Archives for May 2013
Text: Romans 5:1-5
It has been said that we get to God either through great love or great suffering. It has also been said that there are three grand essentials to happiness in this life: something to do, something to love and something to hope for. Our lectionary text today speaks of all three of these elements of life: love, suffering and hope. This morning, I want to speak of hope and its relationship to love and to suffering.
I want to begin by telling you two stories. The first story is an experience I had in 2007 while in the Republic of Georgia. The other one comes out of my experience in Cuba with our sister church in Matanzas in March of this year. The first story is captured in the picture to the left of the communion table. The second story is embedded in the picture to the right of the communion table.
The first story…While visiting our sister church, Peace Cathedral, in the Republic of Georgia, Malkhaz, the Bishop of the Baptist Churches, wanted me to visit one of their house churches that was located about a five hour drive outside the city of Tbilisi. As I have shared with you before, this particular house church is located in the region of Abkhazia near the Black Sea where portions of the region are still Russian occupied. What happens in these communities in the rural parts of Georgia is that Russian military forces come into the area and force Georgians out of their homes and then occupy them indefinitely. The Georgians who are forced from their homes become refugees, struggling in every way to simply survive. They have nothing more than the clothes they are wearing. All but one of the people in the picture are refugees – displaced by Russian military from the homes they once owned and lived in. Having fled for their personal safety, they now live in ruined military barracks that have no electricity, no running water and in some instances no windows to keep the Georgian cold out in the winter or to let the sun in during the summer. The conditions are abysmal; food is scarce. On our return trip from Abkhazia back to Tbilisi we stopped at one of these refugee camps to visit another small house church.
When we arrived, the pastor of the house church quickly gathered some people together in a small room to visit with us. In true Malkhaz fashion, he had given them no notice that we were coming. As we gathered in this small room, I could hear the women rustling in the kitchen to find something, anything, they could offer their guests to eat. It is a grand tradition in Georgia to always offer food to guests as a sign of generosity and hospitality. It wasn’t long until a plate of bread and some fruit appeared. As I took a small piece of bread and fruit, I knew that I was probably eating what would have been someone’s dinner that evening. But to refuse would have been to reject their generosity and hospitality. [Read more…]
Text: Acts 2:1-18
Happy Birthday! Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church. You heard the story not only in English, but just as those present in Jerusalem on that Pentecost might have experienced it: a cacophony of languages. The first Pentecost came on a traditional Jewish holy day, the Festival of Weeks. It was a harvest festival celebrated fifty days after the second day of Passover. That’s why so many Jews were in town. To mark the day, they would bring the first fruits of the recent harvest into the Temple. For a long time, scholars believed these faithful Jews were commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Now it’s not clear if that was Luke’s context when he wrote the book of Acts or if this connection between Pentecost and the Torah developed later. But whenever it happened, celebrating the Festival of Weeks came to include a remembrance of Moses receiving laws for the faithful to live by.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the birthday of the church is linked to a set of rules to guide the behavior of God’s people. Lord knows, we need some guidelines. Humans have always struggled with how to function in groups and the church is no exception. On the progressive end of the spectrum, we can be a bit loosy-goosy when it comes to boundaries and deciding how to navigate in times when individual needs come up against the needs of the church as a whole.
On the other end of the continuum, many draw their lines sharply, being very clear about who is in and who is out. One big city church was notorious for its exclusiveness. Then Amos, a homeless man, took a fancy to the church, and promptly told the minister that he wished to join. The pastor sought to evade the issue by suggesting to Amos that he reflect more carefully on the matter, and make it the subject of prayers for guidance. The following day, Amos returned to see the minister. “I’ve done my praying, sir,” he declared, beaming, “and God sent me an answer last night.” “And what was it?” queried the clergyman, somewhat at a loss. ”What did the Lord say?” “Well, sir, God asked me what church I wanted to join, and I said it was yours. And God said, ’Oh, so it’s that church. You can’t get in there. I know you can’t—because for years I tried to get into that church myself and never made it!’” Somewhere between loosy-goosy and boundaries so tight they keep the Holy One out is probably where we ought to be.
Today the Pentecost story would be a box office hit because it is full of special effects. We have the Spirit’s arrival in a violent wind appearing like tongues of fire. There are people speaking in different languages but understanding each other. This use of fire as a symbol of the Spirit was a common metaphor in Greco-Roman writings about prophecy. Luke’s symbolism here not only signifies the power of Peter to speak the word of God effectively, but also to think about God in fresh and inspired ways. Yet in spite of the dramatic and prophetic nature of this ancient scene, I think a significant element of the story comes before the wind and the fire ever arrive. So what I want to talk about today is in the very first verse of Acts 2: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”