Friday, May 29, 2015

The day it all came together

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”

                                                                                                Acts 2:1
            With all the hub-bub and holiday bling associated with Christmas and Easter, it’s easy for other church festivals to get left behind.  Think about it: between Christmas and Easter we have Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday… none of these have really worked their way into our culture’s consciousness the way Christmas and Easter have.  Then there’s this “second round” of festivals between Easter and Christmas, festivals that focus on the life of the Church: Pentecost, Holy Trinity, Holy Cross, Reformation, All Saints and Christ the King.  If you talk to someone who doesn’t attend church regularly (or attends a non-denominational or non-liturgical congregation), chances are they’ve never even heard of these seemingly second fiddle celebrations.  And yet, each one tells a significant story in the unfolding drama of the Church year calendar. 

            Perhaps these important days are so overlooked because their stories are so difficult to tell.  Everyone can understand Christmas, right?  A baby is born.  That’s not hard to figure out.  So what if he happens to be Son of God and born of a virgin, destined to die for the sins of all humanity, rise from the dead, and ascend to heaven to rule the universe?  We don’t have to worry about all that as long as we keep him in the manger.  Easter isn’t too bad either, but too many people focus more on rabbits and candy than the actual meaning of an empty tomb and Risen Savior. 

            But what about Pentecost?  What do we say to the world when we tell the story of Pentecost?  Who can blame people for shaking their heads at what sounds like a tale of an invisible tornado and people catching fire?  Which of us has ever been in a crowd of thousands where everyone starts speaking and communicating in other languages?  What do we say about a day in history when the main event was something supernatural?

            The coming of God’s Spirit upon God’s people, Pentecost was the opening of a door, the meeting and melding of minds and hearts, the spontaneously combustible constituting convention of the holy catholic Church.  Every bit as much a work of God as the birthday of Jesus and the rolling of the stone, Pentecost was the moment it all led up to, the day it all came together.  What we do on Sunday mornings or whenever we come together as Christians, what stirs in our hearts when we pray, and what guides us in faith each and every day… these are all results of what happened so gloriously and unexpectedly on Pentecost.  In fact, our whole life in Christ is a continuous unfolding of Pentecost and a continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

            We see it and celebrate it in ways that may seem tame at first glance.  The gifts of the holy Spirit are, for the most part, unspectacular.  So are fireworks, before you light them.  Several places in scripture, we are given example lists of these gifts.  “There are,” St. Paul tells us, “varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit…to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues…”  (1 Corinthians 12).  Elsewhere, he says “we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy in proportion to faith; ministry in ministering; the teacher in teaching; the exhorter in exhortation; the giver in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate in cheerfulness” (Romans 12: 6-8).  These gifts can look like everyday talents, but what the Spirit does is fit them together so that we all become part of something so much bigger than ourselves, we are set aflame and, as Jesus put it, “our lights shine before others” (Matthew 5:16).

            Pentecost is what lights our lights.  Dreaming dreams and seeing visions, being enthusiastic architects of a better world is now the business of every Christian.  These different gifts work in different ways, but always for the purpose of bringing God’s healing and love into more of the world.  We learn from Pentecost that ministry about working together.  We are all connected, all part of the body of Christ.  We all need each other to function at our best.  In the church, we strive to give everyone a part, not just so we share the load but also to find a place for each particular gift.  We enrich our congregation and build community by helping more people get involved in fellowship, worship, and service.  That could mean thinking outside the box when it comes to the ministries we do.  Even if we’re covering all the bases, if there are new people who want to be in on the game, maybe it’s time to change the game and add more bases.  No matter what, we try to do each ministry with a “servant’s heart,” sensitive that we are part of a larger team working for the good of the whole.

            As usual this Pentecost, we celebrated our confirmation ministry at Atonement.  The four young people in confirmation each shared a presentation using the gifts God gave them to tell the story of their faith.  Joshua Diemer presented a powerpoint he called “The Church as a Team.”  He showed that the different roles and tasks in our congregation are similar to roles you’d find on a sports team, with a leader (pastor), coach (God), ball carriers (volunteers), medics (helping ministries), and even announcers (powerpoint makers), and fans (everyone who goes out and spreads the Word).  Nicholas Trejo spoke about ways the Church has changed and adapted over time, taking new shapes and forms and using new technologies.  He pointed out that having a Bible app is a revolutionary new thing, but so was the Gutenberg Bible and being able to read Scripture in your own language.  Z’Leah Liburd sang a moving song that included the words  “I give myself away (so You can use me).”  Accompanying the song was a slide show of pictures that depicted her volunteer work in the church, and other achievements she has made despite being visually impaired.  Alex Rivera-Matos, the one being confirmed that day, talked about the way his faith shapes and influences his own personal life.  He shared ways that music, prayer, and sports shape his own priorities and relationships, and helps him feel closer to God.

            How wonderful to see young people living out their faith with enthusiasm and creativity.  Clearly, they get it!  Several people stopped me on the way out of church that morning, telling me how impressed they were with these young people, and how clear it was that God’s Spirit was at work in, on, and through each of them.  One person told me, “These kids have a lot to teach our whole congregation.”  Let’s learn a lesson from them, and stay fired up for God this summer!

Pastor Scott

Monday, May 25, 2015

Thoughts at half a century

            “A pleasant vineyard: sing about it!”
                                                                        -- Isaiah 27:2

            So this month I turn 50, which doesn’t seem right.  50 once seemed like a big number of years, just like 50 dollars once seemed like a lot of money.  But somewhere on the way to 50 years of living, all that changes.  In my younger days it was said that the average American male lived to be 65 years old.  Today it’s near 76.  Either way, I’m less than a long-term mortgage away.  Kinda makes you look back at your life and simultaneously wonder what else could be coming along the road in the years of living you have left.
            The 2015 we all live in would have surprised the younger me in many ways. The younger me would be amazed at the infectious spread of strip malls, big box stores and superstores like WalMart.  Spending hours in the library after school in sixth grade, how could I have guessed that all the books and encyclopedias in the reference room would one day be surpassed by something called the Internet – which anyone could access through something called a laptop, or carry in their pocket on something called a smart phone?
            Many things I expected to have happened by now never did.  We don’t have a national network of high speed rail, or fleets of Concorde planes, much less astro-cruises to the asteroid belt.  We still have brutal wars, but at least they’re not nuclear.  We still have hunger and disease though life expectancy continues to increase.  Going by predictions from my childhood, I’d have expected that by now we’d all be living in underground houses powered by clean solar energy.  The furniture in the model “house of the future” I visited long ago looked like the stuff you’d buy today for the kids’ room at Rooms 2 Go.  And you never could have convinced my 11-year old self watching the movie Star Wars for the first time that the most eagerly anticipated movie in the year I turned 50 would be the latest sequel to that same movie.
            I’m not sure anyone could have foreseen the way technology has become so intertwined with every aspect of our lives.  And who could have predicted the frustration of instantly obsolete electronics?  We pay big money for items and services that do amazing things, but are designed by companies that know how to get us hooked and keep making money off of us.  The latest and greatest hardware becomes junk in a few years when it can no longer run the new software.  Services we once had for free suddenly upgrade and start charging us. There was a day my kids will never know when we got our television channels from the airwaves, not cable or satellite… for free! 
            And look how communication has changed.  People can watch our church services live on the web.  Heading to the store, I can text my wife on the way out the door and by the time I get there I have a list of groceries to pick up.  Social media makes it fun to share personal information.  We feel like celebrities starring in our own tv show, at the same time getting instantly fed the latest gossip.  More than that, it feeds our real human desire to connect with other people.  We can know when someone we care about is in the hospital as soon as they go in, and be praying for them right away. 
            When I was in high school, we were required to read 1984 by George Orwell.  In this book, Orwell depicted a grim world with everyone under surveillance.  We talked about it in terms of what the Soviets were doing, never imagining we’d be doing it to ourselves.  The amount of information that can be collected about us today is staggering.  There was a day when the thought of handing over all your receipts, photos, copies of all your messages and recordings of all your phone calls was unimaginable. Now we assume that someone somewhere is collecting all that data.  Who could have imagined the day when everyone would be carrying around a tracking device that could reveal their position at all times?  Today we happily carry our cell phones with us, along with their built-in GPS locators.  Do we feel safer and more secure with all this technology, or more and more lost in a world that is slipping beyond our comprehension? 
            It’s fun to imagine the future, but a spiritual perspective is needed if the world is really going to become a better place.  Technology and change are not necessarily good or bad in and of themselves.  What matters more is how these things are used, and how they are made available.  The Bible gives us a vision of a just world and shows us how we fall short.  Time and time again, humanity has been like a vineyard well cared-for by God, but yielding sour grapes (Isaiah 5).  Until the day Christ returns there will always be outrageous evil in the world and in our selves.  But in my 50 years I have seen outrageous good triumph in numerous ways.  The Spirit of Jesus is at work in the loving and forgiving done in his name.  The triumph of Easter is revealed in the healing that takes place every day as people come together with the good news of a God whose love is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Any sour grapes left over from our past are not what God keeps in his heart.  When God speaks of that beloved vineyard later on in Isaiah, he says,
             “I the Lord am its keeper; every moment I water it.
            I guard it night and day, so that no one can harm it; I have no wrath.” (Isaiah 27:3-4)
God’s never giving up on us.  He has placed us in this vineyard of the Church to help us invite others into the vineyard of our lives. 
            After 50 years I’m more sure than ever that what the world needs most is this message we carry that grace abounds!  Hope lives in the sharing and giving that happens through and within the family of faith.  A better future for each of us and for this planet rests in the Good News of the death, resurrection, and eternal rule of Jesus the Savior.  How blessed I am to be turning 50 in Florida, surrounded by a congregation that wants to roll up its sleeves and carry that message forward.  With the sweet sunshine and rains sent by God, may our vineyard grow the luscious grapes that yield the best wine of all.

Pastor Scott