The Spirit is on the loose

This was my sermon today, my last Sunday at St. Andrew Lutheran Church.  I preached on Acts, because it’s such an incredible story.

John 14:8-27

8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

15”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace and the wind of the Spirit to you this day, from our empowering God through Jesus the risen Christ.  Amen.

Even though I’ve never met your new pastor, Pastor Jeffrey Nelson, I know why he really wanted to start his ministry among you on this day.

You couldn’t wish for words as inspiring as these, if you’re a pastor just starting a call in a new place.  Not the words of the gospel story, though they are very inspiring too.

I’m talking about our story today from Acts.  This wonderful story of the Spirit coming in

no uncertain terms and rushing through those gathered.  “Spirit” in Hebrew is ruach and it’s pronounced while breathing out.  Very much like a breath.

But let’s be a bit honest here: this story might be great, but it might make us uncomfortable too.  People speaking in tongues?  Little tongues of flame sitting on their shoulders?  Seems more like one of those Pentecostal kinda churches than a gathering of faithful Lutherans.

A stereotype, yes.  But in many places, it’s absolutely true.  We are a little afraid of the Spirit.

And maybe we associate the word “Pentecostal” with a definition of “weird and out there” but I want to make a case that the Spirit is moving in our world in more places than we can possibly count.

And St. Andrew is one of those places.

The action of assembling a call committee and embarking on a call process is an action that invites the Holy Spirit to come into that process, into this place, and stir in us what she will.

I am here to tell you, the Spirit has been at work at St. Andrew.  And I think I’m also here to WARN you that the Spirit has been at work, and continues to work, at St. Andrew.

The Holy Spirit of God will never work in a way that harms you.  This is a promise we have from God, who keeps promises.  The Spirit WILL, however, generally move in a way that draws you out of dark places, places that are safe, and places that keep you from being fully who God created you to be.  Because that is the deep and powerful desire that God has for each and every one of you.

One of the realities of living in Southern California is that it isn’t hard for us to hear another language spoken around us.  Our geographical reality dictates that we most frequently hear Spanish:

Nuestra realidad geográfica dice que con más frecuencia escuchamos español.

So consider what it must have been like for all those gathered “in one place” as our Acts lesson tells us.

Instead of everyone having to learn one particular language, God spoke through the disciples, to those gathered, in their language.  In a way they could hear and understand.

For us, this might be the equivalent of finding someone in a foreign country who speaks English.

I’ve had some interesting experiences with language.  I have something of a natural lingual ability and one of these days I’m going to invest in Rosetta Stone and bring my languages back up to fluency.

I remember being in France, working on using my 7 years of French classes, and being THRILLED when I understood the folks I spoke with and they understood me.  Well, after I said “parlez lentement s’il vois plait” (speak slowly please).

And I recall being in Mexico and adding to my Spanish vocabulary every day while we were out fishing on our captain’s boat.  Como de side en español?  He added to his English vocabulary as well.  Como se dise en ingles?

In these situations, when the comprehension, the understanding happened, things immediately jumped to a deeper level.  Relationships formed.  Walls crumbled.  In the Mexico example, more than ten years after the last time we fished with that particular captain, he happened to be on the beach in front of our hotel one afternoon.  We didn’t see him, but he shouted “amigo!”  And just like that we were reunited with this old friend.

That is how the Spirit prefaces everything the Spirit does with, to, around, in, and for us: “amigo!”

I wonder – if we keep that in mind, that the strange and amazing things the Spirit seems to bring to us might not seem so off-the-charts.

After all – as the Scriptures say, God knew us in our mother’s womb.  God has counted the number of hairs on our head.  (I lose enough hair each day that I must be keeping God pretty busy.)  God’s infinite ability to know us doesn’t put limits on who God calls us to be.

God and the Spirit are calling us into the fullness of our identity in God.  Which involves being pulled out of comfort zones, out of unhealthy patterns, and into life.

Life lived fully is what God desires for us, dear friends.

I have been honored to be able to spend the last six months with Elyse and Natalie as they made the final lap of their journey towards confirmation.  Affirming their faith, the faith in which they were baptized.  Taking on the promises their parents made long ago, for themselves now.

And it’s been a fruitful time together as I’ve watched these young people lean into the identity God carved out for them.

When I read their faith statements this week I was struck by how perfectly each reflects its author.  And I realized that sometimes the Spirit is at work in very quiet ways, as well as big and noisy ways.  Whatever it takes for us to experience life lived fully.

[pause]

I have been told by many of you that you feel very fortunate that I have been here for the last several months, with my particular skill set.

There are a few things that I need to make quite clear:

I had no idea that St. Andrew would need a bridge pastor.

I had no idea what was going on in your lives and on the property.

I thought that my previous careers were more marking time than anything of any importance.

It was not until I stepped foot on this campus that I began to understand how my work in the past would become incredibly valuable as you navigated a varied assortment of paths.

Bishop Andy did not recommend me based on my work experience.  He simply thought I would be able to help you through a transitory period.

Dear people, the Spirit was at work in Bishop Andy, in me, and in you. 

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

God is at work here.  You are on the precipice of what is to come.

And so of course I understand why Pastor Jeffrey would have wanted this to be his first Sunday with you.  To be able to read those words from Acts:  Prophesy.  See visions.  Dream dreams.

But I am thrilled that he gets to walk into a situation where this is already happening.

Where you’ve seen visions, and dreamed dreams, and supplied an impressive number of quilts to folks worldwide who need some warmth.

Where you’ve seen visions, and dreamed dreams, and developed an after-school Homework Club.

Where you’ve seen visions, and dreamed dreams, and figured out how to use a land-locked part of your property for a beautiful and bountiful community garden.

Where you’ve seen visions, and dreamed dreams, and opened your doors for a wide variety of community groups.

Where you’ve seen visions, and dreamed dreams, and took a huge step into the unknown to lease a part of the property to the preschool.

And what God has in store for you next, I of course cannot say.

But if it bears any resemblance to what you’ve shown me, the Spirit is surely leading you to a place of service to this community in ways deeper and more varied that you could ever have imagined.

I have been with you for the time that God has determined.  Now Pastor Jeffrey comes alongside you to walk with you on this journey.

I pray for you on that road.  Traveling mercies.  An easing of the path when that is needed.  But I also pray for you, traveling challenges.  An intensity of the path when that is needed.

Because you have shown me tremendous resilience, determination, and deep, deep compassion and care for one another.

And I think it’s very likely God is calling you to bring that to the community on this path.  Whatever you choose, you have my prayers.  Amen.

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That We May Be One – With Those Unseen

This week, I explored the relationship between the Acts lesson and the gospel lesson, and why they might have been selected to be read together.

John 17:20-26

20[Jesus said,] “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you from our gracious God, through the risen and uniting Christ.  Amen.

This passage from John’s gospel today is the end of what is known as Jesus’ “farewell discourse”, his lengthy speech to his disciples at the Last Supper.  Here in particular, Jesus prays that his followers would all be one.

How well has that hope gone?

How many times have you been asked, or perhaps heard someone asking, “why should I be a part of this church thing if y’all can’t even get along?”

A fair question.

It’s one that drives our ecumenical dialogues and our interfaith efforts in the Lutheran church.  However, I’m seeing a subtle but interesting reflection of “that they may all be one” in the Acts reading today – not in the baptism of the jailer so much as what we don’t know about what ultimately happens to the slave girl.

Acts 16:16-34

16One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

This episode with the slave girl is, perhaps, not one of Paul’s finer moments.  Here he and his colleagues are basically getting free advertising and his response is annoyance.  Paul has discerned that this is coming from a dark spirit and commands it to come out of the slave girl, which it does.

Then what?

Paul and Silas are called to account, because the girl’s owners have lost one of their sources of income.

Yet we never hear about what happens to the slave girl.

Now I suppose we could wave that aside, saying “well you know patriarchal society, likely male writers of the book” and so on.  And those are truths about the context here.  But they aren’t any reason to stop asking “what happened to the slave girl?  How do we see her character echoed in our lives today?”

I think this is an intriguing part of this lesson, and may provide a clue as to why it’s paired with THIS particular gospel passage.

“That they may they all be one” is Jesus’ prayer.  Still, this Acts story tells us how societal structures and systems can stand in the way of realizing the fullness of Jesus’ prayer and God’s intent for the world.

Societal structures like that of slavery and class divisions.

Societal systems like those of patriarchy, power and privilege.

And considering this story within those contextual realities gives us a way to think what may have happened to this girl next.

She was a slave.  Was it only for her so-called divination powers?  If so, when she is freed from that particular spirit, was she also freed from slavery?

If so, did she have a family to return to?

If not, what options, if any, did she have?

I think this is where Paul falls short in this story.  His is a human character that is ever-evolving, like all of us.  But to have no apparent concern for this girl after he gets rid of the irritating spirit is something that he is able to do by virtue of his power and privilege.

That said – I don’t think that his eventual imprisonment with Silas is “payback” for his treatment of the slave girl.  Rather, it’s a way this Acts story illustrates an interesting embodiment of Jesus’ prayer “that they all be one.”

For indeed here Paul has found himself literally bound – enslaved – by the power structure of Rome, shackled in a prison cell with Silas.  And while they are praying and singing, the earthquake occurs and shakes the foundation of the prison so that all the cell doors open and their shackles come undone.

And then we have another subtle picture of the impact of power structures.  The “Pax Romana” or Roman peace wasn’t something that that happened because all the planets were aligned and folks were in a first-century version of the Age of Aquarius.  No, it was maintained at the end of a weapon.  This jailer, as the fool of a potential jailbreak, would face horrific punishment from Rome.  But Paul and Silas realize that he is a human being, like them, and they call out to not harm himself.  They are still there.

We know how the rest of the story goes; the jailer and his family are baptized and share a meal with Paul and Silas.  The end of this story reveals that Paul and Silas are actually Roman citizens, and Paul speaks truth to power by insisting on an apology from the magistrates who threw them in jail.  And that apology is received, and they move on.

But what of the slave girl?

I’d like to think that at some point, she might have encountered that community of others who had also experienced a kind of ‘setting free’ once they knew themselves embraced and empowered by the love, the forgiveness, the hope that was theirs as they followed the Crucified and Risen One.

But we don’t know.

And so I look at her very brief cameo appearance here, and I believe it is paired with this gospel to remind us that we are all one.  Jesus’ prayer has, in a way, been realized before he even prayed it.  The interconnectedness of life on this earth means that decisions made on one side of the planet have the potential to impact life on the other side.  We talk about the human family; this slave girl was as much a part of the human family as was Paul.

And so if we are all one, then perhaps the subtext of Jesus’ prayer is that we will continue to live into that state of being.  That we will look for the ones who are forgotten, like this slave girl, not even worthy of so much as a footnote.

In our Acts story last week, we heard about another woman – Lydia, the seller of purple cloth.  She merited a better writeup than did this nameless slave girl; before Paul and Silas headed out of town they returned to Lydia’s house.  That alone – one woman with a name, the other without – says so much about who was considered in and who was out.

Is Jesus’ prayer that we will recognize these inequities, and call them out, and work to reverse and correct them?  That we will become one with these folks in the suffering they experience because of that inequity?

While prayer and worship can lead to the loosening of shackles that are physically visible, what happens when we – or others, for that matter – remain bound in ways that are not readily apparent? What if the prison break story isn’t about Paul and Silas?  (Although in our superhero world, we sure do like a hero.)

What if the prison break is teaching us that liberation is a communal act? Recall that everyone’s chains were broken, not a select few. As civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer declared: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Our collective liberation requires that we first acknowledge our connectedness.  In Africa, the word is ubuntu – I am because you are.  I am able to walk through my grief because you are walking with me.  I am honored to celebrate your accomplishments because you are a part of my community.

If freedom is the removal of a hindrance and making the path clear – then perhaps liberation is an extension of this, and is the ability to live into that freedom.  The impediments of social structures that are designed to limit and take away freedoms result in a world where the capacity for justice and peace is diminished.

As a result, if Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one is to be realized, then we have a part to play as well.  God’s beloved community must work to make the path clear, to remove the obstacles, to remember the enslaved girl as clearly as we remember Paul and Silas.  Ultimately, our liberation is connected to her freedom.

What about the role of the church in all of this?  How are we called to be communities of mentors and friends and guides to those who have been enslaved by poverty or violence or addiction or grief or mental illness or – any of the innumerable things that hold us in bondage, as our confession and forgiveness reminds us.  We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves; it is God in Christ who frees.

The story of the slave girl surely does not end where the account in Acts leaves us. I can’t help but wonder if you and I are meant to write the ending.

As we consider Jesus’ words, his call to unity in our gospel story this week, maybe this is exactly where it begins: maybe this unity is not so much realized as the result of weighty theological discussions – in the big, headline-worthy summit meetings – but rather in working together to stand alongside those who have been enslaved and are now free.

Perhaps this unity is one of action and of love, lived out for the sake of all who have been set free and are now trying to live into that freedom.

Lived out for the sake of all of us, of course, for we are all also formerly enslaved.

And for the sake of a whole world of people who are yearning for such freedom, too.

How will you write the ending of the story of the slave girl?

How will you write the ending of the story of all those in our day who are unseen, cast aside, marginalized?

Our movement into God’s future will write the ending, in all our varied ways.  For that is how the world will know that God has sent Jesus, and that God has loved the whole world.  By our love in Christ for one another, and for the world.

Amen.