Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fire Alarm

Acts 2:1-21
by Daniel Harrell

Pentecost is the birthday of the church, but it didn’t start as that. It began back in Exodus when God commanded a party to commemorate the wheat harvest. It was all about celebrating the ingathering of grain, though Jesus wold allude to a different kind of Pentecost to come, a plentiful harvesting of people for God’s kingdom. Pentecost means  fiftieth, marking the fiftieth day after Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. If you remember the Exodus story, you remember that as God led Israel out of their Egyptian captivity, he instructed them to leave the leaven out of their bread as they packed for the trip. There was no time to wait for the dough to rise. But once safely settled in the Promised Land, there was no need to rush anymore. Now they could relax and enjoy—just like a holiday weekend.

The reason for fifty days had to do in part with the importance of Sabbath and the number seven. Sabbath happens on the seventh day, Pentecost on the seventh week after Passover. Seven hearkens back to creation and completion, Sabbath hearkens to rest, satisfaction in a job well done and enjoying the fruit of labor. Seven and Sabbath both focus on God from whom all these blessings flow. However, the fact that Pentecost itself actually occurs on the fiftieth day, that is seven Sabbaths plus one day (if you’re doing the math), meant that Pentecost fell on the all important eighth day which in Jewish reckoning was a marker for heaven itself. Pentecost previewed Kingdom Come, New Creation, Jubilee, Glory Land, Eternal Rest and the Completion of all hope.

Jews from all over the world made the Pentecost pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer the first fruits of their wheat harvest in gratitude for God’s goodness and promises. With plenty of wheat and plenty of time, Pentecost was a feast of leavened bread. It was time to haul out the yeast. Jesus compared the kingdom of God to yeast—a little bit permeates an entire batch of dough and raises it up. Here in Acts, Pentecost provided the backdrop for the Holy Spirit to leaven a small batch of believers into a huge loaf large enough to nourish the world.

The Spirit makes a dramatic Pentecostal entrance: a hurricane force wind, fiery tongues flying around everywhere, Jews from various lands hearing the gospel spoken in their own language. Most would have picked up on the point. God had showed up with wind and fire throughout the Old Testament, though that had been a long time ago. Wind was a classic sign of the Spirit, blowing unseen with power wherever it will. Fire was a sign of holiness, destroying what is impure for the sake of refinement, redeeming the messes we make of our lives with the heat of grace, welding God's people into a unified body. Fire and wind make for the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised would come once he had gone. The prophet Joel had seen it coming even before. The Lord would pour out his spirit on all flesh one day, such that "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

Here, the now fired-up apostle Peter announces that the name of the Lord is none other than the name of Jesus. Salvation is found in the one they buried like wheat in the ground, only to have him rise up and become the bread of life. Harvest time is here. Jesus’ resurrection on the third day (which was also an eighth day, the day after Sabbath) signaled the start of new creation. Pentecost, an eighth day, marks our participation in it. “Very truly, I tell you,” said Jesus, “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.” Jesus is the grain of wheat. His church is the fruit.

It's one reason we call new churches church plants. They are often so full of energy and fire, just like Pentecost itself. Research shows that if you want to grow a church, start a church. Church plants grow at a rate almost ten times stronger than older, established congregations. People participate more willingly, invite friends more eagerly, experience their faith more deeply. Unfortunately all the energy present at the beginning inevitably ebbs once the necessity of upkeep encroaches. Churches that grow add staffs and budgets, build buildings and parking lots, such that maintenance soon takes precedence over mission. You got to pay the bills. You got to fix the leaks. You have to raise money to keep the ministry going since everybody has grown to expect it but not as many volunteer to help anymore. All the new people who used to volunteer are off at the new church down the street.

While in North Carolina visiting family this month, I listened as my grandmother bemoaned the demise of her little Quaker church, fretting like many of her generation over the dearth of younger people in attendance, young people who, frankly, are unlikely to ever show up. Her concerns brought to mind an idea I heard at a local church planters conference recently. What if churches plants came with expiration dates? What if when a church started, it planned for both its ground-breaking and grave-digging? Set an expiration date just far enough in the future to accomplish a specific mission, or at most, satisfy the spiritual needs of a single generation--just long enough time to get folks baptized, married and buried. Set an expiration date and you wouldn’t bother with a building because you’d need those resources to accomplish your calling. Know the date of your funeral and churches would generate a critical bucket list of ministry. Time would be of the essence. Staff would stay lean and hungry. There would be no concern over mission creep. And you’d never fret over whether enough young people attended because young people would represent the next generation and the next church. One church would die in order for a new church to rise up, keeping the church as a whole fresh and vital and ever-resurrected and ever-creative, anticipating life to come. Just like in the New Testament, an imminent expiration date would build an eschatological urgency into a congregation's life.

Eschatological urgency is evident here in verse 20. Peter talks about the "the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood." These were stock images of Judgment Day, the Last Day (eschatological means “having to do with last things”). But rather than doom and dread, Peter refers to the last day as "great and glorious" because that’s the day Jesus comes to make all things new. Looking forward to that last day, the last thing the first church needed was to become too established (even though that’s what eventually happened).

Nevertheless, on Pentecost, God did a new thing. The Spirit breathed new life into Israel’s established religious structures for the sake of a new start. "Everyone who called on the name of the Lord would be saved,"promised Peter, quoting Joel, but in order to call they needed to hear and in order to hear somebody needed to speak. Like with creation, God does a new thing with words. God redeems the whole world through Jesus the word made flesh. Here at Pentecost, the Spirit shows up as flaming tongues to stress the importance of the word now made flesh in the church. Up to this point, the disciples had been too scared to say anything about Jesus--they saw what happened to him. They kept quiet even after he rose from the dead--who was going to believe in a resurrection? But now, all fired up, Peter and the rest can't keep their mouth shut.

Back in college I was something of a fired up, quasi-obnoxious Christian, much to the consternation of my fraternity brothers. The last thing they wanted to hear about was Jesus. He may have been a party guy in some respects, but his ethics put a huge damper on a college kid’s social life. Still, there was this one frat guy who was curious about my Christianity. We ended up reading the Bible together. His curiosity turned to skepticism curious. Not only was the Bible a strange book to read, but I was a strange dude to read it with. How could I be trusted? How could he know the Bible was right? How could he know Jesus was real? All very fair questions he asked over and over again. Several months passed and frat boy was no closer to belief than he was when we started, despite all the hours I had devoted to him. Certainly he knew more, but he was far from being convinced.

We took a break for the Christmas holidays, and when we got back together in January, he told me he’d become a Christian. He said he ran into an old friend who'd joined a church. He asked this friend, who wasn't nearly as strange as I was, about his faith, heard him say the same things I'd told him, asked whether His friend knew me or if I'd set him up. Assured by his friend that we'd never met, frat boy figured there must be something to this Jesus since both his hometown friend and I couldn't both be crazy so he decided to be a Christian too.

Naturally I was irritated by this. Here I'd put in all this work plowing a field and sowing seeds just to have some fly by farmer reap the ripe harvest. But this is how Pentecost designed things to work. It’s not about making individuals especially spiritual by means of a extra dose of charismatic power. Pentecost is about turning individuals into spirit-filled communities, unified and whole "bodies of Christ." It was this unity of heart and mind between me and another Christian I had never met that convinced my fraternity brother, not my evangelistic cleverness. Peter, again quoting the Old Testament, will later describe the Spirit’s work as making us into "a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy."

And having received mercy we freely give mercy--by word and deed. The chief sign of the resurrected Jesus’ on earth was not isolated miracles or people speaking in tongues, but whole communities of resurrection so radically different from the way the world did community that there could be no other explanation for it. We read how “they all spoke the word of God courageously, with boldness.” They spoke in the relentless voice of conviction and concern and grace and compassion, even in the face of rejection and resistance. We read how “there was not a needy person among them.” Everybody took care of everybody else. The church grew because that's where healing and forgiveness and love and redemption and salvation happened. Mercy was their mission.

Years ago, I was frustrated with how the established congregation I served in Boston was stuck in a particular season of institutional preservation. For whatever reason, we'd lost sight of our mission. The wind had died down. Our flame had flickered. Concerned, I enrolled for some help at Harvard, of all places, where the late, great Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen was teaching a class on the spiritual life. One day in class, just before spring break, Nouwen described a relief project that was going on in Haiti that needed some extra workers and would anybody be willing to go down next week like tomorrow? A few student hesitantly raised hands, after which Nouwen pulled out this huge bucket and passed it around for the rest of us to fill up with money to pay for the travel. It was so radical.

I decided to try it back at my church. Digital photography had just emerged, email was becoming popular, and I was in touch with some Bolivian missionaries I'd met on a previous mission trip who I knew could use help. They were working to get scores of abandoned and abused children off the streets of La Paz where they were growing up sleeping in sewers, uninhabited buildings and under store-front awnings. I threw out the invitation to go down to Bolivia and help out, passed a bucket to raise the cash, sent dozens who emailed pictures once there so the rest of us could see what was going on and pray for them. Among those who went down was a young doctor named Chi who became so fired up for this cause that he stayed on. Our church got behind him, helped him build three orphanages, and saw scores of children saved from an otherwise hopeless future. The project grew further into an independent non-profit organization. More volunteers got involved, engaging in research to better understand the individual needs of the children and working toward more preventive interventions, building creative partnerships with families and communities to enable them to better raise their own children rather than abandon them to the streets.

While visiting families this month, I received an unexpected call from this organization, now fifteen years old and called Kaya International (from the Bolivian word meaning tomorrow) informing me that they wanted to honor me with an award. They heard that I was going to be in Boston and would Dawn and I and Violet be willing to come to their banquet? We agreed and soon found ourselves sitting at the MIT Faculty Club overlooking Boston listening to the remarkable testimony of a young man from Bolivia, also named Daniel, who was one of the first kids we had saved from the streets fifteen years before. The reward I received was for being the “grandfather” of this mission, for being the one who got the whole started. Once I got over being referred to as a “grandfather,” I was overwhelmed by the honor. I'd only planted a few seeds. It was so many others, fired up the the spirit, who nourished the soil and reaped the harvest.

This is how Pentecost designed things to work. It’s not about making any  individual especially spiritual by means of a extra dose of charismatic power, but rather about turning individuals into spirit-filled communities, unified and whole "bodies of Christ" whom having received mercy, share that mercy as Jesus on earth, eagerly and urgently until Jesus itself finally returns again to make everything new once more.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Disturbing the Peace

Acts 4:23-37
by Daniel Harrell

This series of post-resurrection sermons, and post-Pentecost sermons for that matter (we’ll take up Pentecost on Pentecost), began with a crippled panhandler by the Jerusalem Temple Gate begging for change. Peter and John, power-packed apostles of the now-risen Jesus, appear to walk by the way many would do—pleading poverty because we’re suspicious. But Peter and John, though all out of change, intend to change everything. In the name of Jesus they tell the disabled man to rise up and walk. The man rose up and danced, and created a wild rumpus because a] the beggar had been disabled from birth, so b] this must have been a miracle. Seizing the teachable moment, Peter gave all the credit to Jesus, then took the Jewish crowd to task for not believing their Bibles enough to realize Jesus to be the Messiah their prophets foretold. He called on them to repent of this sin and believe, and some 5000 did.
It was one red hot revival. So hot that the Temple police charged in, broke up the party and hauled Peter and John to the Jewish religious establishment on charges of disturbing the peace.

I did that once. Disturb the peace that is. At least religiously speaking. My former church in Boston, Park Street Church, sat right on the corner of a busy downtown intersection, right across from the Boston Common and the busiest subway station in the city. Years prior, the church had attached to its exterior on that corner, this elevated wrought iron platform we called the Mayflower Pulpit. However this Mayflower Pulpit had nothing to do with the Pilgrims. It was donated back in 1945 by the owner of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. The donor’s intent was to provide a platform from which Park Street preachers could preach to the hundreds who roamed the Boston Common. In 1945, these hundreds comprised many soldiers returning from World War II. Concerned for the souls of these war-weary veterans, the church initially set up services on the Common itself. But when the city put a stop to that, the hotel owner stepped forward with his offer. Thus the Mayflower Pulpit became the means by which the church boldly circumvented city ordinances in order to share the gospel.
Over time, however, the Mayflower Pulpit lost its effectiveness due to changes in city life, traffic and noise—especially the incessant horn-honking from hecklers. By the time I arrived, nobody had been out on the Mayflower for years, except for the many occasions when the church staff would climb out on it to view all those sports championship parades downtown. However, one year, I decided that maybe it was time to dust off the old iron pulpit and use it again. Early on in the church, it was customary to conduct baptisms, that most public of Christian sacraments, outside for the whole world to witness. Picking up on that ancient practice, I invited any in our service one day, who had never been baptized and desired to do so, to march with the entire church out into the street. Once outside, all 600 of us, ten people came forward and climbed into the Mayflower Pulpit (a tight squeeze), where they proclaimed their faith to virtually the entire city, and then got doused with water.

From that elevated pulpit perch, I had the unique opportunity to observe the crowd reaction. Lots of people stopped, looked, perplexed. They scratched their heads, pointed their fingers, shrugged their shoulders. Others, in classic Boston style, simply sauntered by as if 600 people weren’t really standing in the middle of the street cheering on others suspended twenty feet in the air as they got water got water poured on their heads. Some, naturally, stepped closer to see what was going on. Since we had the thing miked, most couldn’t help but hear the baptized talk about dying to their old selves and desiring to follow Christ. No one could dismiss the boisterous ruckus erupting at the finish of each baptism. Some even followed us back inside afterwards. Plenty, however, mocked the proceedings. I was glad to see that. It made what we were doing all the more authentic, I thought. The police intervened too. Wanted to know if we had a permit to assemble. We told them that we only had a permit to baptize. Not wanting to create a situation, they sent over a few officers to direct traffic.

We did these outdoor baptisms several more years, though from then on we made sure to give the police a heads up, which I’ll admit took a some of the fun out of it. But we knew we needed to heed civic authority if we wanted to baptize without going to jail. Sort of like the Jewish religious establishment here in Acts. They had to obey Roman authority to keep their Temple running like they wanted. But more than that, they obeyed Roman authority so they could exert some of that political power themselves, and they compromised their own faith and principles to do it. It’s a lesson religious folks never learn: we think that if we can get our values implemented by secular authorities we can affect societal change. But as history teaches, whenever the church seeks legitimization from civil authority it almost always loses its salt. That’s why Jesus said render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what is God’s.

The Jewish religious establishment tried to flex their political power and press Peter and John into line. But Peter and John appealed to a higher power: “You’ll have to judge whether it’s right in God’s sight for us to listen to you instead of Him.” They said. “How can we keep quiet about what we’ve seen and heard?” Scoring them points for their courage, and wanting to avoid a popular riot, the establishment let them go back to their little band of Jesus freaks.

Welcoming Peter and John home, the fledgling Christian community broke out in a worship service, singing the second Psalm together as they would have learned it in Hebrew school. They learned that it pointed to Israel’s Messiah, especially the verse, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” They recognized this to mean Jesus because they had heard heaven thunder that very verse at Jesus’ baptism. Here in Acts they sing, “Why did the Gentiles rage (the Gentiles in this instance being the Romans)? Why did the people imagine vain things (the people being the people of Israel)? The kings of the earth (King Herod Antipas in particular) and the rulers (Pontius Pilate) gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah (meaning Jesus).” They thought they could thwart the Lord’s plans by nailing Jesus to the cross, but as the Psalm sings, “He who sits in the heavens laughs;            the LORD has them in derision.”

The believers knew God would do “whatever his hand and his plan had predestined.” Nothing could stop Him. God takes a vile instrument of execution and transforms it into the ultimate expression of love. Last Sunday in the second service we sang that popular song “In Christ Alone” that has the line, “on that cross as Jesus died/ the wrath of God was satisfied.” But really we should sing “the love of God was satisfied” since it was God’s love, and not his anger, that moved him to sacrifice himself in Christ.

The Jerusalem populace and the governing authorities were the ones motivated by anger. “O Lord, look upon their threats,” the community prayed. But then rather than asking God to protect them from these threats, they pray for more courage to step it up. They prayed for some more miracles too. Being able to pull off a few miracles does have a way of bolstering anybody’s courage. I wouldn’t have minded being able to do a few from that Mayflower Pulpit. Maybe call down some good old-fashioned fire and brimstone on those hecklers. But I don’t think that’s how miracles are supposed to work. As far as I can tell, whenever miracles happen, they happen mostly as holy exclamation points. And in this case here in Acts, the miracle wasn’t a furious fireball, but a healing touch that pointed straight to Jesus’ resurrected power to save. “Salvation,” you’ll remember from last Sunday, means both “restored to health” and “resurrected to life.” Again, it’s why Peter told the crippled beggar to rise up and walk.

Why did Peter and John heal only this crippled beggar? Why not wipe out every disability and cure every sickness? The reason has to do with miracles being referred to as signs instead of final destinations. Even dead Lazarus and the others whom Jesus brought back to life eventually died again. Their final destination is eternal life with God, not a healthy life here. Healing is a preview of the resurrection, a signpost for new creation, not yet heaven itself. It did wonders for the beggar, but only got Peter and John into trouble.

But trouble was also a sign—it showed them they were faithful to a gospel which constantly disrupts the peace. If the book of Acts is right, the chief sign of the resurrected Jesus’ on earth are not isolated miracles, but whole communities of resurrection so radically different from the way the world does community that there can be no other name for it. We read how after this first community prayed their prayers, the place where they gathered shook and filled up with the Spirit. This was proof of Jesus’ presence. Worship does that. How many times have you walked out of this Meetinghouse all shook up and spirit-filled, a different person from the one who walked in? Worship does that. It’s what resurrection churches feel like.

We also read how “they all spoke the word of God courageously, with boldness.” That’s what resurrection churches sound like. They speak in the relentless voice of conviction and concern and grace and compassion, even in the face of rejection and resistance. And then we read how “there was not a needy person among them.” This is what resurrection churches act like. The beggar no longer has to beg. “As many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” We’ve tried to replicate this on a couple of occasions with that box of cash we stationed at the back of the Meetinghouse for us to both give to and take from. A number of you welcomed financial help from that box, which is the way it should be. I would have put the box back out this Sunday except that we still have a few thousand dollars left over from last time. Surely everybody in this congregation isn’t so self-sufficient that we can’t dispense with a few thousand dollars. Somebody here is bound to need it. Take it and then we can put the box out and do it again.

OK, so what’s giving away a few thousand dollars compared to giving over lands and houses? These early believers sold their real estate and gave all the proceeds to the community? Some might say this would make for a good stewardship campaign, especially on this last Sunday of our church fiscal year. Others would say this sounds more like a cult. Or a socialist state. But none of the early believers were ever forced to part with their possessions. They chose to share them with anybody who needed. “Everything they owned was held in common.” It’s where the word “community” comes from. What was their motivation? Love, love, love. As the apostle Paul so famously reminds us, “If I give away all my possessions, and even hand over my body so I can boast, but do not have love, I got nothing.”

“Love is patient and kind; never envious or arrogant; it bears and believes and hopes and endures everything. It is the fuel of resurrection churches. But here’s the thing—love never ends. It’s never a finished product. It’s never complete, often flawed, typically demanding and scary and sometimes it can suck the life right out of you. There are so many easier ways to get meaning and significance in your spiritual life: you can polish your theology by taking a class. You can go on a retreat by yourself. You can behave impeccably at home and ethically at work and give generously and end up feeling pretty satisfied. But here’s the thing—you can do all these things and still love badly. Without love, you got nothing.

 The impediment to love is that same that it’s always been. You can call it selfishness. But the Bible calls it sin. And the church is full of it. Even resurrected churches. All sinners. Sinner, sinner, sinner. Every last one of us. We don’t like to be reminded of this. Especially not in church. Even though the Bible calls us sinners on practically every page. Better to speak of it euphemistically—as a mistake, a bad call, a screw-up, a faux pas. This makes life simpler. Minimize sin and you don’t have to deal with real people. You don’t have to deal with God either. If I’m OK and you’re OK, then we don’t really need each other. And we definitely don’t need Jesus. We can keep our feelings to ourselves, our thoughts to ourselves, and our things to ourselves. Don’t deal with sin and you don’t have to mess with relationships. Don’t mess with relationships and you don’t have to love. It is that easy. And that worthless. Because without love, you got nothing.

But if the book of Acts is right, the chief sign of the resurrected Jesus on earth is communities of resurrection so radically different from the way the world does community that there can be no other name for it but love. Resurrected churches are the only place where love gets taken seriously. That’s because resurrection churches are the only place that sin gets taken seriously. Get sin right, and you get love right. At the core of each of us is something wrong, something broken and depersonalizing, this part of us that frustrates our relationships with each other and with God. We are flawed. Incomplete. Unfinished. Demanding and sometimes scary people. Keep up appearances and you never have to deal with it. But dig a little deeper and it’s always there. I know it and you know it. This is basically what the Bible means by sin. You can’t fix it and you can’t get rid of it. The only thing you can do—is forgive it. And that’s what love does. That’s what resurrection does. That’s what God does because God is love. Get sin right and you get love right. Get love right and you get God. Get God and you got everything.