-parental relationship with his younger brother. When that brother became sick with incurable cancer at 18, Joe realized that everything he taught his brother was useless in the face of the challenges he now confronted. Admitting that required a level of humility and grace that took my breath away. What if every other speaker had done the same thing--reflected honestly on how they were part of a system that supports false values, that degrades the value of other human beings?

After hearing Ehrman speak for almost an hour, I was ready to have a real "cut the crap" conversation with some of the other people there about our county. If I had been running the event, I would have cancelled the break-out sessions about "civility in the workplace" and so on and asked everybody to form a group of three to talk together about the ways in which we each are part of the problem. I may not be encouraging a false understanding of what it means to be a man, but am I supporting a misconception of what it means to be a woman? To be a Christian? To be an American? (Possible topics for future blog posts!) Then, I'd invite the groups to brainstorm together about what we each might do to build a community which "affirms the value and worth of each human being." Then I would have invite anyone who felt so moved to come to the microphone up front and to make a public commitment to some change in their lives that will help them to live with more empathy and responsibility.

But that's a lot more dangerous than putting a magnet on your car. That might actually change the world.

A Real Pentecost Story

I love the Christian Peacemaker Teams, and I hope one day to be in a life circumstance where I can join in on their mission to "get in the way" of those who pursue violence and war. In the meantime, I read their weekly updates avidly. Today's brought tears to my eyes:

14 May 2008
IRAQ REFLECTION: Pentecost in Kurdistan

by Beth Pyles

And how is it that we hear . . .? --Acts 2

It is Pentecost. The Team gathers for prayer and leaves its apartment to conduct a training in nonviolence and reconciliation with people from the Kurdish and surrounding governorates. They have come from Tikrit, Mosul and Kirkuk. They have lived in Baghdad and Kurdish villages. A few speak English, most Arabic, some Kurdish, and one of us, Cantonese.

How will we communicate? Will they stare, bewildered like those first Christians who heard the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in languages not their own? Will they be angry at our presumption that we might have anything to offer? Will they be captive to their own allegiances, unable or unwilling to speak against the limitations of their own governments? Will they stay silent?

We needn’t have worried. Disagreeing with the structure of one exercise, a woman challenges me early on. After some wrangling to have my way, I concede, saying, "Salaam, Ashti" (peace), and she replies, "No, democracia!" We smile together at her wisdom.

We end the day with the Heart Exercise: Those who wish to do so tell their stories about how violence has affected them. Each holds a pink paper heart while sharing, and at the end, tears a piece from the heart, symbolizing the brokenness that violence leaves behind.

We do not interrupt with translation. Instead, we listen with our hearts. Voices clutch with emotion; eyes brim with tears; sounds of anger and sorrow fill the room; fists are clenched, heads shaken in disbelief. The first two who share, a Muslim and a Christian from the Mosul area, leave the heart whole. Next comes a Muslim woman, statuesque and proud, the same woman who reminded me of democracy.

Her voice trembles. She regains her composure and continues. Her voice rises, the emotion intensifies. Virtually everyone in the room is in tears. She crumples the intact paper heart in her hands and rips it in two.

I do not understand the words of her story, but I do know that violence has not just broken her heart; it has torn her asunder.

Another woman cries out "This is too hard!" She is right. It is too hard.

Earlier in the day, participants had broken into groups by ethnicity to describe their own strengths and hurts, as well as the strengths and hurts of the others. When they came together, everyone was open and affirming, but within their groups, as our translator listened in, people mumbled against each other: "We’re not going to say that about them!" "They aren’t going to hear something nice from us!" But during the sharing of the heart stories, our translator saw the same people weeping for the pain of the other, people speaking with the ones they had condemned, people opening their hearts to the torn hearts of their enemies.

In one room in one city in one region of Iraq, Pentecost has come.

First Sunday After Pentecost

Isaiah 49:8-16a
Psalm 131
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

Do you ever lie awake at night worrying about new brakes on the car, deadlines at work, the writing you promised to have done by Tuesday or whether you said the wrong thing to your best friend?  OK, any ONE of these things can be overwhelming.  But have you noticed that sometimes they pile up, one by one, and somehow end up consuming your soul?  A worry becomes an anxiety.  An anxiety becomes a headache.  A headache becomes another wretched day.  And a wretched day today can make you fear what sort of horrors tomorrow might bring.

In a lot of self-help writing, we’re encouraged to make lists and prioritize. In the process we tend to put things into categories.  Work stuff, family stuff, school stuff, church stuff, on and on it goes.  There is an old mantra at work there—Divide and Conquer.  It assumes there will always be worries and anxieties, and so if each one can be put in its own bucket or project then it will have less power over your life.

In Jewish culture, there was no separation of “spiritual” life from the rest of existence.  All that the early Jewish community did, all that they lived, was lived under God’s watchful eye. God was present in their lives.  And it wasn’t always a rosy relationship.  It was good and bad and war-filled and peaceful at various times.  God provided. And God took away.  In general, this is what the people knew and understood and accepted.  The Jewish community had the covenant to look to and remind them of their connection and commitment to God…in their worries, they knew that God would be faithful.

Where does our worry come from?  We compartmentalize so much.  Maybe some of our worry comes from looking over our shoulder at what we have left in the compartment we’re currently not attending to. 

The readings this week offer a different kind of self-improvement recommendation for worry, doubt and anxiety.  We are generally opposed to oversimplifications like, “Let go and Let God.”  Ugh.  However, letting God in might be part of bringing more Peace into our lives, which might shed Peace on others and create more Peace in the process.

Isaiah the prophet imagines God describing God’s affection for the people of Israel.  The Lord reminds the people of the covenant, of the provision and protection and liberation that has been available to them.  It is the love that a mother has for her nursing child…a devotion of sorts…which isn’t always “glowing” and rosy.  No, there are rocky moments in this covenant relationship.  There are times where the relationship is deeply based on commitment and nothing else.  But as the Lord reminds them, “See, I have inscribed you on the palm of my hand.”

The psalm this week is almost a reflective response to the passage from Isaiah. Because of the Lord, the psalmist is at peace, not thinking thoughts too big and overwhelming.  Out of this peaceful place comes a plea to Israel, “hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.”

The epistle reading is from Paul’s first letter to Corinth.  Corinth was a really busy, large “city,” and it was diverse, culturally, ethnically and religiously.  With diversity comes class differentiation and power dynamics.  Paul’s Corinthian congregation was probably nearly as diverse as the city. Paul is encouraging this community to refrain from judging one another.  He’s calming the bickering and the murmuring.  (Bickering and Murmuring in a church? Surely not!)  He is encouraging them to wait for the Lord, and when the time comes, much will be revealed.  This could be read as a reflection on a contemplative life…or even a life lived in balance.  When we suspend our human tendency to judge ourselves and others, when we quiet our minds and are present with the Lord, what is revealed to us?  What is our commendation from God?  Maybe it is a still, peaceful, centered place where questions don’t need answers and love surrounds us. 

The Matthew passage is taken from the text about Jesus’ earliest teachings in Galilee. (You may know this as the Sermon on the Mount.) He sees the crowds, climbs up a mountain to spend some time alone (sounds suspiciously like Moses) and then returns to teach the masses. Jesus is reinterpreting the Law as it would have been known by his a Jewish audience. He’s not changing the law, but helping people to see a deeper meaning.  His reminder that one cannot serve two masters is a gentle reframing of the essence of the covenant, the cornerstone of Jewish faith and tradition.  Deuteronomy 10:12  - 13 reads, “So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you?  Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.”  Take a look at the entire text from Matthew of this early teaching (Matthew 5 – 7).   Think about Moses sharing the covenant with the Israelites. 

We worry.  We worry and fret about doing well and doing good.  We worry and fret about being all that we can be.   And Jesus tells us to stop it.   
When we worry about something we put all of our energy in to it.  “It” consumes our mind.   “It” is all we think about.  The traits of worrying about something are frighteningly similar to the traits found in worshiping something.

Jesus tells us to stop putting all of our energy toward things that God provides us.  He tells us to “strive first for the kingdom of God and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well

This is one of those teachings that might be easy to hear and easy to repeat, but is difficult to put in to practice.  And yet, it is also difficult to interpret the words of Jesus in any other way.  He calls us fairly directly to put our minds, hearts, and souls toward God and not expend our energy on the wrong things.

  • How do we determine what things are “worthy” of worrying about?
  • What would your life look like if you were to “seek first the Kingdom of God” every day?

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
from Just As I Am, Charlotte Elliott, 1835


Acts 2:1-21 or Numbers 11:24-30
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23or John 7:37-39

This week’s readings afford us all sorts of opportunity for more exciting, compelling, interesting thought about the Trinity. Oooh. Dancing through scripture. Yippee!

First, these readings prepare us for Pentecost, technically the last Sunday of the Easter season and the gateway to something called “Ordinary Time”. It is a really important feast day - not just in the Christian tradition. The word Pentecost actually means 50 days, and Pentecost in the Jewish calendar is recognized as the day that the Law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and it is celebrated 50 days after Passover. In the context of Christianity, Pentecost celebrates the day that the Holy Spirit was received by early followers of Jesus and the forefathers of the Christian church. This is big stuff. It is important to hold on to the fact that the Pentecost that we acknowledge today, the gift of the Holy Spirit according to Jesus’ promise to the disciples at the Ascension, has deep roots and echoes a Hebrew tradition that acknowledges the receiving of a Gift as well.

Second, if you look at some common lectionary resources, you will see that there are several choices about what the readings actually are for Pentecost. Throughout Easter, readings out of the Hebrew scripture (the Old Testament) are kind of slim pickings, and this is sort of exciting (for us at least) that we are moving back in to the time of the lectionary year when we have a Hebrew bible reading option (other than the Psalm…there is always a Psalm!). It is exciting because we feel the Hebrew scriptures provide a lot of vitally important context for understanding the words found in the New Testament. Jesus was himself an advocate for Torah, a Jewish rabbi seeking a return to the base values of God’s law.

This week, one of the “optional” texts is from Numbers, recounting the Lord descending on the tribal elders and causing them to prophecy. But it’s not just the elders…this Gift is also received by two others, virtual nobodies, back at the camp. While Joshua is ready to be outraged because these aren’t tribal elders, Moses takes a more universal stance: “Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!"

The Psalm acknowledges and praises the Lord’s presence and power in creation. Verse 30 is important here: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” The Psalmist spends several verses specifically naming some of the great Power and Love of God and then in this verse s/he sort of cuts to the bottom line of what s/he believes about God—without the Spirit of God, nothing exists. God’s Spirit is a creating force. This is an explicit recognition of the Spirit of God in the Jewish tradition.

So…was this Spirit of the Hebrew scriptures the same Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism and the same Spirit that descended on the disciples later on?

The passage from Acts tells a story familiar to those growing up in a Christian church setting, in part because it is the basis for celebrating our existence as “the body of Christ” – the church. The disciples, with the newest member Matthias (Judas’s Replacement…chosen by the disciples “casting lots” Acts 1:26), were gathered in a home (a synagogue was truly a house church – a small group that gathered in one person’s home) somewhere in Jerusalem observing Pentecost (as was the Jewish tradition) 50 days after the Passover. Out of nowhere, with a rush of wind, flames appear and they are all suddenly able to speak in many different languages. Hearing the noise and hoopla and excitement, a crowd gathers from all the corners of Jerusalem. It is a festival day, and a variety of visitors speaking a variety of languages have made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festival. In spite of the many different languages spoken by these onlookers, they were all able to hear in their own language. (What do you think they heard at this point?) As the crowd gathers, Peter addresses them, and references teachings of the prophet Joel that foretell of God’s Spirit poured out, and prophecies and visions among men and women, young and old.

Another alternate reading is from 1 Corinthians.  Gifts of the Spirit make us unique and valuable in our community. There is differentiation of Gifts, but not a hierarchy of Gifts. One Gift is not superior to another. This is a beautiful picture of community. We know that there are people who are great at greeting, and people who are great at praying and some who create beautiful food or beautiful art. And there are some who are good organizers. And some who are good at taking care of buildings. Some have a way with children. Some have a way with the dying. Some know how to stay in touch with everyone. Many Gifts…one Spirit...making the community rich.

In both of the John passages, Jesus serves as an intermediary between believers and the Spirit. Now John has a pretty unique perspective on Jesus from the beginning. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God...In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The Greek word used in John’s gospel is “paraclete,” a word not found in the other texts. John wrote with a different understanding of the interrelated fabric of God and Jesus…and perhaps of the Spirit too. But is the Spirit only accessible through Jesus? All of the gospels include some mention of the Spirit descending at Jesus’ baptism. Was the Spirit present before Jesus? In Jesus? Through Jesus?

Ah, the Holy Spirit. One of the three-in-one. The paraclete. Descending doves, rushing winds, tongues of fire. All that. Gifts of the Spirit to each for the common good. That explains it, right? We can read all of this scripture and end up on the same page, can’t we?

The Holy Spirit is a mystery and for those of us struggling to discern any truth in our own lives, sometimes a difficult relationship to enter. Within these texts, the Spirit seems pretty universally accessible…everyone heard in their own tongue…to each is given a manifestation of the Spirit…but then John goes and complicates the message and implies the Spirit does not show up without Jesus….huh.

If you talk to people about their understanding of the Trinity and what the Spirit is and how it all fits together, chances are you’ll find a lot of different answers. It seems that all we can count on that we know is that on the celebration of Pentecost, all of these folks were taken over / filled / enlivened by the Spirit of God.

  • Do you have a relationship with the Spirit?   
  • Is your experience of the Spirit different than your experience of God or Jesus?  How?   
  • It seems like Jesus put a lot of emphasis on the Spirit…should we put more emphasis on God’s Spirit in our own personal and corporate prayer lives? ­     
  • Are there any particular ways you feel you are better able to connect with the Spirit than with Jesus or God “the Father”?  Are these different relationships?

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies hats and straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offence, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk