Sunday, June 08, 2014

Pentecost with St. Aidan's, San Francisco

Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

Dear St. Aidan’s, what an honor to celebrate this amazing liturgical feast of Pentecost with you, and happy birthday! They say this day is the birthday of the church--not just this church, but all churches. St. Aidan’s, though, has been listening to and attempting to keep up with that same revolutionary Spirit, described in our reading from Acts as sounding like rushing wind and appearing as strange fire on the heads of that odd group of aspiring Jesus followers, since your founding.  At age 60 this year, you are still one of the youngest churches in the Diocese of California and the second youngest in the city of San Francisco. Your congregation’s profound authenticity and courage through the years has borne witness to the Divine Spirit’s eagerness to embrace humanity--each and every one of us--and put us to joyful work for the common good. Whether it was protesting for civil rights, or welcoming earlier than others the leadership of ordained women like Deacon Phyllis Edwards and the Rt. Reverend Nedi Rivera, or ministering to, with, and for the LGBT community before, after and during the HIV/AIDS crisis, St. Aidan’s has shown the whole church and the city of San Francisco what following the Spirit can look like.

In recent years you and your bold Rector have continued to provide robust and creative leadership, modeling what neighborhood engagement is all about: supporting the Night Ministry, Sojourn Chaplaincy, Sacred Space San Francisco, your food pantry, and getting not just your congregation prepared, but the whole Diocese prepared for disasters. By the way, Father Tommy told me yesterday that he’s got quite a packed schedule today befitting the significance of Pentecost: visiting the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached the gospel, attending a Methodist church with a friend, and then a gospel drag brunch at a restaurant called Lips.

The Spirit of Pentecost, the Spirit that animates all life and that does something particular it seems with folks like you and me who are interested in the way of Jesus, puts us in strange places with strange people and asks us to do some tough stuff as we together seek to turn the world around. It doesn’t mean we are going to end up healthy, wealthy and wise, at least not in the ways that the world measures success.  Most of the individuals I’ve known in my life that were really noticeably living in the Spirit have scars and wounds from having put themselves out there for justice, truth, compassion and the dignity of others.  If they haven’t literally been shot at, they have been the victims of cruelty, gossip, been ignored and persecuted or are flat broke, but all the while they have carried that flame, that fire with them, and that has made all the difference. That flame, that fire doesn’t always make a church large, doesn’t always make a crowd fall on their knees, and isn’t contained by an institution or its trappings.  That fire, that flame abides with each one of us uniquely and inspires us to listen and pay attention to the particulars of our story, our community, our day-to-day lives. That flame, that fire, empowers us to be ourselves where we are and to be witnesses to the love and liberating power of Christ.

The other day I was visiting a friend of mine in Berkeley who works for the Bancroft Library. He told me about what was going on there this past week, an event called BREATH OF LIFE / SILENT NO MORE Language Restoration Workshop for California Indian Languages hosted by The Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival and The Survey of California and Other Indian Languages. I thought of Pentecost as my friend spoke about the profoundly moving experience of watching people come into that large, venerable academic institution, many for the first time, and open up archives and discover recordings of their ancestors. To me it is the Holy Spirit, the Divine Spirit that helps us individual human beings appreciate in a deep way the experience of others. When we are in touch with the Spirit we are like those flaming in Acts.  We are able to be in touch with our authentic selves, our roots and at the same time understand and comprehend the meaning and significance of others. We may not know their language but we can “get” the pain, joy, grief or experience of another. It is a failure to listen, a failure to appreciate, a failure to be in and of the Spirit that leads us astray that allows us to be cruel, inhumane, and oppressive of others --- that allows us to say my language is better than your language, or my religion is truer than your religion, that forces my way on another. The genocide of indigenous peoples that many of our Episcopal/Anglican ancestors were part of, were complicit with and in some parts of the world may still perpetuate –is a consequence of our human failure to honor the dignity and worth of every human being, a failure to walk in the way of Jesus and a failure to take in the meaning of Pentecost.

In 2009 the Episcopal General Convention repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery.  The Doctrine of Discovery is a key premise for non-Indigenous government claims to legitimacy on and sovereignty over Indigenous lands and territories. It is used in particular by former British colonies, specifically Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. In 2012, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori issued a pastoral lettering saying, “We seek to address the need for healing in all parts of society, and we stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples globally to acknowledge and address the legacy of colonial occupation and policies of domination.  Our Christian heritage has taught us that a healed community of peace is only possible in the presence of justice for all peoples.  We seek to build such a beloved community that can be a sacred household for all creation, a society of right relationships.” So much of the Christian Church, both Catholicism and Protestant operated for centuries with such a wrong approach to engagement with other peoples. Our church’s acknowledgement of that wrong belief by repudiating the doctrine of Discovery should make us wonder what other destructive ideas and interpretations is the church still clinging to that contaminate our witness to a God of love, justice and peace? Are we failing by not collectively and individually embracing more dramatic changes in our contemporary lives relating to climate change and gun control? In both cases, science and technology point us towards healing and right action, yet we are far too slow to act. Perhaps we need to welcome and ask the Spirit to set us ablaze with a passion strong enough to become the organizers and activists needed for our time--to challenge ourselves, businesses, organizations and schools to dramatically lower our carbon footprints, switch to clean energy technology and encourage divestment from both gun making and oil drilling. What could be a more Pentecost-like agenda than advocating for solar, wind and a world with fewer weapons?

So what is our Pentecost lesson today? That life in the Spirit is different. When we are set ablaze something happens to us. We experience a sense of belonging and solidarity with others and the cosmos that transcends all divisions, and at the same time gives us a deeper awareness of our distinctiveness as individuals with unique gifts, stories, opportunities and experiences. We are moved, as Peter was, to speak prophetic truth about the Divine’s embrace, quoting Joel:

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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy… everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Our work, it seems, is to give voice to the inclusive love of God, and to open ourselves up to hearing that message come back to us from anywhere or anyone. Yesterday I was in a book store and discovered an interesting title, In Search of the Christian Buddha, which is about an Islamic legend called Barlaam and Josaphat that is actually a retelling of the story of Siddhartha Gautama that was ultimately embraced by both western and eastern Christianity.

Just as the Apostles went out from Jerusalem to engage the life of the Spirit with others, to sell what they had to share with those in need, to care for the sick and challenge the powerful to greater compassion, we too have work to do.  That work is fueled by the fire of the Spirit within us and not our own egos or institutional agendas. This Pentecost, let us take in both the good news and the challenging word that moves us to be witnesses to the love of God, and that also challenges us to acknowledge where we have gone astray—or how we have failed to really “get” the message and allow it to change us. Perhaps the antidote to our past Christian triumphalism is to work in solidarity with sisters and brothers from other faith traditions, to acknowledge our past inhumanity, seek deeper understanding of how much we have in common, and pay attention to how the Pentecost story of Acts might still hold lessons for us and our communities.Happy Birthday!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

the truth in front of us...Easter 2

 John 20:19-31

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

This season of Easter—of death defying hope—messes with our very human desire for predictability, logic and control. Christ’s resurrection insists that we open ourselves up to mystery and transcendence; that we make room in our grown-up lives for child-like amazement, wonder, curiosity and playfulness. Easter is the circus of faith invading our sleepy dull dust-bowl town of doubt, entertaining us with dazzling feats of grandeur (empty tombs, angels, strange gardeners who can walk through walls) insisting that we too join in the fun—and find our way out of despair into laughter. Easter is more than a spectacle, a carnival, an amusement—it is an earnest truth that provides hope and light, rekindling the flames of faith when it seems all hope is lost.

For me, Easter is above all about God’s infinite forgiveness. The excruciatingly violent public execution of a rabble rousing homeless prophet is not left out of this story—no, it’s all there in painful realism in the first few words of the first sentence. There they are, that motley crew of fisherfolk, tax collectors, imperial sympathizers, would-be zealots, and prostitutes who left homes, jobs and families to wander around with that odd wonder working teacher.  There they are, hiding out behind locked doors, sorry leftovers of a clumsy revolution, a literally put-down, dragged-out revolution, fearful for their very lives. Imagine the thoughts racing through their traumatized minds, the painful images of their beloved teacher being humiliated, stripped, beaten, crucified still vivid for some, the second guessing “why did I follow him?,” shame for having run away, guilt for having betrayed him, disturbing questions about an empty tomb and what Mary Magdalene said she saw. Into that dark locked room of failure, intense anxiety and crushing despair, the disciples hear those gentle words from that familiar voice: “Peace be with you.”

I don’t know about you, but what I find just as difficult to believe as the physical bodily resurrection, is Jesus’s forgiveness. The first thing out of Jesus’ mouth isn’t “Where were you people? When I was up there dying?” or “How could you lie about knowing me?” or “Man, that really hurt!” Nor are the first words “Surprise, we won!”  No, it’s the simple “Peace be with you” and a commissioning, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And this odd line about reconciliation. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  What the heck does that mean? Sounds a bit Buddhist, a bit Taoist.  Jesus breathes on this odd assortment of characters who anyone watching closely would say kind-of-sort-of let Jesus down, and gives them this profound gift—this significant freedom to bind and release sins.
There’s that word. Sins. Now, I’m an Episcopalian and you folks out there are I’m assuming, since we’re at Old First Presbyterian, that most of you are probably Presbyterian or are leaning that way.  I hear your forebears Calvin and Knox used interesting terms like ”total depravity” to describe the human condition (which, by the way, sounds like a bar on Polk Street or in SOMA) —our human incapacity to do anything about our sinfulness aside from accepting the grace of God freely given. The best definition for me of sin is anything that separates a person from the love of God, which could just about be anything really, including the study of theology. But I digress—this is not a lecture about original sin or predestination.  Let’s go back to the story. 

So Jesus has breathed on the disciples, and given them this commission, saying just as God, the Source, the Creator sent the Word, the logos, the Divine reason into the world, Jesus sends these huddled, fearful, confused, and disorganized people out to transform the world and to get in trouble much the way he did. So just as God at the beginning of creation breathed life into Adam, Jesus breathes on the disciples. Jesus breathes on the embers of a nearly completely stomped out fire, and that same breath continues to breathe life into us—into our huddled, fearful, confused and disorganized groups of aspiring Jesus followers. And what does that life look like? It looks like real life but with more love, more grace, more forgiveness, more compassion, more generosity, more connectivity and probably a keen awareness of human suffering too. As Calvin and Knox would remind us, it doesn’t mean we aren’t still sinners, but through God’s grace we are able to become more and more Christ-like. We are able to forgive one another, because we have been forgiven. We are able to stand up for truth, justice, hope and peace (and pay a price for doing so) because Jesus showed us how in his life, death, and resurrection, and gives humanity the Holy Spirit, as a companion and guide for the hard work of reconciliation. 

The second part of today’s gospel is odd.  Thomas, one of the Apostles, missed out on the whole thing. The text doesn’t tell us what he was up to, just that he wasn’t there in that dark locked room. Perhaps he needed some time alone, or was unsure about continuing to hang around with those Jesus people. Who in their right mind wouldn’t be off signing up for a vision quest, self-help seminar or hastily updating their Linkedin profile after a mess like that? The first thing the Apostles do, emboldened by the Spirit, is go find their missing friend and, using the same words Mary Magdalene first proclaimed, they say, “We have seen the Lord.”  You can’t blame Thomas for not taking his friends’ word for it.  These are people who have experienced collective trauma, anguish and despair.  They could be on something, which would be completely understandable.  So human, reasonable, rational, sober, Thomas, who much later is made patron saint of architects, wants more information, details, data…

Amazingly, Thomas’s demand for proof is met. Jesus again appears to the disciples saying “Peace be with you” and Thomas is shown the mark of the nails in his hands, and puts his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in Jesus’s side. The vulnerability of both Thomas and Jesus in this scene exemplifies the trusting, honest, and sometimes quite painful work that all of us must undertake to be reconciled with our sisters and brothers. Again and again life presents us with unimaginable pain, disappointment, injustice, failure, oppression, grief, confusion, heartache.  Again and again we must, like Thomas, ask for more information, must speak our truth, lay down our burdens, admit our doubt and our fears, open ourselves up to criticism and ridicule. And as Jesus did, there will be times when we will have to show our scars, and also get up close and personal with others who have endured the worst kinds of suffering. Too often, it seems the church doesn’t want to go there, we are afraid of being real with one another about just how hard it is to believe, to keep the faith, to stay in community with one another.  This city is full of people like Thomas, who just aren’t showing up anymore, if they ever did, to breathe with one another and to be breathed on by Jesus—unless you count yoga or crossfit, which might just qualify. I wonder, though, if we who do gather in churches on a somewhat regular basis are feeling emboldened, do we experience amazement, are we witnessing lives transformed by the Spirit, people who have stared oppression and death in the face and found life on the other side? Do we, like the Apostles, have reason to share our faith and hope with friends and families? Perhaps we aren’t making enough room to share our stories, to be vulnerable, to expose our wounds—to show and tell one another about the ways of the cross we and our fellow human beings have been walking? 

We don’t have to go very far for more information—for data on the human suffering all around us and also to find stories of resilience and hope. We could ask the victims of the prison industrial complex which locks up more African Americans in the U.S. today than were ever enslaved. In the last 30 years, California has built 20 new prisons and just one new college campus. Fortunately, there is a growing movement to bring about profound change in this state and across the country. Perhaps there are ways for Old First and other congregations to create spaces for conversations about these efforts to dismantle what has been called the “New Jim Crow.” We could ask veterans who have given heart, body and soul for this nation and continue to suffer, often silently, from PTSD, leading some to take their own lives at a staggering rate. Or we could ask a child whose parents have been deported due to our country’s “detain and deport” policies. Or we could more aggressively and honestly speak up about economic inequality, and lift up the voices of those who have endured enormous hardship from one generation to another. Or we could talk with victims of human trafficking and learn more about ways to be part of a contemporary abolitionist movement. We could talk with scientists about climate change and the opportunities that abound for cutting emissions and investing in clean energy. One might say, wait a minute, wait a minute, this is politics!  What does this have to do with the gospel? Everything. These are the stories of real life human beings, perhaps even the stories of people you and I both know or pass by on the street or sit with on the bus or participate in your inspiring Interfaith Food Pantry. These stories may even be your story.  They are certainly the story of our world, nation, state and city.  And most importantly to us who gather each week in Jesus’s name, these are the stories of the living breathing Body of Christ.  These are some of the scars and wounds suffered, endured and hopefully, with God’s help, overcome. It is through reaching out and allowing ourselves to be moved by the witness of others that we encounter the truth in front of us—the resurrected One in our midst.
Today, instead of an abstract theological discussion of sin, predestination or bodily resurrection, the church throughout the world listens to the story of frightened disciples becoming emboldened apostles, of a man left out, finding his role in leading others to Jesus. May we hear from Thomas and Jesus an invitation to deeper conversation, greater vulnerability, more honest engagement and living hope—not just for ourselves, but for the world that God so loves. May we, when we doubt, find truths, even if they be painful reminders of our total depravity, in front of us, inviting us to life in Jesus’s name. May we become witnesses to resurrection by giving loving attention to the human details of one another’s real lives.  

In closing I want to share a poem by a Presbyterian/Episcopalian from Yale Divinity School named Thomas Troeger. 

These things did Thomas count as real:
the warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
the grain of wood, the heft of stone,
the last frail twitch of flesh and bone.

The vision of his skeptic mind
was keen enough to make him blind
to any unexpected act
too large for his small world of fact.

His reasoned certainties denied
that one could live when one had died,
until his fingers read like Braille
the markings of the spear and nail.

May we, O God, by grace believe
And thus the risen Christ receive,
whose raw, imprinted palms reach out -
and beckoned Thomas from his doubt.

-Thomas Troeger
copyright 1994 Oxford University Press

sermon preached Sunday, April 27, 2014 at Old First Presbyterian, San Francisco 
by the Reverend Will Scott