Sunday, May 23, 2021

Pentecost

 


May 23, 2021

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2.1-21

 

+ We are of course celebrating Pentecost today.

 

It’s a very important day in the life of the Church—a day right up there with Christmas and Easter.

 

It is, essentially, the “birthday” of the Church.

 

It now 50 days after Easter.

 

The word “Pentecost” refers to the Greek word for 50.

 

And it’s connection with the Jewish feast of Shavuot (which ended on Tuesday) is pretty clear.

 

Shavuot is a wonderful and important Jewish feast.

 

Shavuot 50 days after Passover.

 

The belief is that, after fifty days of traveling after leaving Egypt, the nation of Israel now has finally arrived at Mount Sinai.

 

And on Shavuot, the Torah, the “Law,” the 10 Commandments were delivered to them by Moses.

 

Shavuot is also a the feast on which the early Jews offered to God the first fruits of their harvests.

 

Now that is particularly meaningful to us Christians and what we celebrate on this day of Pentecost.

 

It is meaningful that the Holy Spirit came among us on this feast in which the first fruits were offered to God.

 

After all, those first Christiana who gathered in that upper room in our reading this morning from Acts, were truly the first fruits of the Church.

 

And let’s not forget that those first Christians were also Jews, gathering to celebrate the festival of Shavuot.

 

God chose to send the Spirit on those first followers of Jesus on just the right day.

 

Still, like nuclear power or electricity, God’s Spirit is sometimes a hard thing for us to grasp and understand. 

 

The Spirit can be elusive and strange and sometimes we might have a hard time wrapping our minds around the Spirit.

 

But it is clear from the words of Jesus before he ascends back into heaven what the role of the Spirit is for us:

 

 "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

 

So, Jesus will leave—at the ascension, he went physically back up to heaven.

 

We will not be able to touch him and feel him and listen to his human voice again, on this side of the veil.

 

But God is leaving something amazing in Jesus’ place.

 

Jesus is gone from us physically, but God is still with us.

 

In a sense what happens with the Descent of God’s Spirit upon us is the fact that we now have the potential to be prophets ourselves.

 

You hear me talk about this all the time.

 

The same Spirit which spoke to Ezekiel in our reading this morning, which spoke to Isaiah, which spoke to Jeremiah, which spoke to Moses, which spoke through Jesus, also can now speak to us and be revealed to us just as it spoke and was revealed to those prophets from the Hebrew Bible and through Jesus.

 

That is who the Spirit is in our midst.

 

The Spirit we celebrate today—and hopefully every day—is truly the spirit of the God that came to us and continues to be with us.

 

It is through this Spirit that we come to know God in ways we might never have before.

 

God’s Spirit comes to us wherever we may be in our lives—in any situation or frustration.

 

God’s Spirit is with us, as Jesus promised, always.

 

Always.

 

For those of us who want to grasp these experiences—who want to have proof of them—the Spirit doesn’t fit well into the plan.

 

We can’t grasp the Spirit.

 

We can’t make the Spirit do what we want it to do.

 

In that way, the Spirit truly is like the Wind that came rushing upon those first disciples.

 

So, how do we know the Spirit is working in our lives?

 

Well, as Jesus said, we know the tree by its fruit.

 

In our case, we know the Spirit best through the fruits God’s Spirit gives us.

 

Remember what the feast of Pentecost originally was? The feast of Shavuot?

 

It was the Jewish feast on which the first fruits were offered to God.

 

In a sense, what happens on our Pentecost, is God returning those fruits back to us.

 

On the feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the fruits the Spirit of God gives to us and we can be thankful for them, and, most importantly, share them in turn with those around us.

 

The Spirit comes to us and manifests itself to us in the fruits given to us by the Spirit.

 

For me, the Spirit of God comed to me not in a noisy, raucous way, but rather in a quiet, though just as intense, way.

 

The Sprit of God as I have experienced it has never been a “raining down” so to speak, but rather a “welling up from within.”

 

The fruits of the Spirit for me have been things such as an overwhelming joy in my life.

 

I have known the Spirit to draw close when I feel a true humbleness come to me.

 

When the Spirit is near, I feel clear-headed and, to put it simply, happy.

 

Or, in the midst of what seems like an unbreakable dark grief, there is suddenly a real and potent sense of hope and light.

 

When the future seems bleak and ugly, the Spirit can come in and make everything worth living again.

 

We experience God’s Spirit whenever we feel real joy or real hope.

 

As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, the Spirit of God is a Spirit of Truth.

 

We experience God’s Spirit when we strive for truth in this world, when truth comes to us.

 

In turn, we are far from God’s Spirit when we let bitterness and anger and frustration lead the way.

 

We frustrate God’s Spirit when we grumble and mumble about each other and hinder the ministries of others in our church, when we let our own agendas win out over those who are trying also to do something to increase God’s Kingdom in our midst.

 

We deny the Spirit when we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

 

No doubt everyone here this morning has felt God’s Spirit in some way, although we might not have readily recognized that experience as God’s Spirit.

 

But our job, as Christians, is to allow those fruits of the Spirit to flourish and grow.

 

For us, we let the Spirit of God flourish when we continue to strive for truth and justice, when stand up against the dark forces of this world.

 

The Spirit of God compels again and again to stand up and to be defiant against the dark forces of this world!

 

On the feast of Shavuot, the scripture we heard from Ezekiel today is read.

 

Again, remember, those first followers of Jesus on that first day of Pentecost would have heard this scripture that same day as well.

 

It is an amazing scripture and an amazing vision.

 

In it, God’s Spirit revives the bones in the valley.

 

What appears to be dead and lifeless is given life by God’s life-giving Spirit.  

 

And that reading ends with these very powerful words that speak so clearly not only to the Jewish people, but to us as well.

 

Ezekiel says,

 

Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

 

God’s Spirit is placed within us so that the graves of our lives may be opened, and we can stand in that place to which God has lead us.

 

That dynamic and life-giving presence of the Spirit of God speaks loudly to us.

 

Certainly we have seen God’s Spirit at work here in our congregation as we celebrate a bountiful harvest—the growth and vitality here.

 

We see the Holy Spirit at work in the ministries we do, in the love we share with others, with the truth we proclaim as Christians, even in the face of opposition.

 

We experience this Spirit of truth when we stand up against injustice, wherever it may be.

 

This is how God’s Spirit comes to us.

 

The Spirit does not always tear open the ceiling and force its way into our lives.

 

The Spirit rather comes to us just when we need the Spirit to come to us.

 

Often the Spirit comes to us as fire—an all-consuming fire that burns way all anger and hatred and fear and pettiness and nagging and all the other negative, dead chaff we carry within us.

 

So, this week, in the glow of the Pentecost light, in the Shavuot glow with the Law written deep in our hearts, let us look for the gifts of the Spirit in our lives and in those around us.

 

Let us open ourselves to God’s Spirit and let it flow through us like a caressing wind and burn through us like a purifying fire.

 

And let us remember the true message of the Spirit to all of us.

 

Whenever it seems like God is distant or nonexistent, that is when God might possibly be closest of all, dwelling within us, being breathed unto us as with those first disciples.

 

On these feasts of Shavuot and Pentecost—these feasts of the fruits of God—these feasts of the fire of God—let us give thanks for this God who never leaves us, who never stops loving us, but who comes to us again and again in mercy and in truth.

 

Let us pray.

 

Come, holy Spirit, come!

Come as holy fire and burn in us,
Come as holy wind and cleanse us,
Come as holy light and lead us,
Come as holy truth and teach us,
Come as holy forgiveness and free us,
Come as holy love and enfold us,
Come as holy power and enable us,
Come as holy life and dwell in us.
Come, Holy Spirit, and increase in us your gifts of grace
Convict us, convert us,
Consecrate us, until we are wholly yours
And Transform us into the image of Christ. Amen

Sunday, May 16, 2021

7 Easter

 


The Sunday after the Ascension

 May 16, 2021

 

John 17.6-19

 

 

+ Well, as you know, the mask mandate was lifted by the CDC on Thursday.

 

I will be releasing updated protocols today after asking for feedback from our Vestry today.

 

It is a time to be cautiously optimistic about our future.

 

And, as I’ve been saying for several weeks, we need to start thinking about moving into “post-pandemic” mode.

 

We are in a kind of plateau right now.

 

We are in a flat, open space between where we have been and where we are     going.

 

So, what does that mean?

 

How do we do that?

 

What does the post-pandemic world—and more specifically, the post-pandemic St. Stephen’s—look like?

 

Well, I don’t know.

 

None of us do.

 

But I do know that, just as somehow we got through the darkest day of the pandemic, so we continue to move forward and do what we’re called to do in the wake of this pandemic.

 

When these things happen—when bad stuff or times of major change happens, I always say: look, at how the Spirit of God moves in our midst.

 

I do believe that we are finding ourselves moving into a place, yet again, that is very similar to place those first followers of Jesus were in right about now in their following of Jesus just after Jesus ascended to heaven.

 

They are being prepared for the movement of the Spirit of God in their lives.

 

This week, in our scripture readings, we move slowly away from the Easter season toward Pentecost.

 

For the last several weeks, we have been basking in the afterglow of the resurrected Jesus.

 

In our Gospel readings, this resurrected Jesus has walked with us, has talked with us, has eaten with us and has led the way for us.

 

Now, he has been taken up.

 

We find a transformation of sorts happening.

 

With his ascension, our perception of Jesus has changed.

 

No longer is he the wise sage, the misunderstood rebel, the religious renegade that he seemed to be when he walked around, performing miracles and upsetting the religious and political powers that be.

 

He is now something so much more.

 

He is more than just a regular prophet.

 

He is the Prophet extraordinaire.

 

He is the fulfillment of all prophecies.

 

He is more than just a king—a despotic monarch of some sort like Caesar or Herod.

 

He is truly the Messiah.

 

He is the divine Son of God.

 

At his ascension, we find that he is, in a sense, anointed, crowned and ordained.

 

He does not just ascend back to heaven and then is kind of dissolved into the great unknown.

 

He ascends, then assumes a place at God’s right hand.

 

At his ascension, we find that what we are gazing at is something we could not comprehend before.

 

He has helped us to see that God has truly come among us.

 

He has reminded us that God has taken a step toward us.

 

He has showed us that God loves us and cares for us.

 

He has shown us that the hold death held on us is now broken.

 

He has reminded us that God speaks to us not from a pillar of cloud or fire, not on some shroud-covered mountain, not in visions.

 

But God is with us and speaks in us. We are God’s prophets now.  

 

The puzzle pieces are falling into place.

 

What seemed so confusing and unreal is starting to come together.

 

God truly does love us and know us.

 

And next week, one more puzzle piece falls into place.

 

Next week, we will celebrate God’s Spirit descending upon and staying with us.

 

For the moment, we are in this plateau, caught in between those two events—the Ascension and Pentecost—trying to make sense of what has happened and trying to prepare ourselves for what is about to happen.

 

But things are about to really change.

 

Man, are things about to change!

 

We are caught between Jesus’ ascent into heaven and the Spirit’s descent to us.

 

See, plateaus are not bad things.

 

A plateau offers us a time for to pause, to ponder who we are and where are in this place—in this time in which everything seems so spiritually topsy-turvy, in this time before the Spirit moves and stirs up something incredible.

 

This week, smack dab in the middle of the twelve days between the Ascension and Pentecost, we find ourselves examining the impact of this event of God in our lives.

 

And God has made an impact in our lives.

 

The commission that the ascended Jesus gave to the apostles, is still very much our commission as well.

 

We must love—fully and completely.

 

Because in loving, we are living.

 

In loving, we are living fully and completely.

 

In loving, we are bringing the ascended Christ to others.

 

And we must go out and live out this commission in the world.

 

When we do, the ascended Christ is very much acting in the world.

 

When we think about what those first followers went through in a fairly short period of time—Jesus’ betrayal and murder, his resurrection and his ascension—we realize it was a life altering experience.

 

Their lives—their faith, their whole sense of being—was changed forever.

 

They would never be who they were again.

 

That is where we are right now as well, right here in this plateau in the pandemic.

 

We find ourselves simply moving through the life-altering events with bated breath.

 

Only later, when everything has settled down, will we have the opportunity to examine what had just happened to us.

 

And it is then that we realize the enormity of the changes in our lives.

 

For those first followers of Jesus, it seems like they didn’t have much of a change to ponder their life-altering experiences.

 

As soon as one life-altering experience happened, another one came along.

 

Just when they had experienced Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, they encountered this outpouring of God’s Spirit in their lives.

 

The waters, it seemed, were kept perpetually stirred.

 

Nothing was allowed to settle.

 

That is what our ministry is often like.

 

One day, very early in my career, I came to that realization myself.

 

I’m sure Deacon John knows this to be true as well.

 

Ministry is perpetually on-going.

 

There is never an ending to it.

 

It’s always something.

 

One week brings another set of opportunities, set-backs, trip-ups, tediums, frustrations, joys, celebrations.

 

These are things those first followers of Jesus no doubt struggled with.

 

Yet we, like them, are sustained.

 

We, like them, are upheld.

 

We, like them, are supported by the God who welcomed the ascended Jesus, whose work we are doing in this world.

 

In those moments when our works seems useless, when it seems like we have done no good work, the God who brought Jesus back still triumphs.

 

We all remember that song by the Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby.”

 

I remember how sad I used to feel when I heard them sing about Father Mackenzie, how he

 

“…wipes the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave.

No one was saved.”

 

You know what?

 

It feels like that sometimes.

 

But those moments are moments of self-centeredness.

 

Those moments are moments when we think it all depends on us.

 

On ME.

 

Our job, in this time between Jesus’ departure from us and the return of the Holy Spirit to us, in the post-pandemic era that we are entering, is to simply let God do what God needs to do in this interim.

 

We need to let the Holy Spirit work in us and through us.

 

We need to let the God who brought Jesus to heaven be the end result of our work.

 

When we wipe our hands as we walk from the grave, lamenting the fact that it seems no one was saved, we need to realize that, of course, it seems that way as we gaze downward at our hands.

 

But above us, the Ascension is happening.

 

Above us, Jesus, seated at God’s right hand, is triumphant—as Prophet of prophets, of King of Kings, as the High Priest of all priests.

 

Above us, in that place of glory with God, Jesus triumphs—and we with him.

 

Above us, God’s Spirit is about to rain down upon us as flames of fire.

 

All we have to do is look up.

 

All we have to do is stop gazing at our dirty, callused, over-worked hands—all we have to do is turn from our self-centeredness—and look up.

 

And there we will see the triumph.

 

And as we do, we will realize that more were saved than we initially thought.

 

Someone was saved. We were saved.

 

Jesus has ascended.

 

And we have—or will—ascend with him as well.

 

He prays in today’s Gospel that we “may have [his] joy made complete in [ourselves].”

 

That joy comes when we let the Holy Spirit be reflected in what we do in this world.

 

So, let this Spirit of joy be made complete in you.

 

Let the Spirit of joy live in you and through you and be reflected to others by you.

 

When we do, we will be, as Jesus promises us, “sanctified in truth.”

 

We will be sanctified in the truth of knowing and living out our lives in the light of the ascension.

 

We will be sanctified by the fact that we have looked up and seen the truth happened above us in beauty and light and joy.

 

Let us pray.

 

Loving God, we rejoice today in the fact that you have brought your Son Jesus to be seated at your right hand. Prepare us as we wander about in this plateau in our lives, so that we can truly receive your Spirit and all the gifts that comes with Pentecost. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.