Sermon: Sunday, June 3 2012 — The Holy Trinity, 1st Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:   Isaiah 6:1-8 and Psalm 29  •  Romans 8:12-17  •  John 3:1-17

Pastor Erik, 16, on summer tour with Nexus in Charleston, SC, circa 1989

When I was in high school, each summer — right around this time of year, in early June, just after school had let out, but before summer had kicked into full swing — the high school choir from my church would go on a choir tour.  We’d spend the spring putting together, choreographing and rehearsing a show and then we’d take it on the road.  We went to Texas one year, Tennessee another.  We even came here to Chicago once in the late 80s — maybe you’ve heard of us?  We we called “Nexus.”  We were sort of the 80s church-based equivalent of Glee.

The summer tour was the highlight of the year.  It was the thing that kept us all motivated to come to rehearsals each Wednesday night.  But tour wasn’t all about the concerts we’d do each evening, or the people we met in each of the stops along the way.  No, mainly, tour was all about what happened on the bus.

In order to transport 30 kids, 5 sponsors, 6 sets of risers, drums, guitars, and all the suitcases for all the singers and sponsors, you needed a tour bus.  But we were low-budget.  We weren’t traveling in the sort of luxury tour busses you see pulled up outside the Vic or the Riviera on a Friday night.  No, we traveled in used school busses, purchased by the church and repainted white and red with the name of our congregation on the side.  They were low tech.  They lacked air-conditioning.

It was on the bus that our group of 30 played out all our high school dramas.  We fell in love over the tops of stiff-backed chairs with green plastic upholstery.  We played I-Spy and 20 questions.  We told stories and jokes.  We flirted, we teased, we fought, we made up.  We were a society on the bus, we were a microcosm of the world.  We were popular and we were awkward.  We were studious and we were slackers.  We were fair-of-skin and we were be-speckled with pimples.

If we’re lucky, we’ve all had “summer tour” experiences in our lives.  Maybe it was a sports team that went to regionals, or a debate team that competed in the out-of-town tournaments.  Maybe it was a group of fraternity brothers or sorority sisters that shared a house (and a bathroom).  Maybe it’s the group of friends that goes to Vegas or rents a house on the beach.  Maybe it’s the group that gets together for breakfast once a week at the diner, or maybe it’s the people who gather on Friday nights to play poker or Scrabble.  Whatever the pretext for your grouping, it’s the people you share life with.

Life is meant to be shared, wouldn’t you agree?  Life isn’t really life if we isolate ourselves from the world, if we simply endure time spent in the company of others so that we can get back to being alone.  Sure, there are introverts and extroverts among us, we all have different needs for solitude and levels of tolerance for social situations.  Yet, even the most introverted of people finds some pleasure in human company of one sort or another, even if it is simply sitting close to one another as one reads a novel and the other other a newspaper.  There is joy that comes from being in community.

Biologists and sociologists would say that the human being is a social animal.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu talks about the African idea of ubuntu.  Roughly translated ubuntu means, “people are people through other people.”  It means that apart from community, there is no humanity.  It’s something we all forget in ways both big and small.  In our actions and our attitudes, in our foreign policies and in our household relationships, we can begin to treat each other like objects, like tools that exist simply to meet our individual needs.  The notion of ubuntu reminds us that it’s not so simple, that every human action has reactive consequences for the rest of us.  When a person remembers this, when a person lives in a way that respects her or his impact on the rest of us, they say that person has ubuntu.

One of the ways we talk about this theologically comes up today in the church’s observance of The Holy Trinity.  For the last half year we have traveled with Jesus, from the preparations for his birth during Advent through his passion and resurrection during the Three Days and Easter.  As the end of his earthly ministry drew near, Jesus promised his disciples that he would not leave them orphaned but that he would send an Advocate, the Spirit of truth.  We celebrating the sending of that Holy Spirit last week with the festival of Pentecost that brings to an end the fifty days of Easter.

Today we begin the second half of the church’s year, a season the church calls simply “Time after Pentecost” or “Ordinary Time.”  The sanctuary, which has been draped in blue, then white, then green, then purple, then white, then red will soon be dressed in the greens that symbolize growth in the life of faith throughout the summer and the fall.

But this season begins today with one last festival, a white day in the church’s calendar, the festival of the Holy Trinity.  The day is white like the robes traditionally worn for baptism, to remind us that in baptism we have entered into a new kind of life, the kind of life that can only be lived in community.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome puts this to us so beautifully, combining not only the communal life of God — the Creator, the Beloved, and the Spirit — but also the ways we are drawn into this life with God when he writes,

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

When we say, quoting Genesis, that humanity is made in the image and likeness of God, this is part of what we are saying as well — that God, who exists in the community of the the Parent, the Child and the Spirit, has created us for community as well.  That we are not only parents and children, but by the Spirit we are adopted into a family of being that includes everyone, everywhere.

This was the part that was always so hard for us to remember on the summer tour bus, which had a sort of predictable arc to its storyline.  After months of late night rehearsals we boarded the bus with lots of energy and excitement.  Seats were claimed with purses and pillows, with seniors always asserting their right to the prime seats in the back of the bus. The first few concerts would go well enough, but we didn’t really hit our stride until about half way through.  Early tour romances were quick to burn out, but provided plenty for the rest of us to talk about.  By halfway through, we had established a new way of relating to each other.  We were a unit.  Hours spent on the bus driving from Iowa to Ohio had forged a new identity, and our closeness came through in our performances.

Then it would start to unravel.  Friendships fell apart over jealousies.  Condescension devolved into bullying.  Things were said and done that were hard to forgive and the bus started to feel like a prison on wheels.  We lost our ubuntu and started living for ourselves, nursing hurt feelings and wounded pride.

You’ve probably seen what it looks like when teenagers have a big falling out with each other, when they lose their ubuntu.  It’s not pretty.  It’s even worse when adults do it though.  When we lose our ubuntu we have all sorts of ways of taking it out on each other.  Our cliques become more brutal than any school lunchroom or tour bus, as we sell each other into poverty and bomb each other into oblivion in the name of self-interest and self-defense.  Our ubuntu is so obscured that we lose track of our common humanity.  We need to start over.  We need to be reborn.

That is the case with Nicodemus, a leader among the Jews — caught between the demands of empire and the passionate new vision for humanity and all of creation taking the country by storm as the Jesus bus stops in one town after another.  He know in his gut that no one could do what Jesus was doing without God’s power and purpose on his side.  But he can’t imagine how to cross the distance between the ways things are and the way things are supposed to be.  He asks, “how can anyone be born after having grown old?”

Don’t we know this question all too well ourselves?  How can we start over at this age?  How can we become new people, now that we’ve already bought a house, or finished a degree, or raised a family?  How can we become new people when all we’ve ever known is this way of being, these passed down prejudices, these categories of us and them?

Jesus says the answer is love.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The only way our tour bus ever made it back to Des Moines in one piece was by the power of love.  Somewhere, out on the road together, we remembered that the God we were singing about each night in each of those churches was real, and so was that God’s love for us.  We were still young enough for our hearts to be open to the possibility of forgiveness, and repentance, and reconciliation.

As our church enters the second half of the year, the long green season of ordinary time, we are called to remember the white robes of our baptism that symbolize our adoption into the community of God — our Maker, our Savior, our Power.  It does not matter if we have grown tired and hopeless, if our have grown bitter and angry, if we have grown jealous and fearful.  In Christ Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God is making us new.  We are being born again, in and for and through one another.



Sermon: Sunday, April 15, 2012: Second Sunday of Easter

Texts:  Acts 4:32-35  •   Psalm 133  •  1 John 1:1-2:2  •   John 20:19-31

I may never have been a Boy Scout, but I have gone camping and canoeing and backpacking with family and friends over the years and, based on those experiences, I’m going to share one piece of advice that I’m sure the scouts have heard plenty of times over the course of their scouting careers: stay together.

That is my advice to you today: stay together.

This advice seems fairly obvious and self-explanatory say, if you’re out in the wilderness and get lost.  The scouting websites I reviewed went so far as to say, never move out of eyesight or earshot of each other. You stay together for safety and to increase your chances of being found.  But what is the value of staying together in the everyday contexts of our lives?

Those who followed Jesus weren’t Boy Scouts either.  In fact, they weren’t all boys.  And, in the first days after the crucifixion and death of their leader, Jesus, they were in a state of crisis.  Just a few weeks earlier they’d rode into Jerusalem with Jesus, ready to see the world change before their eyes.  Then it did.

The teacher they loved had been betrayed by a member of their own fellowship and handed over to the Roman authorities.  He’d been set up for a death sentence by his own country-people, who’d alleged that he was committing treason against the empire by claiming to be a king.  Perhaps worst, as they looked back at what had just unfolded, he’d been abandoned by his own friends.  When the moment of crisis came, this troop did not stay together.  Instead, they split up, and the one they loved most ended up dead.

You can imagine the mood inside that locked up house, can’t you?  I suspect it was a pretty quiet place, each of the disciples reviewing in their minds what had happened, what had gone wrong.  Each of them replaying that moment when they had split off from the group and run for safety on their own, hoping not to get caught by the Temple authorities and nailed to a cross.

But, even in those early days of fear and crisis, they hadn’t all stuck together.  Mary Magdalene had slipped away to visit the tomb, perhaps to confirm one last time with her own eyes the unbelievable truth that Jesus was dead.  She’d arrived to find the tomb open, and went immediately to get Simon Peter and another of Jesus’ beloved disciples. After confirming that Jesus’ body wasn’t in the tomb, the men returned to their home.

How do we suppose the gathered disciples felt then?  Not only had they abandoned their teacher in his hour of need, but even after his death they’d been unable to safeguard his body.  I suspect they were not only afraid for their lives, but ashamed of themselves as well.  When Jesus had been alive and with them, they’d felt a new kind of life taking hold in them.  They’d been drawn together by the promise of a world transformed, but they’d also been scattered by the threats of the world as it is.

It is so hard to stay together in this world, as it is.  Some of the forces pulling us away from each other are so commonplace that they feel almost like natural law.  We grow up in a family, but we are pulled away from each other as we leave for work or school.  We begin to know ourselves as children, but we are pulled away from each other as we come to know ourselves as adults. How do we leave enough room in our relationships for those we love to grow and become themselves, and still stay together as families?

As we pull away, or are pulled away, from our families we find ourselves again in new communities of friends or co-workers.  We begin to recreate the families we’ve known as young people out of the people who now surround us.  But, almost as soon as we have our newly constructed families put together, they are torn apart by graduations, moves to new cities for new jobs or new relationships.  How do we invest ourselves fully in the people who come into our lives, friends who become family, and then watch them leave us?  How do we stay together in this age of frequent relocation?

For many people, the community of close knit friends is replaced by the conjoining of marriage.  Unable, or unwilling, or uninterested in staying put, we pin all our hopes and needs for community on one person, and we promise that at least we two will stay together as everyone else moves on to establish their new lives.  High divorce rates over the last century suggest that marriage is not the panacea to our problems with staying together.

For most of human history, people were born, grew up, married, raised a family, worked the land and died in the same place.  In some sense, these centripetal forces that work so hard to tear us apart are a relatively new phenomenon.  The move from rural centers of production to urban ones, the rising need for specialized education to stay competitive in the marketplace, advances in communication and transportation, have created new contexts in which it is harder and harder to stay put, to stay together.

Others of these forces though are very old.  Debt and poverty have always pulled families apart.  Whether we look at families torn apart by the shelter system after a wage-earner loses employment today, or families torn apart by poverty during reconstruction as younger generations moved north to find work, or families torn apart in biblical times by debt that required them to sell the rights to their own children’s labor, debt and poverty have made it incredibly difficult to stay together.

This is part of what makes the story told in the fourth chapter of Acts so amazing.  Far from the huddled band of disciples hiding behind the locked door in the days after Jesus’ death, the early church is described in the Acts of the Apostles as a community of radical solidarity.  They are people who are testifying to the power of the risen Lord in their lives precisely by the way they stay together.  The scriptures say that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”

Acts ties these things together, that powerful testimony and radical generosity go together.  It was not enough to simply say that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  It was not persuasive.  But, when people saw the kinds of transformed lives that led people to sell what they owned and share their wealth with the neediest among them, they began to believe that something truly amazing had happened.  That something new was alive in the world, and that the world as it was might finally be passing away to make room for something new. A new heaven and a new earth.  A new future here and now.

How did the community of Jesus followers, who in time came to be known as “Christians,” get from the fear of the locked house to the joy of the beloved community?

I think it happened, in part, because they stuck together.  Mary stayed by the tomb a little while longer after Peter and the beloved disciple returned home, and in those moments she experienced the living Lord who told her to return to his “brothers.”  He reminds her that this community of friends has become a family, and he sends her to be with them.  Only once they are together does Jesus appear among them, breathing peace and sending the Holy Spirit.  Even then, they aren’t all there, Thomas is still away and unable to believe what he hears.  This unbelief is no barrier to God. So, once again, when the community is together Jesus appears among them, and when Thomas sees the evidence of Jesus’ body, still wounded and still more alive, he comes to believe.

Much has been made of Thomas’ doubt, so much so that he is remembered as “doubting Thomas,” but let’s be fair — everyone in this story has doubts, just like you and I.  We doubt the story, we doubt God, but I think more than anything else, we doubt ourselves. We all know what it’s like to live inside the locked house, doubting that life could be any different than it is today.

What is your locked house?

Is it the dynamic between members of your family?  Is it your job?  Is it the community of friends you’ve grown to love, scattering to the four winds?  Is it your marriage?  Is it your heart?

Where in your life are you hiding, convinced that “the world as it is” is “the world as it will be?”  That nothing new could ever come to life?

Every life is filled with these kinds of crises.  If that isn’t true for you now, then perhaps it already has been.  If it hasn’t happened yet, just wait, it’s coming.  But, like our Boy Scouts have been taught, so we are reminded: stay together.  Help is on the way. God does not leave us alone in the locked houses of our lives, but finds us when we are gathered together.

This is why, as we gathered at the font this morning to baptize Aidan Morley Smith, we asked his parents to promise to live with him among God’s faithful people, and to bring him to the word of God and the holy supper.  Because we know that every life will have its share of locked doors, and we want to be there to share the burden.  We want to be the kinds of friends that are family.  We want to see and touch the wounds that will inevitably come his way so that we know how to care for them.  We want to stay together.

Sisters and brothers, so much of Christian faith seems tied up with belief.  You tell someone that you’re a Christian and they want to know if you believe all that stuff about miraculous births, and magical resurrections and sacraments being body and blood, and whatever.  Think on this: the very disciples who knew and followed Jesus while he was alive had trouble believing.  That didn’t bother God at all.  In the presence of doubt Jesus’ first words were, “peace be with you.”  Then he did whatever needed to be done to bring people to faith.  And all of this happened while they were together.

So, whether you are here this morning filled with fears and doubts, locked up in your house or in your heart; or you are here this morning filled with joy because your needs have been provided for and you are living, by the miracle of God’s grace, as proof of the beloved community, we are simply glad you’re here.  Because it is when we are together that we see the risen Lord, still wounded and still alive.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!