If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Church: God's New Language: Acts 2:1-21

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on Pentecost Sunday, May 29, 2012. 

     It is a dangerous prayer that we pray on Pentecost: "Come, Holy Spirit, fill us with fire." The Pulitzer Prize winning writer Annie Dillard tries to awaken the church to the power that we call upon when she says:

     Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so  
     blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of
     it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their
     chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
     It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church;
     we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life
     preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.

Perhaps we ought not to invoke the power of the heavens if we are not ready for our world to catch fire.

     Pentecost is a powerful story that should be read in a hurricane cellar or in an asbestos suit. It is a story that will burn the borders of our minds and blow us out of our familiar surroundings into the wide open world. Pentecost invokes an image in my mind of a quiet gathering of Sunday worshippers sitting in their comfortable pews in silent meditation, waiting upon God. I can almost hear the worship leader glibly praying, "Almighty and Merciful God, we pray that in thy infinite wisdom that thou wouldst bestow upon thy humble servants the grace of thy presence, now and forevermore. Amen." Little Johnny's sleepy head is on mommy's lap. Elder Jones covers a yawn with his hand. Sister Wilma is counting the tiles on the sealing. When all of a sudden the place us hit by the sound of a freight train wind the size of a hurricane. Whoosh! Sister Wilma covers her head in fear of falling tile. Deacon Jones chokes on his yawn. And little Johnny is jumping up and down on the pew wishing he had his kite!

     Then a wild Pentecostal meeting breaks out. Tongues of fire fall from the sky and start to dance on the heads of the congregation. That small group begins to sound like the halls of the United Nations. The people are babbling away in sounds that come strangely from their tongues and fall oddly upon their ears. People outside hear these simple country folk speaking in their own native languages: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Guatemalans, Chinese, and Oregonians! Some are dumbfounded. Others mock them saying that they've been drinking cheap wine too early in the morning. That's when Peter preaches a fiery sermon that results in three thousand baptisms! And a church is born, ready to go into the entire world and ignite it with the fire of the Spirit. A missionary church is thrust into the world of different cultures, languages, and nations, drawing all peoples into it.  At Pentecost a new community with a new language is born, called the church.

     But let's face the facts. We still live in a very pluralistic, divided world. We are not one people. Nations are divided not only by boundaries, but by cultures and languages. This fact is communicated poignantly in the story of the building of the tower of Babel. This story is situated between the table of nations and the genealogy of Shem. It tells of how at one time the whole earth was one society with one language. The peoples gathered, not for a prayer meeting to wait upon God, but to go to work and build a city and a tower of brick. During the 21st and 22nd centuries B.C.E. religious temples, like Inca pyramids called ziggurats, were being built. This was probably the type of tower that the people were going to erect in the land of Shinar, most likely a reference to Babylonia.

     Their purpose was not to get a little closer to the God of the heavens. They desired to make a name for themselves, rather than seeking God, who gives people their name. The people were united for their own purposes, one of which was to stay in a tight cluster together and not be spread over the face of the earth. As we will see, this stands in sharp contrast to the missionary image of Pentecost.

     It's not that God didn't like tall skyscrapers or metropolitan cities. God's reaction was against the motivation of the people; to be a people unto themselves apart from God. So, God does a linguistic magic trick. Abra cadabra. About then Pedro asks his friend George to pass him a brick. But what George hears is not "brick", but "ladrillo". George scratches his protective helmut. He hasn't the foggiest idea what Pedro is saying. All over the tower the same thing is happening. Gustav can't understand a word Pierre is saying, nor Fong what Adolpho says. Work had to be called off. They all went home. But they had to make new homes. They had to make their homes among those who spoke their own language. So, those who spoke Russian went to Russia. Those who spoke who spoke Tiawanese went to Taiwan. And those who spoke Oregonian went to Oregon! Because when they tried to talk to each other everybody (besides you and me who speak English, of course) sounded like babbling idiots. It was all a bunch of gibberish. They could have called the place Gibberish. But instead, they decided on "Babel". Otherwise I probably would be telling the story of the tower of Gibberish in the land of Gibber!

     We live in the world that the story of Babel reflects. It is a pluralistic world. That's nothing new. It has been that way almost since Adam. But lately it seems as if our world is shrinking. The technology of travel, mass media, and the internet has placed other cultures and peoples in our neighborhoods and in our living rooms. Nowadays sociologists, politicians, theologians and missionaries are thinking and writing about the pluralistic world in which we live. Many people are asking how we are to relate to this shrinking world with such a diversity of people; people who eat fish with their eyes still in them; people who you can't understand a "world" your saying; people who bow down before gold statues or people who refuse to bow down to anyone.

     Pluralism is a fact. In fact, we could extend our diversity to include even our regional differences or backgrounds, varieties of social or economic level, politics, sex, age, race, and even our personality differences. Sometimes we who live in the same country and speak the same language relate to each other as if we were from Babel. If what I'm saying sounds like gibberish, then try to get a liberal and a conservative together to talk politics or a teenager to talk with a parent about what's most important in life. Diversity and pluralism is not the problem. They've been with us since bricks were invented. The problem is that our differences divide us, as sure as borders divide nations.

     Today we do not use bricks as much as to build common towers, but we use them to make walls that divide us or to throw at each other. Even with Perestroika and the toppling of the Berlin wall our divisions still run deep. Even with our presumptuous pledge of allegiance to “one nation under God,” our nation remains divided. Some see our differences as a curse. Even within this plot of land called America, some would still like all the diversity of cultures in our land to placed under the fires of a melting pot. Often we use our particular culture as a club, hoping to force all peoples within our borders to speak our tribe's language. Under this new tribalism our motto becomes "Our tribe, right or wrong" or "One tribe, under God". Citizens begin to worship at the altar of the nation-state. Patriotism becomes a fire that would burn all who stand in its way. Our nation is built up as some kind of tower that would reach the heavens and knock the God of all nations off the throne. Our age old manifesto becomes: We will make a name for ourselves in the world. And the killing begun with Cain grows into tribal conflicts and wars in Ireland, South Africa, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Divisiveness draws its chalk lines on the street just outside the low-rent districts, and even, God forbid, down the middle of diverse churches. And people are given a name, not by God, but one of our own tribe's making. People who are different from us become "them", as opposed to "us". And when we look in the mirror we see reflected the world of Babel.

     But, thanks be to God, the Spirit has united us as one people. The wind has blown among the nations creating a new people, a new society, united in Jesus Christ. The story of Pentecost is a reversal of the story of Babel, as if we were watching a movie playing backwards or reading Babel from end to beginning. A new unity has come within the human family. The reason for our warring and divisiveness has lost its common ground. The Spirit has drawn together the dispersed from among the nations into a new community, a holy nation, a people of God's own making. People from different lands, languages, and lifestyles have been moved by the power of the Spirit to come together. The humanity broken apart at Babel is now reconstituted through a baptism of the Spirit into one people. As God's people, we share a common language, the language of God's story in Jesus Christ. This story shapes our common culture without our having to lose our own distinctive differences as diverse people. The language of Christ's life can be lived out just as faithfully among the tribes of Africa as among the city dwellers of America. And still, even with all our diversity, we, who were not a people, are now a people. We, who had no name, have a name, a common name not of our own making. Ours is a name given to us by God: the church.

     Pentecost is a story of the birthday of the church. It reminds us of who we are together. It's like looking at an old photo album of a family birthday party. "Remember how Uncle Ned dropped his grudge with Dad as they hung the streamers together?” says Mom. Grandma didn't whine about Suzy being late, as she always seemed to be. Differences melted like ice cream in the sun. There was something there beneath the funny hats and the out-of-tune singing of "Happy Birthday". Something tied them all together. It was the realization that in spite of all their differences, they were still family. That birthday photo continued to remind them that they were who they were because they are family.

     Pentecost reminds us that we are family. We have been united by the awesome power of the Spirit. We are a tower built by God with the mortar of Christ's love. All of us who call on the name of the Lord are in God's family photo album. Look. There's sister Cho, who I don't know from Eve. Still, she related. She's family. And that's brother David with his sign, standing in front of the Consulate. And that picture is of sister Wilma, sewing a blanket for the relief sale. She wouldn't be caught dead carrying a protest sign. And over there, that's brother Bob, he's new to the family. He's gung-ho about being a part of the family. In his zeal he sometimes says things that sound a little too harsh or judgmental. With our love and help he'll grow out of it. I hope. Remember when we gathered had the meal in downtown Canby with Frederico and his friends? There's a picture of him, his wife and their new baby. There is no last page to God's family album. It continues to be filled with new and different faces.

    There is a saying in the Khosa language of South Africa which, when translated, says, "A person is a person because of other people". We are who we are because of other people. Together we are the church, with all our diverse faces, languages, and personal differences. Pentecost is a birthday photo which reminds that we are who we are because of other people. We are who we are because we are connected to a new family, a new people, a new society, a new nation made up of many peoples born of the one Spirit.

     That same Spirit scatters us back into the world to unite all peoples in Christ. Our unity is not to make a name for ourselves, that is, to do our own will. Our unity is cemented together by the will of God. And that will is that all peoples of the earth should know and experience the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Jesus told his disciples to wait for the coming of the Spirit. The coming of the Spirit upon the church was an empowering for a purpose. The Spirit came upon the church in order that his followers might be witnesses of Christ in Hubbard, in Marion County, all over Oregon, and to the ends of the earth. The once-tongue-tied disciples turned the world upside down with their message of God's uniting love in Christ. And they so embodied that message as a distinctive community of people that the world turned its head and remarked, "See how they love one another." The fire of Pentecost continued to burn within them as people responded and they baptized them into their new community. The fire burned as they broke bread together at meals and in worship and prayed for one another and their world. The flame still crackled as they taught one another the doctrine of the Apostles, as they shared in fellowship, koinonia, gemiendshaft.

     The church had no time to yawn. This was not business as usual. They worshipped in trembling anticipation, with crash helmets on. They were so moved with compassion for their impoverished brothers and sisters that they sold what they had and shared all their possessions in common. There was a singleness of heart. And people continued to be united in the church. O, for such a fire to fall upon the church today. Dare we pray: Come, Holy Spirit! It's such a dangerous prayer. For God's sake, what might happen among us at Zion, if God responded to that prayer? The mighty Spirit might blow us to who knows where! Our fiery God might just burn up our old, tired, dreary church routines and half-hearted commitments and set our hearts and minds ablaze!

    Take heart. The winds of Pentecost are still blowing. The fire of Pentecost still burns. And God continues to speak in a language everyone can understand. That language is the church. We are the tongue with which God speaks. Through God's new people God speaks the word that draws all people together and unites them as one. God speaks in the vowels of our mercy and compassion for the poor, weak, and voiceless of our world. God's voice is in the consonants of gifts of ministry and service. God speaks in the sibilants of truth we voice in the midst of lies and deception. God speaks in the labials of our love for those who are unlovely and unloved. God speaks approval from heaven when we cement together the bricks of peace with justice. God breaths out in the simple telling of the story of Jesus in a Sunday School class, or to a friend in the kitchen over coffee. God speaks in a language that our divided, stuttering world so desperately needs to hear. That language is a church which welcomes with open arms all people in all their wild, worldly, and wonderful differences. God wants to shout a new way to all the people of the earth. God wants to whisper our secret to a divided world through that distinctive tongue called the church. Shall we let God speak?

     To let God speak in God's own native tongue will mean being a people whose lives together speak of the power of God's uniting Spirit. It will mean embodying the good news of peace through Christ for all the world. It will mean speaking forth the wall-destroying message that has made us one in Christ Jesus. It will mean allowing God to blow us into those places where our gifts can become instruments of service as signs of God's coming kingdom. It will mean daring to boldly pray, in our time and in our place:

Come, Holy Spirit, fill us with fire!

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Ascension is not about Ascending: Acts 1:1-11

*This sermon was preached on Ascension Sunday, May 20, 2012 at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon


     What can a modern preacher in an age of science say about the Ascension? Someone said that preachers frequently seem a little embarrassed and apologetic about preaching on the Ascension. At Easter they stood in the pulpit and declared that Christ is risen.  Now, they have scruples about just how high! That may very well be true. But, if preaching on the Ascension is proclaiming how high Christ ascends, then we're all going to end up with our head in the clouds! The Ascension is about something far more profound and down-to-earth than how high Christ rises.

     The Ascension is not about ascending. Yes, you heard me right. The Ascension is not about ascending. The Ascension is found in the Apostle's Creed. It says, "He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God..." The Gospel of Luke and Acts tell the story of the Ascension of our Lord. These stories tell of how Christ rose into heaven. So, what do I mean by saying that the Ascension is not about ascending? I mean that the Ascension is not about how high Christ rises. On Ascension Sunday we are not celebrating the fact that Jesus shot up through the clouds like an Apollo rocket into the starry space. We are not rejoicing because Jesus was the first astronaut, an ancient John Glenn, who defied gravity and went into outer space without modern technology or space suit. The Ascension is not remembering a Star-Trek-Jesus, who with a command of "Beam me up, God" was slowly transported through an Alka-Selzer-disintegration of his particles and reassembled at some space station with a cloaking devise in a far off galaxy called "heaven." Ascension is not about space aeronautics, Steven Spielberg special effects, nor Science Fiction.

     The truth of the Ascension does not require that we return to a naive, pre-Copernican, flat-earth view of the world. Celebrating Ascension does not necessitate accepting the Biblical cosmology of a heaven that is up, with windows and a god dwelling just beyond the starry dome, nor a sheol or hell that is down beneath an earth which is supported by pillars.  We do not need to believe that the soles of Jesus' feet could be seen passing through the clouds in order to proclaim the truth of the Ascension.

     Our modern understanding of space is different from that of Jesus' day. In our lifetime we have seen from space the blue marble of earth. We have been amazed by the first dusty footprints on the surface of the moon. With the Hubble telescope we have viewed swirling galaxies millions of light years away. From our modern understanding of the cosmos, if the Ascension were literally about Jesus rising up into the clouds above Palestine, then from the other side of our round world it would have been a "Descension." The spatial images of up and down have become relative terms in our space-comprehending age. But, it is not necessary to return to an ancient worldview in order to believe in the Ascension. 

      The Ascension is more like the words of Ephesians, which tell us that God seated Christ at his right hand in the heavenly places and has put all things under his feet. To celebrate the Ascension does not mean we must believe that there is a royal chair floating in zero gravity somewhere in outer space where Jesus sits beside the throne of God. We need not spend a lot of time speculating about exactly where in space Christ is sitting with feet dangling above the Milky Way. Nor do we have to believe that God sits in an enormous chair with a gigantic right hand. Believing that Jesus physically ascended above the misty clouds over Palestine some two thousand years ago, where God sits his posterior down on a big throne in the sky; if that helps your faith, then so be it.  But, that is not what the Ascension is all about. If our understanding of the Ascension is primarily a belief in Jesus' movement upward in space, this understanding will only distort the truth and rob these visual images of the powerful message they were meant to communicate. Ascension is not about ascending.
     The spiritual truth of the Ascension is written in visual, story language. The Ascension is theological truth written in the metaphorical language of a story. The everyday use of metaphorical and visual language is not uncommon to us. We all talk about the sun rising, when we know that the sun does not literally rise in the East and set in the West. The earth moves, not the sun. And yet, from our vantage point we experience the sun as rising and use spatial language to describe it. The Psalmist speaks of the sun's rising as from a tent and as a bridegroom coming out of his wedding canopy, or like a strong man running across the course of the sky.

We may even talk of a woman's  beauty being as "the sun rising in her eyes." Not only did ancient peoples use poetic and metaphorical language to communicate spiritual truths, they also used stories. Jesus spoke not only of living water and heavenly bread and unseen doors, but he also told parables; stories, though not literally true, communicate a depth of truth that thin, literal language could not penetrate.
Let me ask you: Do you firmly believe that Jesus lives and reigns in your heart? Then, let me also ask you this: Can that truth be confirmed or denied by open heart surgery? With the language of image and story the early disciples' wrote the fathomless truth of their experience of Jesus as ascended into the heavens. The story of Christ's Ascension proclaims deeper, or should I say "higher," truth than a mere physical levitation of Jesus' body. Ascension is not about ascending.

     The Ascension is about Jesus' physical absence and the continuation of his work by his disciples. When Jesus' ascended he left the work of the kingdom with his disciples. We see this clearly in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew there is no Ascension. Instead of Ascension there is Commission. Upon leaving this earth Jesus commissioned his followers to go and baptize and make disciples. In Acts, before the Ascension, Christ told the disciples that they would be witnesses in the expanding circle of Jerusalem, Judea, and the uttermost parts of the earth. During his ministry Jesus sent out his disciples to practice doing the things that he did; to proclaim the good news, liberate the oppressed, heal the sick, and deliver the captives. So, the Ascension means that now that Jesus is gone from among us we have been handed over the task of completing the work that Jesus began.
     Many famous works of opera were composed by Giacomo Puccini. He was stricken with cancer in 1922 while working on his last opera, Turandot, which many consider his best work. Puccini told his students, "If I don't finish Turandot, I want you to finish it for me." Following his death, Puccini's students devotedly studied his opera and completed it. In 1926 the world premiere of Turandot was performed in Milan with Puccini's favorite student, Arturo Toscanini, directing. The opera was performed magnificently, right up to the point in the piece where Death had stilled the pen of Puccini. At that moment in the performance tears began to flow down Toscanini's face. He stopped the music, put down his baton, turned to the audience, and cried out, "Thus far the Master wrote, but he died." A silence shrouded the opera house. Then, Toscanini picked up the baton again, smiled through his tears, and exclaimed, "But his disciples finished his work." When Turandot ended, the audience rose up in thunderous applause. No one at the premiere forgot that moment. When Jesus left those early disciples and commissioned them to complete his work, they did not forget that moment. The Ascension reminds us that our Master is no longer with us, and we, his disciples, must finish his work.

     The Ascension is about Christ 's presence with us in a different, and yet, powerful new way. We don’t perform Christ's work on our own. Christ is with us, but in a way continuous with, and yet different from the presence of Jesus of Nazareth long ago. Before the Ascension Christ promised the disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. They could not continue Jesus' work without empowerment from God. No longer would Jesus be with them, but they would have the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. God, like a Mother, gave birth to the newborn church through the power of the Spirit. Through the Spirit, the church was able to carry the good news of Christ to the ends of the earth. Through the Spirit God gave a diversity of gifts to build up the Body of Christ. The Spirit, working through these varied gifts and diverse instruments of the church, continued the symphony that Jesus could only play as a solo.

     No longer is our relationship to the Lord limited to the rabbi from Nazareth. As Paul said, no longer do we know Christ "according to the flesh." In the presence of the Spirit, Christ has transcended the boundaries of time and space, now and then, here and there, up and down. All peoples and nations of countless generations, and each of us individually, have access to the Ascended Christ. Christ is present to us in a new way. In the presence of the Spirit Christ can still wipe the tears from our eyes, heal our wounds, feed our deepest hungers, comfort our grief, teach us new truth, and raise us up to new life.  We may not have the human Jesus with us, but we do have the Holy Spirit, who came in power at Pentecost. The same God who was in Jesus Christ is with us in a new way in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
     Christ is with us in the presence of the Spirit. Though human Jesus is no longer with us, there is an unseen power and presence at work within the church. This Presence is here when we gather for worship, share in communion and baptism, teach the gospel story, and exercise our gifts in the church and in the world. The energizing force beneath all these outward practices is the Spirit of Christ. The Ascension reminds us that though Jesus is no longer with us, the Spirit of Christ is still with us in a powerful new way.

     The Ascension is essentially about the exaltation of Jesus. In the Ascension Jesus is crowned Lord of all. Jesus is exalted to God's right hand, the place of glory, honor, and majesty. This is royal language. The Ascension proclaims, in the language of kings and kingdoms, crowns and thrones, the ultimate significance of the life, teaching, ministry, and death of Jesus. In this sense, it speaks the same truth as the resurrection. Not only was Jesus raised by God above the power of death and the grave, but was raised above all the powers of heaven and earth. God "lifted up" Jesus' life, his love for the misfit, his compassion for the poor, his deliverance of the possessed, his words about peace and forgiveness. All that was the spiritual essence of Jesus' life has been received into God's presence and exalted. That human life, despised and rejected, God vindicated in the resurrection and ascension. The life, teachings, and death of Jesus, God raised above all things in heaven and on earth. The resurrection and ascension are God's "yes" to Jesus. It was as if God were saying, "I lift up this life to the heavens for all to see. This is life truly lived in all its fullness and depth. Life lived in its eternal dimensions. I exalt this human life to the highest heaven." Not only has God absorbed into God's Self the spiritual essence of Christ, but has exalted the essence of Jesus' life as eternal truth.
     The rubber of the Ascension hits the road whenever Jesus is lifted up as Lord over our lives. The Ascension paints in broad, brilliant strokes that earliest of Christian confessions---"Jesus is Lord!" Just like the words behind me proclaim to this congregation every time we gather in this place, we believe that Jesus is Lord. Within the early church that confession stood in sharp contrast to the world’s confession that “Caesar is Lord.” If Ascension means exaltation, and exaltation is about lifting up Jesus, then the ascension has everything to do with our primary allegiances in this world. Is our primary allegiance to our nation and its military, political, social and economic interests or to Christ and his church within all nations? Where do our primary allegiances lie? The early Christians and early Anabaptists were sure that their primary allegiance rested….in the Ascended and Exalted Christ.

   The truth of the ascension as exaltation is given visual expression in the Bible and in Greek and Russian Orthodox icons through royal imagery like many icons of Christ. Icons are ornate religious paintings, which often depict the Ascended, Cosmic Christ in royal attire, crowned, and placed against a background of gold. This royal imagery and the spatial language of "over" and "above" are visualizations of the truth of Jesus' Ascension. This kind royal imagery is not literal in that Jesus wears a royal robe and crown and sits on a throne. This imagery  seeks to communicate the ultimate significance of Jesus by elevating his life, teachings, and death as the ultimate human model by which we live and die and are reborn.

    For we believe Jesus is the name above all names. Christ has ascended over all things in heaven and on earth. The Ascended Christ is far above the politics of nations, far above the principalities and powers of this world, far above our personal agendas. To follow the Ascended Christ is to live by the truth that Jesus is Lord of over all. We have seen the truth of the Ascended Christ embodied in French Christians from the town of Le Chambon in France, who under the leadership of pacifist Andre Trocme, resisted the authority of the Third Reich during World War II. These simple Christians were saying, "Jesus is Lord," as they risked their very lives by hiding and transporting Jews who were fleeing the reign of evil.

   I have seen the truth of the Ascension in Mennonite churches in South Texas, who have housed and fed illegal aliens fleeing the poverty and violence in Central America. These Hispanic brothers and sisters are saying "Jesus is Lord" as they live by the truth of Christ ascended over every human authority, even over issues of whether following the compassionate way of Christ is legal or not. The Ascension shouts to the world around us, "Jesus is Lord!"

     We see the truth of the Ascension when we watch someone take their valued time and volunteers to work with Bridging Cultures and the Canby Center, visit an elderly person who stares at the walls all alone, or teaches fresh, young minds simple and yet deep truth that Jesus is Lord. We feel the truth of the Ascended Christ in our bones when, because of their faith in Christ, a teenager refuses to go along with peer pressure to do things which are harmful to others or self-destructive. We smell the truth of the Ascension in the fragrant act of someone taking the risk of going to another person and reconciling their broken relationship, because that is what Christ would have them do. We taste the truth of the Ascension when we become salt of the earth by casting aside our differences and exalting Christ together, and in so doing like a city set on a hill our lives are lifted up and shine for others to see God's light. We hear the truth of the Ascended Christ when together we, as church, perform in symphony the work Jesus played as a solo. In these human acts we catch a glimpse of Christ Ascended as Lord. The Ascension is not about feet in the clouds, crowns on heads, or scepters in hands. The Ascension is about the exaltation of Christ in our world and our lives.
     So then, because we have experienced for ourselves this higher truth of the Ascension, as surely as we have experienced the rising of the sun, we can preach without embarrassment or apology the Ascension of Christ. We can proclaim the One who ascended to the heavens and is far above all the earth. We can confess the eternal truth that there is One who sits as King of Kings and Lord of Lords at the right hand of God. We can lift up our voices and sing to the heavens: Crown him, crown him Lord of all! 


Monday, May 14, 2012

The Clamor of Voices: John 10:1-16, 22-27

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on Sunday,  May 6, 2012.

Floyd Choat heard the voice of God. Or at least he believed he heard the voice of God. Floyd described the voice: "He talked to me in plain, old-fashioned English to where I could understand him and he could understand me. It was just about like any man's voice; soft gentle, not hassling, but very easy to hear." Want to know what "God" said to Floyd? According to Floyd, God said to him, "Lay down between the tombstones of your two sons until I tell you to get up." So, Floyd followed the voice's directions and made his bed among the dead!

Every few days Floyd would bathe himself with a sponge. His wife would come out to the cemetery ever so often and bring him fresh clothes. Relatives dropped off food and water daily, as if this kind of behavior was normal activity for the family. Not everyone thought Floyd was playing with a full deck. The phone at the Somervell County Sheriff's Department was ringing off the hook. People were concerned about Floyd's strange behavior. But, the deputy told the concerned citizens that Floyd was within his legal rights. You see, his plot was already bought!

Needless to say, Floyd received a visit from the State Department of Mental Health. After a long interview with a case worker, the conclusion was Floyd was indeed...sane. Floyd told an interviewer  about hearing God's voice, "God does strange things on occasion to get people's attention." And with no pun intended Floyd concluded, "As far as comfort, God didn't say life would be a bed of roses did he?" True. Life isn't a bed of roses. But, did Floyd really hear God's voice? Or could it have been his own voice he heard? Who can say? Whatever the case, wouldn't we like to hear God's voice with the clarity of ol' Floyd? 

In our scripture text from the Gospel of John Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice. And they follow me." We are his sheep aren't we? Then, shouldn't we hear his voice? Maybe we'd better listen to this story. It is wintertime. Soon Death's cold finger will tap Jesus on the shoulder. But, now he walks on the warm side of the temple in Solomon's Colonnade. The people want Jesus to tell them in no uncertain terms if he is the Messiah or not. Jesus says he has already told them and done many wondrous works, but they don't believe. The reason they don't believe is because they are not his sheep. Unlike his disciples, they don't hear his voice. Jesus' sheep hear his voice and follow. In ancient Palestine, and even today, the shepherd treated his sheep like we do our dogs. The shepherd would give a name to each of his sheep and call them by name. The sheep were able to recognize their master's voice when he trilled his tongue and called out to them by name to follow him. So, Jesus said, "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me."

The sheep of Jesus' flock hear his voice and follow. Sounds simple enough. But, wait a minute. People who claim to hear voices may find themselves strange bedfellows with Floyd Choat or Joan of Arc. It's a little different for us to say we hear Jesus' voice than it was for those first disciples. In those days the voice of Jesus had a body to go with it! To hear voices that come from somewhere other than a living human being is a bit strange, to say the least. But, if the Good Shepherd lives and we are Jesus' sheep, metaphorically speaking, then in some way we should be able to hear Christ's voice and follow, as crazy as that may sound.

The truth is we all hear voices. Different kinds of voices. Some of those voices come from vocal chords which vibrate our ear drums and are translated by our brain into meaningful words, phrases, sentences, ideas, and concepts. We hear these voices whisper, yell, laugh, cry, plead, and question.  In a metaphorical sense we hear other voices. We hear nature's voice. The shout of the roaring sea. The laughter of leaves. The whisper of a gentle breeze. Some voices can be heard without vibrations of human vocal chords. The voice of silence. The voice of truth. The voice of freedom. The voice of peace. We hear the voice of silence in stillness and solitude. We can hear the voice of truth by reading a novel. We can hear the voice of freedom cry out in the face of the captive. We can hear the voice of peace in our hearts. We recognize these voices when we hear them, see them, or feel them.  

We all hear voices. The problem is there are so many voices that claim our attention, that call us to follow. Our lives chatter with a cacophony of voices. Voices call out to us from the books located between the tabloids and tic tacs at the supermarket, from a blaring TV, from our stereos and CD players, or from the computer while surfing the internet. These voices speak with authority and can be very enticing. A book on a shelf whispers as you pass, "Pssssst. Excuse me, lady. If you really wanna improve your relationship, read me. I've got some quick, easy answers." The voice from the television blares out, "Hey, buddy, if you want a woman like this on your arm, go buy a six-pack of this brewskie." A CD calls out to a teenager, "You're a real nerd if you don't listen to this music, dude." The computer screen speaks, "I can offer you the world at your fingertips." Voices come at us right and left.

Other voices call out to us from all around us, pulling us in this and that direction. The voices of our culture call us to follow their lead. The voices of movie stars, sports figures, pop psychologists, exercise gurus, fashion models, MTV rock stars, talk show hosts, and commercial advertisers call out to us. They are the gods of our age. They want to shape and mold us into their image. Their voices tell us what to do, what is right and wrong, what is in and out, how we should think, how we should dress, what we should eat, what we should buy, how to be secure, how to succeed, how to solve our problems and moral dilemmas, how to find meaning in life. And who of us does not, at one time or another, follow these voices?

I recently read a Mental Health Foundation article about people hearing voices, particularly voices of people who are not there. Mental Health professionals have usually categorized such experiences as hallucinations and a symptom of mental illness. This article suggested that may not always be the case. Research has shown that it is common for recently bereaved persons to hear the voice of their loved one who had died. The writer of the article said, “There are many different ways to hear voices. Voices can be experienced in the head, from outside the head or even in the body. It may be one voice or many voices.” It is noted that in many cases these are symptoms of mental illness.

But, a new approach is emerging that calls for listening to these voices and getting to know them better. The article goes on to say:

The new approach helps the voice hearer to make space for the voices, to listen but not to necessarily obey, to engage, but in their own time and space -essentially to learn how to control them within their own explanatory framework. This acceptance of the voices is crucial to growth and resolution. Voice hearers who have learnt these techniques can now say, "I hear voices, they are part of me and I am glad they are".

There are many voices that clamor for our attention. Our own minds are crammed with voices. If particular buttons are pushed inside us, we may hear some of those voices repeat their message, like a phone answering machine. We all hear these inner voices. Psychologists refer to them as the "old tapes" from our past. They are negative messages we received from parents, family members, friends, teachers, painful experiences, hurtful memories. Sometimes these inner voices play over and over again.  And these old voices can affect how we live in the present. If someone could push the buttons on our inner tape player, what old voices might we hear? "You won't amount to much." "How could you be so stupid?" "Can't you do anything right." "Girls can't do that kind of work." "Boys don't cry." "Stop acting like such a baby." "You see, you just can't trust people." These voices speak from our subconscious. The negative messages of our past are recorded on the cells of our mind and played back when triggered by certain people, situations, or events. We don't have be Floyd Choat to hear voices. We all hear voices. They call us to follow.

Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice and they follow." There is one voice which the Christian is called to hear and follow. The voice of God. There are many who have heard God's voice and followed. The scriptures tell us many such people. And they may have appeared as kooky as ol' Floyd. Noah heard a voice that told him to build a giant ark on dry land. Moses heard a voice call out to him from a flaming shrub. While lying on a mat in the temple young Samuel heard a voice calling him and mistook it for the priest. A voice told Jeremiah to go get his underwear and hide it in a rock, then to go find it again. I could tell countless stories of those who claimed to have heard God's voice through Christ. Teresa of Avila. Francis of Assisi. John Hus. Menno Simons. Conrad Grebel. Dorothy Day. Martin Luther King, Jr. Each of them, in their own unique ways, heard the voice of God in Christ calling them to follow. And your ears would grow sore if I spoke of all the common people of faith, like you and I, who claim to hear the voice of God in Christ. Now, the voice is probably not audible, but nevertheless we recognize the voice of the Living Christ.

We recognize the voice of Christ even in its many and varied tones. The voice of Christ speaks to us from the Word written, read, studied, and proclaimed. The Book is opened. The reader reads from the text. It is interpreted, illuminated, and made relevant for our day. The people lean forward listening for the voice that speaks beyond and beneath the human words. From within small rooms with chalk boards and watercolor pictures of Jesus, teachers open their leatherback book and share from an ancient text and a living, contemporary voice is heard. We hear the voice of Christ in hymn and song, in ritual, in bread and cup, in the stories of saints, in the words and deeds of the gathered and scattered community of Christ. We may even hear the voice of Christ in the stranger, the poor, the powerless, the suffering, the forsaken. Christ's voice may at times even speak to us through our culture.

How can we tell if the voice we hear is truly Christ's voice? Modern technology has invented a way to make a visual graph of the human voice. It looks like a squiggly line on a screen. This voice graph can tell when a voice is being disguised or if someone is attempting to imitate somebody else's voice. Graphs of two or more recorded voices can be compared to one another to see if they are the same voices or not. The graphs can be superimposed over one another and immediately you can see if they match, even if the voices sound similar, even if the voices speak in a different language. In a real sense, we have a graph of Jesus' voice. It is recorded in the scripture in his teachings, actions, life, death, resurrection. Using this graph of Christ's voice Christians working together can lay the different voices we hear over the graph of Christ's voice to discern whether or not a particular voice is a true echo of the voice of Christ. Through varied vocal chords the voice of the Good Shepherd still speaks to us. We recognize the voice and follow.

Some of us more vintage adults may remember the old RCA Victor logo. It pictured a black and white spotted dog sitting next to an old Victrola record player, the kind that was wound up with a crank and had a bell horn to conduct the sound. The dog is tilting its head listening to the voice coming from the horn. On the record is the voice of his master. The record may be old and scratchy. The voice may be accompanied by hisses and pops. The owner's words may not be the exact words the dog is used to hearing. And to be truthful, the recording is not the actual voice of the dog's master. But, we get the RCA slogan: "He hears his Master's voice."

The voice of Christ calls out to us from Scripture across two thousand years of time, from different cultures and languages, through varied translations of ancient texts. The voice speaks in a different language and words. The voice of Christ speaks to us through the scratchy voices of preachers and teachers and common folk. It speaks through the pops and hisses, the clamor of voices in our culture. And still, we hear the Master's voice. Jesus' sheep hear their master's voice and follow.

We have heard the voice of God in Christ. And we're still sane. We may be more sane than if we didn't hear Christ's voice amid the clamor of voices which call us to follow who knows where. We still hear the Master's voice and seek to follow. Long ago Anabaptist Michael Sattler put this truth into words for the followers of the Good Shepherd to hear:

When Christ with his true teaching came
And gathered up his flock so fair
He taught them all to follow him
And patiently his cross to bear
He said, You my disciples true
Must watch and be alert each day
Love nothing more upon this earth
Than me and all my words alway.

Jesus said, "My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me."

In memory of Martin Bal

*This meditaion was presented for my best friend from my pastorate at Houston Mennonite Church (1987-1996) at Pace-Stancil Funeral Home, Coldspring, Texas. I drew the portrait for Martin's wife Joan.

I call you friend

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. John 15:15

I once read a statistic that said 70% of pastors don’t have close friends. How sad! If that were true, I wonder why it would be so. Could it be that many pastors have been taught in seminary that you should not make close friendships in their congregations? There are some good reasons for pastors not becoming too close with members of their congregations. Some would say that a pastor is not supposed to “play favorites” with members, but treat everyone equally. Be friend to all. But, I take Aristotle’s words seriously; “A friend to all is a friend to none.”

Others warn that by making close friendships with members a pastor may have personal information used against them if the friendship sours. The pastor may also need to maintain a “necessary distance” with members for counseling purposes. I myself have struggled to get leaders In the congregation where I am now an interim pastor to understand the difficulty of maintaining friendships with a former pastor who remains in the community because there is often a difficulty in distinguishing between their friendship and the pastor’s role, which get mixed up in the relationship of a former pastor and their congregation.

Well, I guess I threw all that kind of advice out the window like old laundry water when we came to know Martin and Joan. Martin and Joan became our closest of friends when I was pastor of Houston Mennonite Church from 1987 to 1996 and we remained in contact with them after we moved on to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Portland, Oregon. My first encounter with Martin and Joan was during their initial visits to our congregation. They visited our congregation because we had a not-so-early sunrise service at 8 am. You might say we were Latter-in-the-Day Saints. Martin was from a more formal Dutch Reformed church background and Joan was from a spirited charismatic church background. They were looking for a compromise, a church somewhere in the middle between those two divergent traditions. I wasn’t sure if the Mennonite church was going to be middle ground for Martin and Joan. There were things in our church tradition that resonated with Martin, but Joan initially had a rougher time adjusting to this new tradition, which was new to me also. We often talked about their struggles to adjust to a new church tradition that was neither Martin’s nor Joan’s.

But, over some time Martin and Joan did not simply adjust to Houston Mennonite Church, they came to love it and become deeply involved in its spiritual life and its people. And, in spite of what some might advise pastors, my wife Iris and I developed a close relationship with Martin and Joan. We would often do things together. Looking at half-priced books. Visiting in each others homes. Sitting around a dining table. A Saturday or Sunday afternoon might find us with a Goodies mesquite grilled bacon burger with Guacamole (Lord, have mercy!) in hand or eating General Tso’s chicken at Hunan Chef, mmmmmmm, where we were well known. As a matter of fact, it was at the Hunan Chef where I started a practice, which I continue to this day. I call it the Unfortunate Cookie. After eating our meal with Martin and Joan I would spontaneously add in a more twisted phrase to the fortune cookie fortunes, which I found to be way too positive and unrealistic. For example, the fortune might say: “Today is a good day for being with a companion” and I would write in “Your psychiatrist” or “Where there is a will, there is a way/ to get your name on the will” or Just because you put tap shoes on an elephant does not mean it can dance/ Unless he is Harry Elephante. I have hundreds of these! Being around good friends and good food nourishes creativity!

Let me share this with you, Joan. On Tuesday, right before leaving for Texas, I was praying about making it through this service and my meditation on friendship, which I had finished. I asked for a sign that God would be with me, something I don’t often do out of skepticism about signs. I stopped for lunch at a Chinese restaurant. At the end of the meal I cracked open my fortune cookie and read this fortune: “The best mirror is often a good friend.” What more can I add to that?

Many hours were spent with Martin and Joan discussing our children and their struggles and triumphs or delving deeply into some theological subject. These conversations were nourished by attending lectures together presented by the likes of well-known liberal Christian scholars like Jesus Seminar’s Marcus Borg or Bishop John Shelby Spong. And both Iris and I recognized Joan’s gifts and were privileged to be able encourage her to pursue work in spiritual direction. Martin and Joan were more than just servants of the church where I happened to be the pastor. We shared a close relationship. Iris and I have been blessed to have called Martin and Joan friends.

Jesus said to his disciples:

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.

Jesus developed friendships with his followers. Some were closer friendships than others. In the Gospels we note that even among his inner circle of 12 disciples there were a few, like Peter and John, with whom Jesus shared a close, intimate relationship. Jesus seems to have given up on calling his followers “servants.” Their relationship was far more than a business connection, even if it was kingdom business. Jesus had spent lots of time sharing with his disciples his most intimate thoughts, hopes, dreams, wisdom and knowledge of God. “Servants,” even “servants of God” was inadequate to describe their relationship with one another and with God. So, Jesus says that he will no longer call them servants, but friends. For they had become friends with Jesus and with God.

Martin was a friend of God. Sure, he was a husband, a father, a grandfather, great-grandfather, a brother, a fellow worker, a chemist, a thinker, a traveler, and even a conniseur of cheese (Loved Martin and Joans Holland House. Whenever I buy smoked Gouda, I think of Martin). But, above all else, Martin was a friend of God. And friends, that is what matters most in his life and in this life. So, I ask you, “Are you a friend of God?” Not just as some distant name or an old acquaintance from childhood days in Sunday School. Not just as someone with whom you have had a relationship because of family tradition, visits to church at Christmas and Easter or at funerals, like this one. Not even as one with a formal relationship with God as a servant of the church, like being a pastor. But, can you call God your friend? Do you share an intimate relationship with God; dining with God at a table of bread and wine, listening to God’s voice in Word and life, sharing your struggles and your triumphs, laughing and crying over life’s unfortunate cookies? Let me share with you, my friends, from the wisdom of the book of Proverbs:

there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (18:24).

I close with words that speak for my heart today from Dion, an early Rock and Roll singer/songwriter who himself became a friend of God. I only slightly changed one line of Dion’s lyrics.

Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He’s a friend to God and people
but it seems the good they die young
I just looked around and he’s gone.

Afscheid mijn vriend.