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Today, as we celebrate Pentecost, we mark the anniversary of the spirit of the Lord descending among the disciplines – some 120 people gathered together to worship who got more than they ever expected. This act is what charges the disciples after Christ’s ascension and sends them out into the world. It is the birth of a community dedicated to serving and worshiping and witnessing to the Lord. All because this Spirit of the Lord came down and touched his people.

Jesus promised us the Spirit before he left. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” The Holy Spirit is the part of God who is with us every day. The Spirit is that indwelling presence of God we feel in ourselves and we can see in others if we look.

We so often skip over the Spirit in the Trinity because the Spirit is the hardest one to grapple with. God the Father, the Creator, we have a handle on. This part of the Trinity is defined by God’s very name. Father, Creator. The one who created us all. Jesus, we have an entire life story to follow. We know how he was the Word in the beginning and how he was born to Mary and his ministry, death and resurrection. We understand him. But the Spirit… we always have trouble with the spirit. It’s almost as if the Spirit resists definition by the Spirit’s very nature. But we have some clues.

From the John passage, we know that the Spirit abides with us, dwells within us. And we cannot see the Spirit except through each other. That is what I believe “it neither sees him or knows him” means. We cannot see the Spirit on it’s own. We can only see the Spirit acting and living through each other.

The Spirit is translated from the word Ruach in Hebrew. In Greek it’s pneuma. Both mean the Spirit, but they also mean breath. Think about that. The Holy Spirit is so closely tied into our breath that they use the exact same word in both Biblical languages.

For breath is what you have when you are alive. Breath is how we know someone still lives. When at deathbed vigils we watch the rise and fall of a chest and we know they are okay. As long as he is breathing, there is still life. To breathe is to be alive. To have the Spirit is to be alive. To speak of the Spirit is to speak of the power of life that is in you.

There are those people who are so filled with life, that their spirit will affect others. I’m sure you all know those wonderful individuals whose mood is infectious. When they are smiling and laughing, it is almost impossible not to be caught up in their joy. When they are sad it puts a pall over the entire room. This is spirit so strong it can breathe itself out into other lives, becoming inspiring.  Their spirit touches ours.

With God’s Spirit we are dealing with the breath of God, the very life of our God. God is the power of life itself, and has breathed and continues to breathe life into creation. Inspiring it. When the Spirit of God comes upon us, as God breathes it upon us, we cannot help but be caught up in that spirit. God’s spirit will move us, whether we wished to be moved or not.

Take a moment now and breathe in. Now breathe out slowly. Feel the air moving in and out of your lungs, filling and renewing you each time. That’s just how the Spirit works. It fills and renews us, coming in to inspire us and going out to reach others. Breathe in peace, breathe out justice. Breathe in hope, breathe out compassion.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Fill yourself with the Spirit.

Now send the Spirit out to others.

The Spirit comes to us all. We are filled with the breath of God. The question is, what do we do with the Spirit? Do we notice it’s presence? Do we open ourselves up to the Spirit’s call?

There was a church that celebrated Pentecost Sunday by the ushers handing each person a bright red carnation to symbolize the festive spirit of the day. The people listened attentively to the reading of the Pentecost story from the Book of Acts about how the disciples had heard “what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven”; about how the Holy Spirit had appeared “like tongues of fire.” Then came the sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us,” the preacher began. “Like the powerful win
d from heaven!” shouted a woman sitting in the first pew. Then she threw one of the red carnations toward the altar. The preacher began again: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.” The same woman’s voice rang out again, “Like the tongues of fire, the tongues of fire!” Again, she threw a red carnation toward the altar. The preacher looked straight at her and said, “Now throw your wallet.” To which the woman replied, “Preacher, you have just calmed the wind and put out the fire.”

The Spirit calls us to do more than just use words. The Spirit calls us to act. Despite the joke, that doesn’t necessarily involve money. It involves what we do with our lives, how we treat other people.

The thing is, being filled with the Spirit is only the beginning. You’ll notice this Pentecost story is at the beginning of Acts. We are filled by the holy Spirit in the first chapters. THEN we are called to go forth. To spread the good news. To help the outcast. To be the church to the world. The Spirit is what starts all of that off.

Imagine those disciples, those followers of Jesus. They are followers, even by their very names. They are trying to figure out what now that Jesus has ascended, probably confused and not a little bit frightened. And then, next thing you know, the Spirit has fell on them and they are speaking in languages they have never known. They begin proclaiming the truth and saving grace of Jesus Christ not only in ways that others can hear and understand but with a courage and strength they had not known before. They turn from Disciples, those who follow, into Apostles, those who are sent.

Through the Spirit, they become empowered to go out as they had been told to do. Aj Gordon once described it as “Before Pentecost the disciples found it hard to do easy things; after Pentecost they found it easy to do hard things.”

When we pray for the Spirit, we are praying to be shaken up, to be changed. We are praying to be driven to act. To do. To go out at be God’s presence in the world. It’s a very risky thing to pray.

Risky, but it is what brings life to the church. If the Spirit hadn’t have come down that morning at Pentecost, shaking up those lives, the church wouldn’t have been. It certainly wouldn’t have spread to the corners of the earth.

A third grader named Anthony Manago back in 2003 wrote the following poem based on the prompt “If I was a work of art”. He wrote:

If I was a work of art

I would be a picture of the wind

blowing fast.

The wind, sort of light blue,

really hard and strong.

I would be blowing away

from hatred,

blowing toward love.  

When people see the picture

they would know

I was going the right direction

instead of the wrong one.

That. That right there is the Spirit. The wind blowing away from hatred. Blowing towards love. Being an example for every who looked what the right way to go is. When we follow the calling of the Spirit, go in the direction of the Spirit’s tugging, we will go out and do. And by what we do, others will see the Spirit as well.

Pentecost is a day of change. A day when there are new beginnings and people are shaken out of their old routines. A day when a new world is started and begun. As we celebrate it again this year, will it simply be another Sunday on your calendar? Or will you open yourself up to the callings of the Spirit and see what changes God will create in you?

Let us pray:

Spirit of the living God, blow through us this morning. Shake up our lives that they may turn more fully towards you. Change our routines so that others may see you in us. Call us to your path, this day and every day. Amen.

 

 

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WITH A VOICE OF SINGING

Acts 16: 16-34

Music has tremendous power in our world; if a blue grass selection is played in the Grand Ole Opry nearly everyone in the audience will automatically tap their feet. When an opera is performed at the Met in New York City an entire audience can be moved to tears. Commercials on television and radio count on either pop tunes or jingles to catch our ears and attract our eyes. Many infants go to sleep to gentle tunes being played in their darkened room. And in the movie “Groundhog Day” Bill Murray’s character awoke on the same day, time after time, to Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You Babe!” Music can lift our spirits or accompany us in the valleys. The jazz of Vince Guaraldi encourages one mood while the sweet sounds of Gershwin another; bombastic and magnificent soundtracks by John Williams like “Star Wars” connect with us on one level, while James Horner’s music from “Titanic” connected on another. My mother loves Gene Kelly and so loves the music in “Singing in the Rain.” She and my father took my brother, sister, and me to “The Sound of Music” as one of our first family film experiences, and the music influenced me so much my very first hi fidelity LP was that soundtrack! And of course, pop music, classical music, and contemporary praise music has a tremendous influence on our moods. You get the picture, and so did the earliest Psalmists, the ones who wrote that first hymnbook that we call Psalms. You see, when God created the world, our Maker longed for responses from the created ones; from the human beings, not just the things or the animals. Oh sure, nature had a kind of music with the snapping of twigs or the sound of wind blowing through leaves or the sound of rushing rivers over rocks. God could even hear the howl of the wolf, the roar of a lion, or the bleat of a goat. But God wanted more; human beings are made in God’s image; God wanted to hear voices connected to souls, and intellects, and human wills. God still does! Like a loving mother whose children are far from home, God wants to hear from us. As much as God likes the sound of wind, God likes the sound of our voices more. Those human voices don’t even have to be in tune, though musician would like them in tune! What God loves best is “joyful noise” according to both Psalm 66 and today’s Psalm, Psalm 98! But did you notice in Psalm 98 that before the Psalmist calls people to praise God with the harp or trumpets, he calls for people to sing to the Lord! That is what Miriam did when God delivered the Israelites! That is what Moses did then as well. In Judges 5 the judge Deborah sang to God in praise, singing: “Hear O kings! Give ear O princes! To the Lord I will sing, I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel!” When David ordered that the Ark of the Covenant be brought to Jerusalem, 1 Chronicles 16 records that “on that day David appointed that thanksgiving be sung to the Lord, singing ‘O give thanks to the Lord … sing to him, sing praises to him, tell of all his wonderful works!’” When the foundation of the temple had been rebuilt in Ezra chapter 3, it is recorded that “the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites with cymbals to praise the Lord … and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord.” The accounts of the people of God praising and singing to God continue without stopping; there are a dozen more places in both Testaments where songs are sung in praise! Over the years since the first century, Christians have praised and prayed to God with their voices. In some cases the songs sounded like chants, in other cases like slightly off-key calls to prayer; in still other cases they sounded like a camp song sung with a guitar, or perhaps a hymn sung to a mighty organ, or a praise song sung to drums and keyboard. But perhaps the purist of sounds is acapella—without accompaniment; just offering the pure human voice to give the sounds, the expressions, and the offerings of the heart.

The apostle Paul grew up not only as a faithful Jew, but as one trained by the great Rabbi Gamaliel according to Acts 22:3. He knew Jewish traditions and practices when our Lord Jesus struck him on the road to Damascus, got his attention, and turned him into the great evangelist of the New Testament. But his background would have included knowing Scripture and the music of the Psalms. They did not have pocket songbooks or tiny Testaments, so Paul committed both Torah and music to memory. It is good to commit passages of Scripture and important songs to memory. In this world when we can hardly function without glancing at a cell phone or a Blackberry, those in prison have no such luxuries; no electronic devices. In Acts we find the great Christian named Paul, who was once called Saul, in prison. Paul is put in prison a lot! What did that first century evangelist do while he was in prison? We know that he sometimes wrote letters to other churches such as his letters to the Ephesians and to the Colossians; and sometimes he wrote to young pastors as he did to Timothy and Titus. We also know that he prayed while in prison; who wouldn’t? But then there is the unusual activity Paul did, one that we hear about that few others did: he sang. According to our text today in Acts 16, “Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.” We know from Creation, from the Old Testament, and from the rest of the New Testament that God loves that! God loves to hear any of us sing songs of love, and praise, and adoration! God loves to hear the church sing, because the church is the bride of Christ! Praise music is celebratory; such music overflows with gratitude and heaps praise on the head of the Almighty! It can be complex like Handel’s Messiah, or it can be simple like “Father I adore; Jesus I adore you; Spirit I adore you!” And if God loves it, why wouldn’t we try to make that joyful noise always? Our oneness in Christ is, in part, doing what Jesus did; so what did he do? Even on his last night in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus sang a hymn with his disciples. Today’s passage from Acts is astounding; the secular world generally chocks up natural events like an earthquake as just a happenstance or a coincidence. But the Christian world often chocks up timely events as “providence,” when chained evangelists are freed by the disturbance. What happened after Paul and Silas were praising God? Remember: there was an earthquake! And what happened during that earthquake? The doors of the prison flew open and the shackles (or fetters) usually placed around the prisoners’ ankles fell off! Wow that was some earthquake! Could it have been a holy response from above to the faithful singing below? Perhaps; some say a voice of singing freed Paul and Silas.

If you are shackled in unemployment, or in an abusive situation, or to a life seemingly overwhelmed with challenges, heartache, or health issues: in addition to other actions you take, why not choose praise? Don’t just turn music on a radio or an mp3 player, but actually sing songs that praise God; church gatherings are a great place for that! Today our songs of praise are to encourage one another, but they are also to praise God. May Christian singing  join with your prayer life or devotional life as a way to connect with and bless God. God blesses us, but we can also bless God! And one Biblical way to bless God is with our praise.

Jeffrey A. Sumner            May 12, 2013

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A VISION OF THE HOLY CITY

Revelation 21: 10-21

In our dreams, in our poems, and even in our musicals, we tend to talk in superlatives- that is, with highly descriptive words.  Think, for example, of the Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous poem about love. Most of us will remember the first line, but the others are filled with descriptive superlatives as well:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach,

         When feeling out of sight, for the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s most quiet need,

by sun and candlelight.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with passion put to use in my old griefs,

And with my childhood’s faith.

I love the with a love I seemed to lose with my lost saints;

I love thee with the breath, smiles, and tears of all my life!

And, if God choose, I shall love thee better after death.

Sometimes we use words to try to describe what is indescribable.

If you were alive on that cold Florida January in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, you will likely remember the poem by John Gillespie Magee Jr. that President Reagan quoted. Here is a longer portion of that poem:

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the sky on laughter silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split

Clouds and done a hundred things….

Up, up the long delirious burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark nor even eagle flew

And while with silent lifting mind I trod

The high untrespassed sanctit
y of space

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Beautiful images, and powerful, aren’t they? This is the power of words, when they are used to create images. The first image was brought about by love, one’s of life’s most powerful emotions. The second image was brought about by what? Space travel? Death? Both images are also powerful.

But today we hear the words of another poet; a man who uses words to create images and to draw from the memory banks of human learning. Just like other visionaries, John—the writer of Revelation, says he had a vision, a trance-like experience not unlike a dream. You know how dreams often heighten beauty in some cases, and heighten terror in others? John knew that too. Our author was in prison on the isle of Patmos off the coast of Turkey; he was writing to churches in Turkey, a land in Bible times called Asia Minor. He deliberately wrote to seven churches because seven in the Bible is a number of completeness and perfection, six is counterfeit and not quite. And his pictures with words had to seem like delusions to slip past the guards, but to the trained eyes of faith, the words were comforting. To you today, John’s vision of the New Jerusalem is not meant to be the work of an architect or an engineer, but the work of a poet and an imaginer. What is described to us is a vision of the New Jerusalem, not a blueprint of the New Jerusalem. Jerusalem has always been known as the Holy City, first by Jews, then by Christians, and even by Muslims. It is the holiest city on earth because God and God in Christ, and God’s prophets did such significant things there. And Jerusalem, even in the first century, had been glorious. But then in 70 A.D. the Temple was destroyed. Around 90-95 A.D. John wrote down his Revelation. So is he picturing the Holy City as it is? How can he? It’s in rubble. No; he’s picturing an artist’s rendering of the great city rebuilt in splendor.

You’ve seen the ads or artist’s renderings for new sports cars, or new condominiums, or new shopping areas, or new jetliners, haven’t you? The sports car in the drawing, like the condo, or shopping center or jetliner loses some luster and dream-like qualities when they are actually built; some things that the imagination puts on paper are hard to create with steel or glass or stone, or wood.  Today we get an image of the Holy City, New Jerusalem, pulling on heightened images and superlatives. We would be wise not to take this image literally but descriptively as a city of great wonder and size and beauty. Notice the used of similes, comparisons using “like or as,” and metaphors—straight comparisons. The city is on a high mountain, both in reality and in this vision: anyone going toward Jerusalem went “up” to Jerusalem, both physically and spiritually. John says the city came down out of heaven from God as if God has adorned it like a bride. It includes rare and colorful crystals, if you can imagine that. It has walls because in those days and even today, Jerusalem had walls. But between the walls are twelve gates; every Jew, and new Christians understood that 12 was a holy number. Just as there were twelve tribes of Israel, there were also twelve Christian apostles. Twelve was a number of completeness and of welcome saying faithful people who had died before hand, and faithful people who died recently and those who will die later will all be welcomed into the Holy City! What a picture! John—speaking to Jews who believed Jesus was Lord, along with Gentiles who had given up their pagan gods to follow Jesus as Lord—had a vision that there was a gate for each of them through which they could enter the New Jerusalem. The measurements of this city are symbolic and dramatic too: the city is foursquare so it is enclosed, but with twelve gates as we learned. And although our Bibles say its length and width was fifteen hundred miles, it is better translated as it was put originally: twelve thousand stadia, because it is not the engineering size that matters, it is the symbolic size: it contains the number 12,000 meaning there is room enough for all! Our Bibles do, thankfully, tell us the angel measured the wall as one hundred and forty-four cubits (a cubit is length of a typical man’s arm in those days from his elbow to the tip of his longest finger). The engineer’s measurement of almost seventy-five yards would not have been a meaningful number. The vision is a picture of size and of symbol, of wonder and of beauty. What God rebuilds, John indicates, God rebuilds in something humanly unimaginable! God is infinite, and can mine the depths of the earth and reach into the stratosphere to the stars! It is wonderful; it is welcoming; and there is a place in the new Holy City for you.

Some people in our day have medically died and seen light, or a tunnel, or Jesus. But when we go through one of those twelve gates into that New Jerusalem, it is our new home; we do not return to mortal earth to report on it. Only in visions such as this one, given by Jesus to John, do we get a glimpse of heaven. May your Lord be Jesus, your heart be right, and your life show the good fruit of your faith. Then you are ready for this Sacrament offered today: the Sacrament of Holy Communion. With awe, wonder, and joy, enter into the presence of your Lord as he shares this meal which he has prepared.

Jeffrey A. Sumner<span
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     May 5, 2013