Sunday, June 12, 2011

Finding True North #15: A Pentecost Sermon

I have a lot of updating to do here about Annual Conference and more, but for now I'll just post my sermon from this morning. The sections that are in verses and italicized were sung; you can listen to the whole of that song, "Spirit Hymn," below if you want to know what it sounds like complete and accompanied (I sang the verses a cappella).

Spirit Hymn by Sarah Howell


"The Ultimate Birthday Gift"
Pentecost Sermon 6-12-11
North United Methodist Church
Indianapolis, IN

Happy birthday, church!

If you didn't know it was your birthday, that's good. I didn't get you anything.

Today we celebrate Pentecost. This is when we remember the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples after Jesus' resurrection. Sometimes, Pentecost is called the birthday of the church. So, happy birthday, church.

A birthday celebration is different from a graduation or retirement party because it doesn't celebrate an achievement; it celebrates a person's existence. Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen says this about birthdays:

"On our birthdays we celebrate being alive. On our birthdays people can say to us, 'Thank you for being!' ...[Birthdays] remind us that what is important is not what we do or accomplish, not what we have or who we know, but that we are, here and now. On birthdays let us be grateful for the gift of life" (Here and Now, Crossroads 2006).

We can see in the reading from Acts that the church gets the ultimate birthday gift: the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not a thing that is given to us wrapped in pretty paper. It is not an object or an instrument put at our disposal. The Spirit is God. She is an active divine agent, the source of our life as church, an equal member of the Trinity. Just a side note: I tend to refer to the Holy Spirit in the feminine. This is not an attempt at being politically correct. The Hebrew word for "spirit" in the Old Testament, ruach, is feminine. The Greek word for "spirit," pneuma, is neither masculine nor feminine, but I'll err on the side of the feminine for today.

The Holy Spirit is God, the gift and the giver. At Pentecost, God gives God's very self to us. This unique gift unifies us, brings us into God's story, and opens up God's grace to us. On this, the church's birthday, we celebrate being together through the Spirit who is the source of our being.

Spirit, unify us by your love
Spirit, draw us in your life above
Pour yourself upon our hearts
Through your grace which abounds
You are gift and you are giver, you surround


Of course, the gift of the Spirit is not something to be framed or placed neatly on a shelf. This gift does something to its recipients. When the Spirit rests on someone, she is not resting in the same way we might when taking our Sunday afternoon nap. The Spirit rests actively, and that active resting empowers us to participate in God's mission.

The Spirit does not come to individuals for their own benefit. The descent of the Spirit is not primarily about salvation. But the Spirit is concerned with individuals and with their particularity. When the disciples started speaking in tongues, the Acts passage says, "at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each" (Acts 2:6). The Spirit caused a miracle of diversity because the Spirit is the creator of diversity. God made and loves all the details and distinctions that make each of us who we are. Jesus came as a particular person in a particular time and place. God is not interested in saving "humanity" as a general category. God is interested in you, in me, in our individual particularity and in our gathered diversity.

Because, you see, unity is one thing and uniformity is another. Sometimes we mix those up and think that in order to be unified, we must conform and become all alike. But Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Unity has never meant uniformity." At Pentecost, we do not see everyone suddenly learning to speak or understand the same language. Instead, we see the good news miraculously being translated into each person's native tongue. Christianity has been a faith of translation from the very beginning. Muslims believe that if you read the Qur'an in a language other than Arabic, you are losing something central to its meaning. But Christians may read the Bible in any language, in every language.

I want you to take a look at the banner on the pulpit. If you can't see it well from where you're sitting, there's a picture of part of it on the front of your bulletin. Be sure to come up and look at it after service. Doris Douglas created this banner, and I had the immense pleasure of meeting her my first week here. For years, Doris' beautiful banners have adorned this church and led this community through the Christian year. These incredible works of art are born out of deep prayer and love. When I first saw this Pentecost banner, I knew I had to talk about it in this sermon. Take a look at the flames on the banner. Even in black and white, you can tell that they are all different colors. That's part of what I love about this banner—it dazzlingly illustrates diverse unity. Each tongue of fire is distinct, but together they all form one glorious blaze.

There are in this church many examples of this diverse unity. I've only been here two weeks and I'm already catching on. Just think about the Umoja Project through which this church is connected with other faith communities here and in Chilaimbo, Kenya. The very name of the project, Umoja, means "unity" in Swahili. I have heard the stories of relationships built across continents between people who are so very different—and yet who are united in love and friendship. These relationships have enriched the lives of everyone involved precisely because they represent diverse unity. The Umoja Project is a gift of the Spirit to all of those involved, and it is a richer gift for involving so many different kinds of people.

Both Doris' banner and the Umoja Project are illustrations right here in our midst of how the Spirit creates unity in diversity as the source of both. In Acts chapter 2, we read about "divided tongues, as of fire" resting on each person (Acts 2:3), but “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4), the same Spirit. God's image dwells in each of us in astounding, glorious variety. We must learn to recognize the image of one God in many people.

Spirit, open out our hearts to you
Spirit, make our sweet communion true
Give us strength to overcome
All the bound’ries in place
Open us to see God’s image on each face


Earlier in the service, the choir sang an anthem called "Hymn of Fire." You can find the text in your bulletin. I am particularly struck by these lines:

"By thy sharpened word disturb us, from complacency, release!
Save us from our satisfaction when we person’lly are free yet are undisturbed in spirit by our brother’s misery!" (Eugene Butler)

Most of us probably would not immediately associate the word "disturb" with the work of the Holy Spirit. In fact, it sounds like the opposite of one of the Greek names for the Spirit—parakletos, which means "comforter." But the Spirit's fire is not intended to give an individual a warm, fuzzy feeling. Because we are unified in love, whatever comfort we may find in our own lives can never be complete while another child of God suffers. 1 Corinthians 12:26 says, "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it." The Spirit makes us all members of one body, Christ's body; and we the body of Christ suffer wherever one member encounters injustice, oppression, poverty or evil of any kind.

The Spirit empowers us to speak up against that suffering. This is almost guaranteed to cause us discomfort, because in this world, where there is suffering, there is almost always someone else benefitting from that suffering. The gift of the Spirit is not always easy to accept, because it may put us in opposition to earthly power. Throughout the Bible, from the Old Testament prophets to Jesus to the disciples, there is a pattern: the Spirit descends on a person, empowers him or her to participate in God's mission, and that person immediately gets into trouble. The ancient prophets were not well-liked. When Isaiah declared, "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me...he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners," his listeners probably did not cheer. The oppressed have oppressors. The captives have captors. The Spirit calls us to be brave, to speak prophetically into a broken world, knowing that there is a cost, knowing that in order to receive the Spirit's comfort, we may first have to experience discomfort.

In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning points out that Jesus is constantly found sharing meals with unlikely people, often scandalizing the well-to-do in the community. Manning says that we may not grasp the full significance of this today, but in ancient Israel, an invitation to share a meal was an invitation to deep friendship, particularly if it involved inviting someone into your home. Food is an important aspect of our life as a faith community. There are plenty of jokes out there about Methodists and potluck dinners. But if we are all one body in the Spirit, we cannot limit meal fellowship to people we know or like. True meal sharing happens when a volunteer at Bread 'n' Bowl, the food ministry here at North, steps out from behind the table to sit and eat and form friendships. Proverbs 22:9 says, "Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor." I am inclined to read it this way: "Those who are generous are blessed because they share their bread with the poor, in their sharing of their bread with the poor"—a sharing I envision as mutual, at a common table. Martin Luther said that we are all mere beggars telling other beggars where to find bread. Wherever there is sharing across boundaries of culture, race, economic or other social status, the Spirit is doing her awkward but redemptive work of comfort.

Yes, the Spirit is a comforter. She is the comforter. But God's definition of comfort may not always be the same as our definition of comfort. One individual's comfort is conditioned by the comfort and justice offered to others. Again, 1 Corinthians 12:26 says, "Where one member suffers, all suffer together with it," but then it goes on: "if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." Our comfort is found not in personal good feelings but in the restoration of the whole body, and we are called to participate in that healing. The Spirit comes down as fire to burn away our complacency and our apathy. Have you ever heard the saying about "afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted?" It was originally said about journalism, but I think it also applies to the Holy Spirit. She "afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted." If we are too comfortable in our faith, we can expect to be disturbed and made uncomfortable by the Spirit. But on the other hand, if we find ourselves afflicted and in distress, just as surely we can count on the comforting presence of that same Spirit.

Spirit, comfort us in suffering
Spirit, to the body help us cling
Make us see upon the cross
Christ whose wounds are the balm
Hold us safe within the Savior’s nail-scarred palm


Now, let's go back to this notion of gift. Several years ago, my dad introduced to our family a tradition that he refers to as a "hobbit birthday." If you don't know what a hobbit is, let me explain: hobbits are found in the fictional realm known as Middle Earth. This is the setting of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Hobbits are essentially very small people with pointy ears and really hairy feet.

But that's beside the point. You see, hobbits do something interesting on their birthdays: they give gifts to other hobbits. So now, on his birthday, my dad gives my mother and each of us kids a present—for his birthday.

Maybe the church could learn a lesson from hobbits about birthdays. What kind of gift might we the church be able to give to others for our birthday? What do we have to give? Well, we already have the ultimate birthday gift. We have the Spirit.

The Spirit has been moving throughout God's salvation history, empowering her people for worship and mission. Today we are invited to participate, to take part, to live into the Spirit's continuing story. Bryan Stone says that learning to be a Christian "is not just learning about a story; it is learning to live into a story” (Evangelism After Christendom, Brazos 2007). When we witness to the work of the Spirit, we are pointing out the ways in which the reign of God is already here. We point to something beyond ourselves and yet find ourselves caught up in it. As we are caught up in the life of the Spirit, we want to draw others in with us and show them what has ignited our hearts. We have the ultimate gift to give as a church. What's more, the Spirit doesn't need any help from us to dazzle the world. We are called to be the kindling for the Spirit's fire. John Wesley said, "Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn."

Spirit, prophet and redeeming one
Spirit, with the Father and the Son
Let us live into your love
As partakers of God
Help us witness to your glory shed abroad


Holy Spirit, let us live into your love. Would that all your people were prophets, and that you would put your spirit on us! Make us witnesses eager to share the gift of yourself that you pour out on us. Amen.

1 comments:

Ange Cahoon said...

Sarah...the sparkle in your eye's when your first saw Doris' banner turned into a meaning sermon. Congrats on the careful listening to Doris' meditation and turning into a message for all. Your talent to listen is a true gift.
Ange Cahoon

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Finding True North #15: A Pentecost Sermon

I have a lot of updating to do here about Annual Conference and more, but for now I'll just post my sermon from this morning. The sections that are in verses and italicized were sung; you can listen to the whole of that song, "Spirit Hymn," below if you want to know what it sounds like complete and accompanied (I sang the verses a cappella).

Spirit Hymn by Sarah Howell


"The Ultimate Birthday Gift"
Pentecost Sermon 6-12-11
North United Methodist Church
Indianapolis, IN

Happy birthday, church!

If you didn't know it was your birthday, that's good. I didn't get you anything.

Today we celebrate Pentecost. This is when we remember the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples after Jesus' resurrection. Sometimes, Pentecost is called the birthday of the church. So, happy birthday, church.

A birthday celebration is different from a graduation or retirement party because it doesn't celebrate an achievement; it celebrates a person's existence. Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen says this about birthdays:

"On our birthdays we celebrate being alive. On our birthdays people can say to us, 'Thank you for being!' ...[Birthdays] remind us that what is important is not what we do or accomplish, not what we have or who we know, but that we are, here and now. On birthdays let us be grateful for the gift of life" (Here and Now, Crossroads 2006).

We can see in the reading from Acts that the church gets the ultimate birthday gift: the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not a thing that is given to us wrapped in pretty paper. It is not an object or an instrument put at our disposal. The Spirit is God. She is an active divine agent, the source of our life as church, an equal member of the Trinity. Just a side note: I tend to refer to the Holy Spirit in the feminine. This is not an attempt at being politically correct. The Hebrew word for "spirit" in the Old Testament, ruach, is feminine. The Greek word for "spirit," pneuma, is neither masculine nor feminine, but I'll err on the side of the feminine for today.

The Holy Spirit is God, the gift and the giver. At Pentecost, God gives God's very self to us. This unique gift unifies us, brings us into God's story, and opens up God's grace to us. On this, the church's birthday, we celebrate being together through the Spirit who is the source of our being.

Spirit, unify us by your love
Spirit, draw us in your life above
Pour yourself upon our hearts
Through your grace which abounds
You are gift and you are giver, you surround


Of course, the gift of the Spirit is not something to be framed or placed neatly on a shelf. This gift does something to its recipients. When the Spirit rests on someone, she is not resting in the same way we might when taking our Sunday afternoon nap. The Spirit rests actively, and that active resting empowers us to participate in God's mission.

The Spirit does not come to individuals for their own benefit. The descent of the Spirit is not primarily about salvation. But the Spirit is concerned with individuals and with their particularity. When the disciples started speaking in tongues, the Acts passage says, "at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each" (Acts 2:6). The Spirit caused a miracle of diversity because the Spirit is the creator of diversity. God made and loves all the details and distinctions that make each of us who we are. Jesus came as a particular person in a particular time and place. God is not interested in saving "humanity" as a general category. God is interested in you, in me, in our individual particularity and in our gathered diversity.

Because, you see, unity is one thing and uniformity is another. Sometimes we mix those up and think that in order to be unified, we must conform and become all alike. But Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Unity has never meant uniformity." At Pentecost, we do not see everyone suddenly learning to speak or understand the same language. Instead, we see the good news miraculously being translated into each person's native tongue. Christianity has been a faith of translation from the very beginning. Muslims believe that if you read the Qur'an in a language other than Arabic, you are losing something central to its meaning. But Christians may read the Bible in any language, in every language.

I want you to take a look at the banner on the pulpit. If you can't see it well from where you're sitting, there's a picture of part of it on the front of your bulletin. Be sure to come up and look at it after service. Doris Douglas created this banner, and I had the immense pleasure of meeting her my first week here. For years, Doris' beautiful banners have adorned this church and led this community through the Christian year. These incredible works of art are born out of deep prayer and love. When I first saw this Pentecost banner, I knew I had to talk about it in this sermon. Take a look at the flames on the banner. Even in black and white, you can tell that they are all different colors. That's part of what I love about this banner—it dazzlingly illustrates diverse unity. Each tongue of fire is distinct, but together they all form one glorious blaze.

There are in this church many examples of this diverse unity. I've only been here two weeks and I'm already catching on. Just think about the Umoja Project through which this church is connected with other faith communities here and in Chilaimbo, Kenya. The very name of the project, Umoja, means "unity" in Swahili. I have heard the stories of relationships built across continents between people who are so very different—and yet who are united in love and friendship. These relationships have enriched the lives of everyone involved precisely because they represent diverse unity. The Umoja Project is a gift of the Spirit to all of those involved, and it is a richer gift for involving so many different kinds of people.

Both Doris' banner and the Umoja Project are illustrations right here in our midst of how the Spirit creates unity in diversity as the source of both. In Acts chapter 2, we read about "divided tongues, as of fire" resting on each person (Acts 2:3), but “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4), the same Spirit. God's image dwells in each of us in astounding, glorious variety. We must learn to recognize the image of one God in many people.

Spirit, open out our hearts to you
Spirit, make our sweet communion true
Give us strength to overcome
All the bound’ries in place
Open us to see God’s image on each face


Earlier in the service, the choir sang an anthem called "Hymn of Fire." You can find the text in your bulletin. I am particularly struck by these lines:

"By thy sharpened word disturb us, from complacency, release!
Save us from our satisfaction when we person’lly are free yet are undisturbed in spirit by our brother’s misery!" (Eugene Butler)

Most of us probably would not immediately associate the word "disturb" with the work of the Holy Spirit. In fact, it sounds like the opposite of one of the Greek names for the Spirit—parakletos, which means "comforter." But the Spirit's fire is not intended to give an individual a warm, fuzzy feeling. Because we are unified in love, whatever comfort we may find in our own lives can never be complete while another child of God suffers. 1 Corinthians 12:26 says, "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it." The Spirit makes us all members of one body, Christ's body; and we the body of Christ suffer wherever one member encounters injustice, oppression, poverty or evil of any kind.

The Spirit empowers us to speak up against that suffering. This is almost guaranteed to cause us discomfort, because in this world, where there is suffering, there is almost always someone else benefitting from that suffering. The gift of the Spirit is not always easy to accept, because it may put us in opposition to earthly power. Throughout the Bible, from the Old Testament prophets to Jesus to the disciples, there is a pattern: the Spirit descends on a person, empowers him or her to participate in God's mission, and that person immediately gets into trouble. The ancient prophets were not well-liked. When Isaiah declared, "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me...he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners," his listeners probably did not cheer. The oppressed have oppressors. The captives have captors. The Spirit calls us to be brave, to speak prophetically into a broken world, knowing that there is a cost, knowing that in order to receive the Spirit's comfort, we may first have to experience discomfort.

In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning points out that Jesus is constantly found sharing meals with unlikely people, often scandalizing the well-to-do in the community. Manning says that we may not grasp the full significance of this today, but in ancient Israel, an invitation to share a meal was an invitation to deep friendship, particularly if it involved inviting someone into your home. Food is an important aspect of our life as a faith community. There are plenty of jokes out there about Methodists and potluck dinners. But if we are all one body in the Spirit, we cannot limit meal fellowship to people we know or like. True meal sharing happens when a volunteer at Bread 'n' Bowl, the food ministry here at North, steps out from behind the table to sit and eat and form friendships. Proverbs 22:9 says, "Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor." I am inclined to read it this way: "Those who are generous are blessed because they share their bread with the poor, in their sharing of their bread with the poor"—a sharing I envision as mutual, at a common table. Martin Luther said that we are all mere beggars telling other beggars where to find bread. Wherever there is sharing across boundaries of culture, race, economic or other social status, the Spirit is doing her awkward but redemptive work of comfort.

Yes, the Spirit is a comforter. She is the comforter. But God's definition of comfort may not always be the same as our definition of comfort. One individual's comfort is conditioned by the comfort and justice offered to others. Again, 1 Corinthians 12:26 says, "Where one member suffers, all suffer together with it," but then it goes on: "if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." Our comfort is found not in personal good feelings but in the restoration of the whole body, and we are called to participate in that healing. The Spirit comes down as fire to burn away our complacency and our apathy. Have you ever heard the saying about "afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted?" It was originally said about journalism, but I think it also applies to the Holy Spirit. She "afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted." If we are too comfortable in our faith, we can expect to be disturbed and made uncomfortable by the Spirit. But on the other hand, if we find ourselves afflicted and in distress, just as surely we can count on the comforting presence of that same Spirit.

Spirit, comfort us in suffering
Spirit, to the body help us cling
Make us see upon the cross
Christ whose wounds are the balm
Hold us safe within the Savior’s nail-scarred palm


Now, let's go back to this notion of gift. Several years ago, my dad introduced to our family a tradition that he refers to as a "hobbit birthday." If you don't know what a hobbit is, let me explain: hobbits are found in the fictional realm known as Middle Earth. This is the setting of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Hobbits are essentially very small people with pointy ears and really hairy feet.

But that's beside the point. You see, hobbits do something interesting on their birthdays: they give gifts to other hobbits. So now, on his birthday, my dad gives my mother and each of us kids a present—for his birthday.

Maybe the church could learn a lesson from hobbits about birthdays. What kind of gift might we the church be able to give to others for our birthday? What do we have to give? Well, we already have the ultimate birthday gift. We have the Spirit.

The Spirit has been moving throughout God's salvation history, empowering her people for worship and mission. Today we are invited to participate, to take part, to live into the Spirit's continuing story. Bryan Stone says that learning to be a Christian "is not just learning about a story; it is learning to live into a story” (Evangelism After Christendom, Brazos 2007). When we witness to the work of the Spirit, we are pointing out the ways in which the reign of God is already here. We point to something beyond ourselves and yet find ourselves caught up in it. As we are caught up in the life of the Spirit, we want to draw others in with us and show them what has ignited our hearts. We have the ultimate gift to give as a church. What's more, the Spirit doesn't need any help from us to dazzle the world. We are called to be the kindling for the Spirit's fire. John Wesley said, "Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn."

Spirit, prophet and redeeming one
Spirit, with the Father and the Son
Let us live into your love
As partakers of God
Help us witness to your glory shed abroad


Holy Spirit, let us live into your love. Would that all your people were prophets, and that you would put your spirit on us! Make us witnesses eager to share the gift of yourself that you pour out on us. Amen.

1 comments:

Ange Cahoon said...

Sarah...the sparkle in your eye's when your first saw Doris' banner turned into a meaning sermon. Congrats on the careful listening to Doris' meditation and turning into a message for all. Your talent to listen is a true gift.
Ange Cahoon

 

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