Archive for June 2011

Ministry WITH: ministrywith.org

June 30, 2011

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Nashville, TN, just a few blocks from the GBOD headquarters where I am participating in a clergy peer learning incubator.  I just had dinner, so I am perusing some blogs and the news in my plush king-sized bed with the flat screen HDTV on in the background, enjoying some cool water and the AC comfortably chill the room to a pleasant 72 degrees. Life is good.

I like to have the TV on in the back ground, but don’t really pay attention to it too much when I am reading. I just turned on the TV, not really paying attention to the channel or program. I finally realized what I was watching (and the irony of it) when I read some disturbing facts about illiteracy, hunger and poverty on ministrywith.org/learn. I had on the background TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress.” I’ll admit that I like catching that show whenever I have time to sit down to watch a few minutes of TV. But today it seemed wrong to watch a girl hunt for a $4,000 wedding dress as I was reading that 1.4 billion people in the Global South live on less than $1.25 a day, and that 854 million people lack clean drinking water, and 925 million people in the world suffer from hunger.

Ironic. Here I am separated from these real world problems plaguing so many millions of people, and I feel guilty, shamed. I want to do something. I want to help. How many of us have had these same feelings, and yet do we move from our comfortable realities? Do any of us give up our present reality to transform and alleviate some of the harsh realities that rob humanity of some of life’s basic necessities? Yes, some people do. Many people do. But not enough.

In the US there are 7 million United Methodists. 7 million! That is a lot of people! Too often today we lament our decline in membership from 11 million to 7 million, but 7 million transformed people with a vision to transform the world for and in the name of Jesus Christ can do miracles together. Imagine! Imagine what we could do together if we work in partnership with God and one another to live and embody the Gospel for the transformation of the world. I believe such a transformation is possible through the power of the Holy Spirit who works in and through each of us.

I do not think we are all called to give up all our possessions and take a vow of poverty (though some may be), but I do think we are all called to be mindful of the ways we use our resources. As United Methodists we should remember that John Wesley encouraged the early Methodists to “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” I think two words are missing from this Wesleyan-ism in order for us to really understand what Wesley meant–“so that”–earn all you can and save all you can, so that you can give all you can. If you really want to understand John Wesley’s radical economics I suggest you pick up Theodore Jenning’s book, Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics. Basically what John Wesley would have told us today is that if you can live off of and provide for your family on 10% of your income, then you should give 90% away. But if you need 95% of your income to live on then only give 5%. It is a radical concept.

But money is definitely not the answer to all the world’s problems; I don’t think it is even the beginning of the answer to the world’s problems because the beginning starts with the heart–our relationship with God and God’s command for us to love our neighbors. When we grasp and embody that radical, real and present call then we will begin to start living as people who have been transformed by the Gospel, and transformed people are the church’s greatest asset  to beginning to solve problems like poverty, hunger, illiteracy and other problems that plague our people and our planet. The solution lies with you and me…not just our money but our open hearts and willingness to listen to where God may be calling each of us to give up some of our reality so that people everywhere can have some of life’s basic necessities.

How will you respond to the call?

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Radical Hospitality

June 27, 2011

What comes to mind when you think of welcome or hospitality? Does something or some image or picture come to mind?

I’ll admit that I had some very simple images come to mind when I first thought about hospitality. I admit, somewhat shamefully, that some of the things in the “Rethink Church” campaign did not immediately come to mind. I thought about a big welcome mat outside my mom’s house, and then I thought about the School of Hospitality Administration at BU because every day for three years I walked from my apartment in Boston I passed by the School of Hospitality Administration. Today when we think of being welcoming or hospitable I think most of us picture similar images. We picture having family and friends over to our homes for a meal. Or we think of the hospitality industry of hotels and restaurants…which when you think about it are really only open and hospitable to people who agree to pay for their hospitality. Such welcome and simple kinds of hospitality are used so casually and commercially in our world today.[1] When you are driving and you cross the state line there is usually a gigantic sign that says, “Welcome.” And when I walked around the neighborhood this morning I noticed a lot of houses have door mats or hangers that say “Welcome.”  And usually when we go to a restaurant you get a hello and a welcome, and of course probably the most famous welcome comes from those Wal-mart greeters who welcome millions of people to their stores all over the world. Their whole job is to simply be welcoming. We could probably list many other ways we daily interact with such hospitality and welcome. We are surrounded by people and places that hope to be and market places of welcome and hospitality.

I really hope that churches come to mind when people think of places and people of welcome and hospitality. Maybe some of you thought of the United Methodist slogan—Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors—that was after all the purpose of that catchy tagline. We wanted the world to know that United Methodists are a church and people who are welcoming and hospitable. Or maybe some of you who have been around church for awhile think of coffee and donut hour before or after church. I remember when I was in seminary coffee and donut time was very important to my fellow Korean seminarians. Some of my Korean friends asked me if all churches in the US had such awful food before and after church. I asked them what they meant, and then they begin to tell me how scant the food had been and how awful the coffee was at some of the churches they had visited, and they were always surprised that not more people lingered after church. They said maybe if the food was better people would stay at church longer. Then they told me how in Korea food at church is very, very important. I remember when I lived in Korea that this was very true. I always left with a full stomach after going to the Korean church; it was a stark contrast to the chapel on post that encouraged people to only take half a bagel. Food for the Koreans was where they made people feel at home and welcome, so for them not to have more welcoming food was disgraceful of churches.

Or, maybe when you think of the church and welcoming and hospitality you think of greeters or the gathering time before service where you get to chat with your friends. For many of us at Wesley Memorial these are our memories; in fact in the last natural church development survey we rated ourselves as a very hospitable church, so for us who come here weekly church does come to mind when we think of welcome and hospitality. But I don’t know if that is always the case for the general public.

If you talk to folks who aren’t in church or do google or youtube search online and type in “church,” “welcome,” or “hospitality” you might be surprised that what you hear and what pops up are not the many ways the church is welcoming and hospitable but the ways the church is not welcoming and hospitable and therefore a reason many people don’t even come to church or have been hurt and turned off by the church. In fact many of the adjectives that popped up about Christians where words like “hypocritical,” “judgmental,” “irrelevant,” “out of touch,” “out of date” and “old.” None of those descriptions say welcome, do they? Clearly the church has an image problem.[2]

This breaks my heart, because I want to the world to know the place of welcome, hospitality and home I have known at this church and other churches I have been a part of. I think that is why churches of all denominations are having campaigns like the United Methodist “Rethink Church” movement; we know there is a problem and that maybe the church isn’t welcoming in some ways, so we are actively praying that the Spirit will guide us to be truly a church with Open hearts, open minds and open doors. How can people outside the church know that we who are inside are full of welcome and hospitality if they don’t even come through our doors? Part of rethinking church and getting back in touch with people outside the church is remembering our roots.

As God’s people we can go as far back as Genesis and Deuteronomy to see how God has invited his people since the beginning of time to live radical hospitality. Deuteronomy 10:17-19, for example, says: “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As Christians, as children of God, as followers of Christ we are called to be welcoming people just as our God is a welcoming God who provides and gives to all people; we are called to be people of hospitality—a hospitality that goes beyond donuts, coffee and hugs on Sunday morning, but hospitality that is outbound, unbound and active…a radical hospitality we live out and embrace in our everyday lives as individuals but also as people connected and in relationship with the body of Christ.

The hospitality and welcome we feel in church each week is not to be savored during the one-hour of worship on Sunday morning, but that experience of welcome is what we are sent forth to share with the world beyond the walls of our church. Arthur Sutherland is the author of a book called: I Was a Stranger: A Theology of Christian Hospitality and he writes that “Hospitality is the practice by which the church stands or falls.” Listen to that again: “Hospitality is the practice by which the church stands or falls.” So this whole welcoming and hospitality thing is important, actually as the people of God it is essential in sharing and proclaiming the Gospel. Actually Christine Pohl, one of my favorite authors from seminary, says “Hospitality is central to the meaning of the Gospel.”[3] Hospitality is embodying and living welcome-ness; it is at the core of our identity.

But do we really know what it means to be welcoming or hospitable in the biblical sense? I think many of us know what it means to be hospitable and welcoming—we are after all southern and who else in the US knows better than southerners the art of hospitality and welcome? But even as southerners in the Biblebelt, do we know the bible well enough today to know the kind of radical hospitality and welcome we are called as people who call ourselves Christian? The Greek word used in our verses from Matthew 10 today is dechomai, and decomai can be translated in many ways. Dechomai can mean “to take with the hand, to take hold of, to take up, to receive, to not refuse friendship, to grant access to a visitor, to welcome, to receive to hospitality, to bring into one’s family, to receive favorably, give ear to, embrace, and make one’s own.” I think it is most important for me to point out that dechomai is an active verb that doesn’t just describe a single, isolated moment of time, but it is a way of life, the very identity of how we live our lives in open welcome to all people. It is a lifestyle that is defined by a constant giving and receiving relationship with everyone we meet; we give, give, give but the bible’s understanding of welcome and hospitality reminds us that it is in giving that we also receive. I think one of the key and distinctive biblical contributions to hospitality that is not a part of the cultural or commercial understanding of hospitality is that we have been called show hospitality and welcome to the poor and neediest, those people who cannot return the favor.[4] Biblical hospitality transcended social and ethnic differences by sharing meals, homes and worship with people of varying backgrounds.

This makes me think of Jesus’ parable of the Great Dinner in Luke 14:16-24. Do you remember that parable? Jesus says, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” ’

Or right before this parable in Luke 14:12-14 Jesus says:  “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”

And if you don’t think that is very radical hospitality then take a look at the verses that come before Matthew 10:40-42. Chapter 10 in Matthew is all about discipleship. Jesus is preparing the disciples, and before he talks about giving and receiving welcome and hospitality he talks pretty straight forward about the kinds of trials, persecution and harassment the disciples will face. Jesus says, “I am sending you out like a sheep into the midst of wolves… Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me.” And it is even to these people Jesus says, to these people who are our enemies, our nemeses, our foes, to the hard-to-love, to those who reject us—even to these, who are also God’s children, we are to show hospitality and welcome because gracious hospitality doesn’t just have the power to transcend one, single moment in time, but such hospitality has the power to transform entire lives,[5] and together transformed lives have the power to transform the world.

You see, we aren’t just called to be welcoming people or hospitable for the sake of being obedient children of God. Don’t get me wrong obedience is good, but hospitality is not just about “doing” or “giving” for the sake of doing or giving or being a good person for the sake of being good or for the sake of receiving a reward—whether that reward is a thank you or a reward from God. Hospitality is about living life in the name of Jesus, so that in all we do we glorify God. We welcome people and we show hospitality because we love God. A relationship with God is not just vertical; it is not just a me-and-God relationship. Our relationship with God is directly and intimately connected with our relationship with other people—people within the church and people outside.

I already told you that one of my favorite modern theologians and authors to read in seminary was Christine Pohl. I particularly love her book called: Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Christine Pohl is a United Methodist and a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. She writes in this book that “Hospitality is not so much a task as a way of living our lives and of sharing ourselves…hospitality is simply love in action.”[6] Matthew 10:42 says, “And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of my disciple, truly I tell you, none of these lose their reward.” So, “radical hospitality has much more to do with the resources of a generous heart than with sufficiency of food or space [or money].”[7] John Wesley said such a hospitality rooted in love comes from a certain kind of disposition of the heart that is filled and overflowing with the love of God. Another John, John Chrysostom of the late 4th century AD said, “If you have a hospitable disposition, you own the entire treasure chest of hospitality, even if you only possess only a single coin.”

Radical hospitality then is more than a command; “it is more than performing a task;”[8] it is more than having the money to support such and such mission or this and that charity; it is more than a hand out. True and radical hospitality is a way of life that begins with and is lived in love, a love that we have known in and through God who first loved and welcomed us into his open arms, a love known in Jesus Christ who showed love to tax collectors, prostitutes, adulators, lepers, the blind, lame and dumb, educated and uneducated, religious zealots of other faiths, and the list could go on and on. The point is that radical hospitality begins with a radical kind of love that is outbound and unbound, a love that sees the image of God in all people and welcomes even the least of these. “Hospitality is the practice by which the church stands or falls.” Hospitality begins with you. How are you not merely “doing” hospitality or merely “being” welcoming, but how are you, embodying and living hospitality and welcome beyond the walls of the church. It is time to “Rethink Church,” and the place we should all be challenged to begin is the ways the church is present and living hospitality in a world where so many people are searching for such a place of unbound and outbound loving welcome.


[1] Trace Haythorn, “The Art of Welcome: Matthew 10:40-42,” day1.org/1101-the_art_of_welcome, June 29, 2008, (accessed June 23, 2011).
[2] Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 6.
[3] Pohl, 8.
[4] Haythorn.
[5] Haythorn, day1.org/1101-the_art_of_welcome.
[6] Pohl, 172.
[7] Ibid., 172.
[8] Pohl, 181.

Trinity Sunday

June 20, 2011

 

 

 

Trinity Sunday: Living and Discipling into the Fullness of God who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer 

I heard a story from Ken Nelson who is another pastor and the congregational specialist in the Columbia district and a preacher we had the privilege to hear preach in our church in February. He told a story or rather a legend or a myth about the Ascension of Jesus that I want to share with you.

When Jesus ascended into heaven he entered heaven with a grand welcome from the angels. There was a lot of singing and celebrating and dancing, but after all the celebrating began to die down a little bit some angels gathered around Jesus to hear about his time on earth and ask questions. One angel said, “Oh, Jesus you must have had such an impact on that world! You must have had a great, big following of thousands of people.” Jesus said, “At times large crowds did surround me to listen to me preach, teach and tell stories, but I really only had 12 disciples and a handful of friends.” Another angel said, “Well, those 12 must have been the greatest men on earth. They must have been respected by their communities, well educated and successful.” Jesus said, “No. Actually they were ordinary men, very common folk. They were fishermen and tax collectors for the most part. They were not very educated and mostly scorned or ostracized by their community rather than loved and welcomed.” Then another angel, trying to find some good in what Jesus was telling them, said, “Well these common, ordinary men must have been the most loyal and faithful disciples there ever existed.” Jesus said, “Well actually no. In my hour of need one betrayed me and one denied me, and most of them fled, hid and locked themselves away from the world in fear.” Finally one angel said what all the other angels were thinking, “And you entrusted them to carry on your mission, to make your name known throughout the world and to disciple others!!??” Jesus said very calmly, “Yes.” And the angel said, “How do you expect that raggedy, imperfect group of people to carry out your mission!?” Jesus said, “Because they are my people; they are my church, and they are all I have. And I love them and believe in them and I have left my Spirit with them so that they can do great things in my name.”

From a raggedy bunch of eleven common, ordinary folks in 32AD to almost or just over 2 billion Christians today—we have to be in awe, and we have to wonder how did they, the imperfect 11—a number raw with disappointment, dismay and failure, a number that reminds us once again of Judas’ betrayal.[1] How did the imperfect 11 carry out Jesus’ last command to “make disciples of all nations?” From the angels’ perspective I think I would have been right there with them doubting and questioning the eleven’s ability to carry the Good News to all corners of the earth. In hindsight, I don’t have such doubts because God is a mountain mover who is in the business of making the impossible possible. There are so many stories in our Bible and in our tradition and history of our church and our own experience that speaks power to that truth. That God is truly Almighty and can bring about good from chaos. But everything is 20/20 in hindsight as they say, and sometimes it is easy to forget the kind of God we worship when we are in the middle of impossible situations.

As we sit in our church and look around at our declining numbers we might think and start to believe that it is an impossible task to bring more people into our church. But I think that is our error—we have come to think of making disciples as adding to church membership, but at annual conference we were reminded that making disciples is not synonymous with recruitment for the church rolls. It is not the same thing as building up membership. It is not a numbers game of who has how many. Jesus taught just a few chapters before in Matthew 25 that if we are but responsible with a few things, God will make us responsible for many things. Jesus teaches us that vital congregations are not about numbers, but about faithful disciples and faithful disciple making. “Making disciples is taking time to enter into relationship with others that is deeper than superficial friendship or mere acquaintances. It is investing our lives in the life of other people. It is daring to share with others the life-giving, life-liberating, death-defying relationship of God in Jesus Christ who is made known to us in the Holy Spirit.”[2]

I know in most of our bibles verse 19 of Matthew 28 says, “Go and make disciples,” but the proper Greek-to-English translation should be “As you go, disciple people.” I read one author who said he likes to translate this verse, “As you go, throw your whole selves into discipling.”[3] I like the way that sounds much better than just “Go, make disciples.” When I worked in Hawaii I often used “Da Jesus Book” which is a Bible written in the vernacular and language of the island people. And one of my favorite phrases in this translation of the Bible came from these verses in Matthew 28. Instead of saying “Go and make disciples,” Jesus simply says, “Go, make lidat.” To translate that would be: “Go, make like that.” These verses come at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel. These are Jesus’ last words to us, so in Da Jesus Book Jesus is essentially saying, “Look, you have followed me, learned from me, seen me heal, perform miracles, preach and teach and now I want you to go and do likewise. Because if you live and walk just as I lived and walk you will make disciples.” Putting it that way has an entirely different ring to it than just “Go, and make disciples;” doesn’t it?

It doesn’t sound like the church is called to be a sterilized, neat and clean and messy-free business nor are we called to be a production company making cookie cutter Christians; rather I think saying, “As you go, disciple others” or “throwing yourself into discipling” or “Go, make lidat” has a much more personal and relational tone and implication. I think it reminds us that we are called to make more than members of our church or as John Wesley always said “nominal Christians” or “Sunday Christians,” but to disciple people means not only talking the faith to others, putting bumper stickers on our car, wearing WWJD bracelets, and being Christian when it is merely convenient; rather discipline is walking the walking, embodying our beliefs and living the Good News in everything we do—especially by walking with each other in a community of faith as people who are raggedy, imperfect, yet open to God wherever we are and whatever might be going on in our lives. Discipling is a lifestyle. And such discipling is not neat, clean, perfect, but as that imperfect eleven continually reminds us in Matthew 28: God still moves among the imperfect and uses the raggedy, uncommon, imperfect, and weak to transform the world, to turn 11 into 2 billion.

These “Great Commission” verses invite us into the life and mission of our Triune God. We see in the fullness of God who is our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer the primary call, purpose and mission of the church is to live as children of God who proclaim the Redeemer and who are empowered to live such a life by the Sustainer. This is what Matthew 28:16-20 is talking about. The Trinity as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer is a summary and reminder of our call and mission in Matthew 28—and in the fullness of the Trinity as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, we are reminded that this call and mission is not unique to Matthew 28, but it is a common call and mission of the people of God since the beginning of creation.[4]

We read in verses from Genesis 1 and 2 that God created humankind in the image of God and God called humanity “good.” When we remember God as our Creator we remember that we have been created in God’s image, and God has not only called us good but he has called us his children, his beloved, his people, his chosen ones, and the Bible even tells us our Creator calls each of us by name. As children of God we share in the work of moving with God and on behalf of God in love toward the world. One of my professors in seminary called this the “partnership of the Gospel.” God created us to be partners with him in this world. And as God’s children and partners of the Gospel who have been called by named and made in God’s image we are called to live, not only work and proclaim, but live as redeemed people who have been made new in Christ through baptism and washed cleaned by his blood. As God’s children our lives and words are to proclaim the Redeemer who is Jesus Christ, who is our Lord and Savior who reconciled us to God. And as the eleven disciples remind us of our incompletion, our imperfection, our weakness, our tendency to veer or turn from God—we are also reminded through the Trinity that the only way we are empowered to live as Children of God who proclaim the Good News of the Redeemer is through the power of the Sustainer who is with us always until the end of the age.

On Trinity Sunday we remember that the fullness of God known through the Trinity who is the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer has been at work since the beginning of Creation, but in remembering and celebrating our Triune God, we also remember and are invited once again to fully live out our call, commitment, and commission as the people and children of God. The Trinity and our scripture lessons from Genesis 1 and Matthew 28 remind us and call us to live our baptism every day. The day we had water poured or sprinkled on our heads, or the day we were immersed was but one single physical day, but living into our baptism is an everyday thing. Jesus’ last words to us according to Matthew’s Gospel were: “As you go disciple people and baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” But to do so we, who call ourselves baptized people or disciples of Jesus, must live and embody the Word of God because that is where discipling begins. It was in Jesus that the world came to know the fullness of our Triune God, and Jesus modeled the way for us; therefore so too are we called, with the power of the Holy Spirit who sustains us, to model the way for our world today. Discipling begins with you and me—together. We must be committed to a life of discipleship, growing in God’s Word, maturing in the faith, and knowing even when we do “backslide,” God does not give up on us, but is with us and still calls us his own. Amen.


[1] Dan Day, “A Fresh Reading of Jesus’ Last Words: Matthew 28:16-20,” Review & Expositor 104, no. 2 (2007): 375-384.

[2] Rev. Rabina Marie Winbush, “It’s Not Over: Matthew 28:16-20,” Day One (2002) http://day1.org/568-its_not_over.

[3] Mary Hinkle Shore, “Preaching Mission: Call and Promise in Matthew 28:16-20,” Word & World  26, no. 3 (2006): 322-328.

[4] Rev. Dr. James B. Lemler, “Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah…Love: Matthew 28:16-20,” Day One (2008) http://day1.org/1094-blah_blah_blah_blah_love.

Baby Got Book

June 15, 2011

Who says Christians can’t have a little fun? Check out this hilarious parody of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 number one single “Baby Got Back.” And notice the shout out to John Wesley 🙂

Out-Side-The-Box Church

June 13, 2011

What I learned at Annual Conference: churches must start thinking out side the box to be relevant to our world today. I will be writing more on this, but I just came across a 1970s comic about John Wesley–how it is in our DNA as Methodists to be out-of-the-box thinkers.

The Holy Spirit

June 13, 2011

I was not in the pulpit for Pentecost Sunday. The South Carolina Annual Conference convened in Florence, SC for our 224th Annual Conference from June 8-12, so many UM preachers were not in the pulpit for Pentecost, but were gathered for a service of Commissioning, Ordination and Sending Forth at the Civic Center turned Sanctuary on Pentecost Sunday. I really can’t think of a better way to celebrate Pentecost than with a service of hundreds of gathered UM clergy and lay people ordaining, commissioning and sending forth new deacons and elders. It gets to the heart of the message of Pentecost that we have all been called and we have all received the Spirit who sends us out into the world to preach and share the Good News. Such a gathering reminded me that the “world is our parish” and we, as a connectional church, are filled with and alive in God’s Holy Spirit who goes with us wherever we are engaged in ministry, and it is by that same Spirit we are united as United Methodists and Christians all over the world. So, since I was absent from the pulpit on Pentecost I thought I would share my sermon on the Holy Spirit from June 12, Ascension Sunday.

*     *     *

We spend a lot of time in church talking about God, the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. I’ve heard people jokingly say that if you don’t know an answer in Sunday school or church just say God or Jesus and chances are you will answer correctly. But we Trinitarian Christians; we believe in that mystery of the three-in-one and one-in-three God. We affirm this belief in the Trinity nearly every Sunday with the Apostles’ Creed. We say we believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but we don’t talk too often about the Holy Spirit. And I think if I put some of you on the spot right now and asked you to come up to tell us about the Holy Spirit you would probably freeze like a deer caught in head lights, or hunker down in your pew trying not to make eye contact so I won’t pick you. Before you panic, I have no plans of putting anyone on the spot, and we shouldn’t feel too bad that we might not know much about the Holy Spirit or that it is kind of difficult to wrap our minds around the Holy Spirit because the Spirit is very mysterious and has often been overlooked and not understood since the days of the Old Testament and even when Jesus walked the earth and since the beginning of the early church after Jesus ascended to heaven.

For example, if you flip over to Acts 19 you will see that when Paul was visiting the church in Ephesus he asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” The Christians in Ephesus looked at Paul with blank stares and said, “No, we have not heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And I think if you talk to many Christians and non-Christians today you would get similar answers. Or maybe many of us would say, “Sure, I’ve heard of the Holy Spirit. I’ve heard of churchy phrases like “baptized with the Spirit,”  “clothed in the Spirit,”  “filled with the Spirit” and “given power through the Holy Spirit.” But have you ever really thought about what all those words and phrases mean? Have you ever thought about what these words about the Holy Spirit means for our life in the here and now? But first, how can we even know what any of those phrases mean if we don’t even know who the Holy Spirit is?!

So since next Sunday is Pentecost and we are going to see the power of the Holy Spirit at perhaps its greatest, let’s use today, which is Ascension Sunday, to ask ourselves and briefly answer two questions: Who is the Holy Spirit? And what does the Holy Spirit empower us to do according to our scripture lessons for today?  I stress what does the Holy Spirit empower us to do according to only our scripture lessons from our scripture lessons today because  we would be here all day if we talked about all the many ways the Holy Spirit empowers us.

So, let’s begin with who the Holy Spirit is, or rather I would like to begin with who the Holy Spirit is NOT.  The church used to call the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, and I think that led people to think the Holy Spirit was some kind of spook, but the Holy Spirit is not a spook, a ghost, a mist, or a fog. It is not a random wind or mystical force separate from God.  The Holy Spirit isn’t even an “it”.  We often use “it” when we are talking about the Holy Spirit, like I just did, but the Holy Spirit is the third person of the trinity.  We should call the Holy Spirit he or she because the Holy Spirit, like God and Jesus, thinks, feels and wills. I like to use “she” for the Spirit because in the Old Testament the word for Spirit is ruach which is a feminine word, but the point is not to give a gender to the Holy Spirit, but to recognize that the person is a being, not merely an insignificant “it.” The Spirit speaks, acts, leads, guides, calls, forbids, intercedes, appoints, and makes decisions. And if you flip over to Acts 5 we are told the Holy Spirit can be lied to, and in Ephesians 4:30 we are told the Holy Spirit can be grieved. So, although the Spirit is not human and certainly not bound by human form and limitations, the Spirit possesses and is described in the Bible with many human qualities, characteristics, and emotions. The Spirit moves, thinks and feels as a cognizant being, and like God and Jesus the Spirit has many names in the Bible. She is called the Comforter, the breath of God, the breath of life, Counselor, Advocate, Helper, Eternal Spirit, eyes of the Lord, finger of God, hand of God, fire, wind, Lamp of the Lord, Mind of the Lord, Spirit of Grace, Power, Truth, Wisdom and we could go on and on.

I think from all this we learn that the Holy Spirit is personal and relational; she has an intimate and loving nature like God and Jesus that seeks us, speaks to our hearts, and wants to be involved in our lives and our world. The Spirit desires to be in relationship with each one of us.

And most importantly we see that the Holy Spirit is the very presence of God in our world. The Holy Spirit is God with Us. The Spirit is God’s very nearness to each one of us. God is not some distant or remote God who is uninvolved and unconcerned with our lives, but through the Holy Spirit God is present and very near to us. We are told that at Pentecost the Spirit descended upon the disciples and they spoke in many languages. The Holy Spirit is God wanting to speak our language; the Holy Spirit is God reaching out to us where we are and in ways we can understand and hear God.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus is preparing the disciples for the days after he will be taken up to heaven, and Jesus promises the Holy Spirit will remain after he is gone. This Sunday in our Ascension scriptures Jesus comforts his disciples and us by reminding us that he is not gone or removed from us because his Spirit, God’s Spirit, the third person of the Trinity who is the very power and presence of God remains here with us to lead and guide and love and do the many things the Spirit does.  In our scripture lessons from Acts 1 and Luke 24 Jesus says, “I am sending upon you what my Father has promised…” and what the Father promised was to send his Spirit. The Holy Spirit allows us to participate in the divine life in the here and now. So, the Holy Spirit is none other than the real presence of our personal and relational God alive in our world and moving in our lives.

One final thing about who the Holy Spirit is. As the personal and active Presence of God in our lives and our world, the Holy Spirit is also then the bond that unites all God’s people throughout the world and throughout time as the “great cloud of witnesses” or the “communion of saints.” Each week in the Apostles’ Creed we say together:  “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy catholic church, and the communion of saints.” When we say these individual phrases they seem independent from one another. They don’t seem to be connected, but seem like statements or affirmations of our beliefs that stand on their own. But I think these phrases about the church and the communion of saints are not independent from the statement, “We believe in the Holy Spirit,” but rather the affirmations about the church the body of Christ are explications or descriptions or an illumination of our belief in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the personal Presence of God in each of our lives that unites us to the body of Christ, and we are together we should expect God to show up; we should expect the Holy Spirit to be present and ready to lead the church.

Now, we are starting to move away from who of the Holy Spirit to what does the Holy Spirit empower us to do. I think it is kind of hard to talk about who the Holy Spirit is without talking about what the Holy Spirit has done, can do, does and will do. John Wesley always spoke of the Holy Spirit as the Presence and Power of God; for him the very nature and power of the Holy Spirit could not be separated. Today our scripture lesson from Acts 1 talks about being baptized in the Spirit and receiving the power of the Spirit.

When we are baptized in the Holy Spirit we begin to be transformed, made new, and made whole. The Holy Spirit leads us into all truth and holiness. Those are very “churchy” phrases, so let’s unpack them a bit. The title “holy,” applied to the Holy Spirit, does not only denote that she is holy in her own nature, but that as the Spirit begins to work in our lives we too grow in holiness. The first thing we learn from Acts 1 about the power of the Spirit or what the Spirit is capable of is that the Holy Spirit can and will and desires to make each of us holy; the Spirit draws us into the presence of God and draws us especially to God’s grace, and begins to renew and uncover the true image of God within each of us.

Once again that last section of the Apostles’ Creed is all connected. “We believe in the Holy Spirit” is also connected to “we believe in the forgiveness of sins.” The Holy Spirit bears witness to us that we are forgiven and therefore children of God baptized into the family of God. The Holy Spirit witnesses to our spirits God’s merciful love, grace and pardon and it is through the Holy Spirit we are restored to right relationship with God. The Holy Spirit’s power enables us to become holy—to love and serve God as were intended, as God created us to be and to do.  So, by the power of the Holy Spirit we are forgiven, made holy and drawn into the life of God in this world…which is a life we are called to live in love and service. That is what it means to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.

But our verses from Acts 1 also talks about receiving the power of the Holy Spirit to be Christ’s witnesses in this world. Lately in the news we have had a lot of talk about the second coming of Christ or the parousia as it is called in the New Testament. May 21st came and went, and most of us are still here, and now there is a new prediction that judgment day or Christ’s second coming will be October 21st. But our scripture lessons from Acts 1 tells 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.” It is not for us to focus on eternity while neglecting the present. We certainly have the hope of eternity, but Jesus tells us that we have been given the power though the Holy Spirit to witness in the here and now the Good News of Jesus and God’s continuing presence in our world. Throughout the Gospels Jesus preached, healed, walked, talked, fed, performed miracles, and spoke in the power of the Holy Spirit; likewise the Holy Spirit enables us, as Christ’s followers, to speak about Jesus and to witness to God’s presence in our lives and world, and to preach, speak, heal, walk, talk, feed, and perform miracles with and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Our verses today remind us that Christianity is more than fire insurance; Christians are called and empowered as living, active witnesses. We witness to the Resurrection of Christ by living as resurrected or Easter people. We are ambassadors of the good news of reconciliation with God and with each other. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to embody holiness and show Christ’s forgiveness, love and mercy to the world. We are reminders that death is not the final word– nor are evil and disorder. The God who created all things good comes to restore broken humanity and will eventually restore all things created, and we through the power of the Holy Spirit are part of that restoration. As witnesses we are the hands and feet of Christ who through the Holy Spirit and united as the church usher in and make known the kingdom of God in this world. So, by the power of the Holy Spirit we have the strength and boldness to live as faithful witnesses. The whole purpose of the Holy Spirit’s empowerment is for us to have the power to live the Christian life and testify to the glory of God in this life and the life to come. We cannot do it alone, but where we fail or are weak, the Spirit gives us the strength to walk in the way of Christ.

One final thing to wrap up: Throughout the Gospels and especially in the book of Acts Jesus prepares the way for his followers, and in our Ascension Sunday scripture lessons today we learn that that way Jesus prepares us and has provided for us is through and in the Holy Spirit. We asked two questions: Who is the Holy Spirit and what does the Holy Spirit empower us to do? I hope we have answered those in part, but I think all our talk of the Holy Spirit and our scripture lessons today asks us another question that I cannot answer for you, but rather you must answer for yourselves. If Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit as a way to follow him and empower us to live and embody the Good News, I think we must all ask ourselves are we following where the Spirit is leading us? We must be willing and open to being filled and moved by the Spirit. It takes a response on our part; the Holy Spirit is present and all around us; the Spirit wants to dwell within us and give us the power to love, serve, forgive and witness, but we must present ourselves wholly and fully, open and vulnerable, willing and humble, so that the Holy Spirit can truly dwell or make a home within our hearts and make known God’s presence and guide our lives. So, let’s make this a little more person since we learned that the Holy Spirit is personal: Are you open to receiving and following the Spirit? Amen.

Doris

June 1, 2011

This week another long-time, beloved member of Wesley Memorial UMC passed away. Pauline Eleazer was 97-years-old, and she raised her family in our church. She is the seventh death since I came to this church in July 2010. Every funeral I have done I remember the first one–Doris Long. She was a special woman to me, and so now as I prepare for Pauline’s funeral Doris is on my mind. She was one of my biggest supporters, and I think in a way she still is because the memory of her gives me comfort. Her last words to be as she lie in the ICU give me peace and assurance that I am exactly where God wants me to be. Doris said to me, “I love you, and I am sorry I have to go so soon. You just got here, and I wanted to be here to support you in your ministry at our church because I think you are doing a great job. You are what this church needs” I later learned that Doris had made calls to some of the other older ladies in the church to tell them to love me and support me. I run by Doris’ old street almost everyday, and I remember those words and the laughs we shared together. Here is a tribute to and a celebration of life of a woman I had the privilege to know and love.

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DORIS

I met Doris one morning at 10:00am. She was one of the first homebound members I visited during my first week of my first appointment at Wesley Memorial UMC in Columbia, SC. I walked into a room of faces, every wall, table and mantle was covered with pictures and albums. Her living room was a place where the past and present met, where years of history continued to live in pictures, old books, and paintings and curved furniture that only a woman who had lived the better part of a century could possibly have. It was a place that smelled of old memories of many years of hosting Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners. It was a place of love and family that held great promise for future generations. If the walls could speak they would tell a tale of life’s journey of happiness and sorrows, of births and deaths, of dating and marriages, of arguing and forgiving, of dancing and sitting in silence, of growing old.

It was a room that reminded me of my own grandparents’ house that they lived in before my grandfather died in 1989. Every holiday my immediate and extended family would meet at grandmommy and granddaddy’s house to eat, talk and play. I always loved being there, and it was years before I understood why. It was a place of my family’s history. The home my grandmother and grandfather chose to raise their four children, one being my father. It was a house that held memories and secrets that slowly came out over the years. It was an old place where we returned holiday after holiday to be family. I don’t think anything gave my grandmother greater pleasure than to have her own children bring their children to her house.

I imagine Doris’ house was much the same way. She had vitality, a joie de vive and a twinkle in her eye that told me she had lived a full life and raised a family whom year after year returned to be loved and pampered by their mama. Her house said that she was a good southern mother who never stopped being a mom to her children or to any other soul that should need a little mothering.

Doris apologized she didn’t look presentable that morning. She explained that she woke up early to prepare for my visit but had fallen back to sleep. I said not to worry that she looked pretty to me, but she insisted that this was one of her bad days. I can’t say that I looked any better. Even at 10am just thinking about South Carolina’s heat made me sweat profusely. So, I am certain I was already wet under my arms and my hair that I tamed with numerous anti-frizz and anti-humidity products managed to still frizz ball out into a messy tangle. I too felt like I had had better days, that I hadn’t captured a proper “preacher” look. I’m not really your typical pastor anyways. At twenty-five years old and fresh out of seminary I don’t exactly fit in with the average person’s expectation of preacher, so I am always trying to look more mature and “preacher-like,” but that day I was anything but your typical preacher, and Doris let me know it.

Doris opened her door, stood akimbo, looked at me and said, “They told me we had a new woman preacher, but they didn’t tell me they were sending such a young preacher girl.” She smiled with that twinkle in her eye and invited me in. After that nothing more was said of my age unless of course Doris was recalling her younger days when she went out dancing, wore short-shorts, took trips to the beach and dated.

I had but a few visits with Doris but if you knew Doris you knew it didn’t take long to know that she was a woman of spunk and enthusiasm; she spoke of memories and future hopes with a twinkle in her eye. I remember Doris’s living room on Graymont Street so vividly. I remember sitting with her sipping on ice tea and eating sherbet ice cream. Every wall, bookshelf, and table in her house was covered with pictures of family and friends. She opened up albums of her grandsons’ weddings; she showed me the scrapbook from her own wedding. She showed me pictures of when she was a nurse, and she told me stories of bringing friends to her mother’s house for good, southern meals.  Her mother loved to cook, and Doris inherited that love. Then she showed me pictures of her daughter and granddaughter who are also nurses. She was so proud to have three generations of nurses in the family. She was so proud of all her children and grandchildren.

I think that is why our conversations often veered to why I hadn’t found a man to start my own family. She told me she would let me in on secrets of how to get a good husband. She told me she dated plenty of men in her day—quality men and only one at a time, so she would help me out. She knew God created us for relationship with one another, and she wanted everyone to know the joy of having a family. Doris’ life was her family; it is what brought her joy, and she wanted to capture the love and joy of times with her family so she took pictures, always keeping a camera in her pocketbook, and she surrounded herself with these memories.

When I visited, her memories drifted from the present to the past, and she often spoke of one of her greatest loves—dancing. She told me she was quite the dancer in her younger days. She loved to go out and dance all night; she loved to dance the jitter bug, and she told me she would teach me one day. She said she tried to teach her husband, but he never took to dancing. Just a few weeks ago she danced at her grandson’s wedding; she was so proud of that moment; she showed me a picture of her and Scott dancing. She said to me, “I might be old but I can still dance; I can still do the jitter bug too.” We stood in the living room laughing as she shook and bounced and moved her hips the best she could. Oh, the memories of Doris are filled with joy and laughter.

As I think about and remember Doris, I realize what a great witness she was to the world–a witness to the fullness of life in the here and now. As a Methodist, as a Christian woman, I think it is very appropriate that Doris loved dancing. Dancing has often been used as a metaphor for the process of sanctification or salvation. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, taught that salvation begins here in this life; the dance with God begins in the here and now and continues into eternal life. God takes the first step in the dance of salvation, and we are called to respond by joining God in the dance. We are called to enjoy God in time and eternity, Wesley often said. All who knew Doris will testify that she danced with God in this life, such a dance is what shaped her life and enabled her to live with passion and love and to serve and bring happiness to all of God’s people.

I can’t help but think of the hymn Lord of the Dance when I think of Doris. The last line of the song goes like this: “They cut me down and I leapt up high, I am the life that’ll never, never die; I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me. I am the Lord of the Dance said he. Dance then, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the Dance, said he. And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the dance said he.”

Doris lived and danced for the Lord wherever she was, and what promise and hope and what a celebration to know that the God who gave us eternal life through His only Son, Jesus Christ, continues to dance with Doris in heaven. What a celebration of life and the witness of a woman who danced throughout life, inviting all she met to join the dance of eternal life.