Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Lutheran Visitor on Trinity Sunday

Even though I am on vacation, I really did want to worship on Trinity Sunday. It was an interesting process to plan for participating in worship - yet not as clergy and not as a part of my job. It caused me to reflect on all the tiny decisions that lay people must make each Sunday, especially when attending a new church for the first time.

First, I had to choose which church to attend. I have two clergy friends in town who are pastors at a Church of Christ and a Presbyterian Church. I thought of going to these churches. Yet, the Presbyterian service (very close to our house) wasn't until 10:45, and I wanted to be home in time for a Father's Day brunch/lunch prepared by my wife. The Church of Christ service, I suspected, would not acknowledge Trinity Sunday, so I opted out of that. Even though I did not know the clergy there, the service at St. Matthew Lutheran Church started at 9:30, which was perfect. Plus, I assumed that Trinity Sunday would be celebrated by the Lutherans. So I made my choice based on those two variables: liturgical tradition & time of service.

Pulling into the church parking lot, I decided against parking in the "visitor spots." I wanted to be less noticeable than that. It made me think of how creating these "visitor parking spots" might have been a big gesture of welcome to this congregation, yet visitors (like me) don't want to be that conspicuous.

I wasn't really sure where the front door was. I did a quick look at the architecture of the church and figured it out. Luckily, when I pulled on the door, I had chosen correctly. The welcoming area was nosily busy with the sounds of a living Body of Christ. Seeing folks with smiles on their faces made me smile, too.

I was 5 minutes early for the service. A man in front of me turned around and asked me if I was new or if I usually attend the early service. I told him that it was my first time at St. Matthew Lutheran Church. He then inquired if I was from another church. I replied: "Yes, I am from St. Alban's Episcopal Church." He then pressed further: "Episcopal is very similar to us. Now refresh my memory: who is the senior pastor over there at St. Alban's?" I then replied: "I am." My cover was blown, yet we shared a laugh. He was very warm and welcoming. So much so that when the worship service began, I felt very much at home.

The whole liturgy was so similar to the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer that I smiled many times during the service. I was glad (and proud) that the Episcopal and Lutheran traditions have agreed to full communion with each other.

At the Peace, a retired Lutheran pastor (who is a friend of mine from the Greater Waco Interfaith Conference) came all the way from the back of the church to greet me. After the service, several folks (who did not know "who I was") greeted me warmly, as well.

My mother and her German ancestors were Lutherans. It was not until the 1940s that our family began migrating toward the Episcopal tradition. Therefore, it was a good Trinity Sunday to re-find my roots and to see church through the eyes of a lay person, if only briefly.

Thank you to the people and pastors of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Waco for welcoming me and allowing me to worship in spirit and in truth. Thank you for God who is known and worshiped in the varied flavors of denominations. Thank you for God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Where There's Smoke, There's Fire

Sermon from June 12, 2011
(The Day of Pentecost – Year A)
Acts 2: 1-21
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Last Thursday afternoon, Susan and I flew back from a few days of vacation in Las Vegas.
On the plane trip back home, we had beautiful views out of the window.
After we departed from Vegas, we saw the desert below us - and then the magnificent sight of the Hoover Dam.
Soon after, we were treated to a bird’s-eye view of the Grand Canyon down below us.

After a while the pilot of the plane made an announcement.
The pilot informed us, saying:
“Folks, if are sitting on the left hand side of the plane, you can look out your window and plainly see the wildfires that are raging through Arizona.”
Susan and I then gazed out of our window down below.
However, I could not see any red or orange flames at all.
But we could very plainly see miles and miles and miles of smoke, billowing up from the parched earth below.
The area covered by the white smoke in Arizona was truly massive.
Yet even though I could not see a single red or orange flame, I could certainly see the smoky effects of this disastrous fire.
For I know that
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Today is the day of Pentecost.
The day of Pentecost was and is a Jewish festival occurring 50 days after Passover.
Therefore, since Passover and Easter coincide, the Day of Pentecost is also 50 days after Easter.
The day of Pentecost seems to be the one Sunday each year when we give a particular shout out to the Holy Spirit, the third person in the Trinity.

The history book in the New Testament, called the Acts of the Apostles, gives us an account of what happened on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection.
In the Acts of the Apostles, it is written:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, the followers of Jesus 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.
Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them.
And all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Back two thousand years ago, many people were in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival.
And upon hearing the sound of the fiery wind of the Holy Spirit, the crowd gathers together in amazement.
The people cannot see red and orange flames of the Holy Spirit.
But the crowd can hear the followers of Jesus speaking in the native languages of the crowd.
The crowd can hear the apostle Peter raise his voice and confidently preach the words of the good news of Jesus Christ.
For even though the crowd on Pentecost morning could not see a single red or orange flame, they could certainly see the smoky effects of this amazing fire of words.
Because where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Today, on this day of Pentecost, as your preacher for the day, I believe that it is part of my job to show you, to convince you, that there is a Holy Spirit.
There is a Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus who is alive and active in our world today.
As your spiritual leader, I do believe that there is more to this world than what meets the eye.
As we say in the Nicene Creed, we believe in all that it is, seen and unseen.

Although most of us will never see the red and orange flames of Pentecost,
We can see the effects of the Holy Spirit.
We can see the smoke that billows up from the fiery Spirit of Jesus.

When Jesus began his earthly ministry, Jesus had a conversation with Nicodemus at night.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Holy Spirit is like the wind.
You cannot see the wind, where it comes from or where it goes.
But we can see the effects of the wind, how it bends tree branches and flutters flags on flagpoles.

So it is with Jesus’ Holy Spirit.
We might not see the wind and the flames.
But we can see the smoking effects of the Spirit.
For where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Sometimes, I wish that you could have my perspective on the people of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church.
Sometimes I wish that you could look out of the airplane window and get a bird’s-eye view of the massive amount of Holy Spirit smoke that is billowing out of the windows and doors of this church.

A few months ago, one man came to my office to tell me that - after worship one Sunday, he turned to his wife and said:
“I don’t know about you, but I believe that the Holy Spirit is doing incredible things at St. Alban’s.
Is it just me? Am I crazy?
Or can you feel the power of God working in this church, as well?”
And his wife turned to him and replied:
“Yes, honey.
I can feel it, too.”

One woman, a life-long Episcopalian, came to my office after Easter Day.
She came to tell me that had felt an energy, a holy and energizing presence, during Easter worship that she had never felt in her life before.
As she drove away from this church on Easter morning, she had exclaimed to herself:
“O my God, this is what the Holy Spirit feels like!”

Another woman, a woman named Debbie Williams, also came to my office after Easter.
She told me that she wanted to be baptized.
And so we are baptizing her today, baptizing her with water and with fire.

My brothers and sisters, I can see smoke pouring out all over this place!

Therefore, I do not need to see the Holy Spirit.
I do not need to see the Holy Spirit, because I see the smoking effects of God’s Spirit working in you.
I see the massive clouds of smoke pouring out of these windows and doors and I know that Jesus is alive.
I know, I know, that where there is the smoke of God’s love, there is also the fire of Jesus’ Spirit.

However, the Holy Spirit was not poured out on Pentecost morning just to give the followers of Jesus a warm and fuzzy feeling.
The Church, throughout the ages, messes up over and over again when we think that the Holy Spirit is here to just make us feel good and self-important.

The real reason that we are ignited by the Holy Spirit is so that, like a wildfire, the smoke of Jesus’ message will billow outside of these walls, outside of Jerusalem, outside to the very ends of the earth.
For the risen Jesus’ last words on earth, before he was ascended, were these:
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.
And you will be my witnesses, to the ends of the earth.”

The Holy Spirit is here to give us power, the power to get over ourselves and to love the people whom we find unlovable.
The Holy Spirit is here to give us power, the power to find just the right words to say to someone who is lonely or sick or having a bad day.
The Holy Spirit is here to give us power, the power to open our mouths up and to spread the good news like wildfire that Jesus is alive and he loves everyone!

My friends, the Holy Spirit is here and alive so that the fire of Jesus ignited in us at Pentecost will spread to your home and to your office and to your school and to your neighborhood and to the ends of the earth - even to the other side of the Brazos River.
The Holy Spirit of Jesus is here and alive so that your words of power will fill the room with holy love.
The Holy Spirit is here and alive - to fill the whole world with holy smoke.

For where there’s smoke,
There’s fire.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ascended Future

Sermon from June 5, 2011
(Easter 7 – Year A)
Acts 1: 6-14
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Over Memorial Day weekend, I spent some time with my parents in Houston.
My parents actually still live in the same house that they brought me home from the hospital to as a baby.
When I go to Houston, I even sleep in the same bedroom that was my room as a boy.

One might think that very little has changed in these last 40 plus years.
But every time I go back to Houston, it seems that so many things change.
La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant was a hole-in-the-wall Tex-Mex hangout in a strip center.
La Fiesta was the destination for me and my high school friends as we would sneak off campus for lunch.
However, last weekend, my parents and I drove right past this high school hang-out – yet the whole strip center had been torn down.
I asked my parents:
“What happened to La Fiesta?”

My mom replied:
“Oh, they bulldozed that down a while back to make way for some new loft apartments.”

A little further down the Katy Freeway, I noticed that Prince’s Hamburger’s had closed up.
Prince’s was where we would take our sons when they were little for old-fashioned burgers and milkshakes.
Incredulously, I asked my parents about what had happened to our favorite burger joint.
My dad replied:
“I think that Prince’s lost their lease months ago.”

Driving all over Houston, memories flood my mind of places and buildings and institutions that once were, but are there no more.
Many of the buildings and institutions of my past are now gone forever – and they will never be restored.

In the Book of Acts, the very last question asked of the risen Jesus by his followers is this:
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The followers of the risen Jesus want to go back to the past.
Having been powerfully raised from the dead, Jesus could have easily taken everyone back to their comfortable past.
And as their very last question to the risen Jesus, the followers of Jesus ask him:
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom?

Is this the time, Lord, when you will restore soda fountains and 5 cent postage stamps and cold milk served from glass bottles?
Is this the time, Lord, when you will restore the 1980s utopia of The Cosby Show - and MTV will actually play music again?
Is this the time, Lord, when you will restore our nostalgic fishing boats and our favorite high school Tex-Mex hangout in Galilee?
Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of our past?”

Yet the risen Jesus completely ignores this request for a restoration of the past.
Instead, Jesus responds:
“The past is not to be focused on.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;
And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…and to the ends of the earth.”

And with those final words, Jesus is ascended, beamed up into heaven.
With instructions for the future, Jesus’ body is taken up, as clouds take him out of sight.

Now, of course Jesus wants us to remember our rich past as the people of God.
Jesus wants us to remember his death - and to proclaim his resurrection.
Jesus takes bread and wine at the Last Supper and says:
“Do this in remembrance of me.”
Yet the remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection is not a call to wistful nostalgia, but the remembrance is a call to action, in the future.
For Jesus’ final instructions to us before he is beamed up to heaven is that, in the future, we will receive power, power to proclaim his message of love and hope to the ends of the earth.

During this past week, I had an unannounced visitor come to see me in my office.
This surprise visitor is a pastor who leads a church in the Waco area, but not one of the Episcopal parishes.
This pastor said that he was in the neighborhood, and just thought he’d stop by to chat.

It did not take long for me long to realize that this pastor needed my listening ear, as a friend and as a colleague.
This pastor was disturbed that the members of his congregation are mostly focused on the past - and are rarely focused on the future.
They are not focused on the new people that could be welcomed into the flock – and they are rarely focused on Jesus’ message.
He lamented that his church members are mainly focused on restoring the stained glass windows - and they are perturbed when a visitor sits in “their pew.”
These church members want to hold on to a 1950s model where father knows best and where little girls wear patent leather shoes to church and where women are welcome to bake cookies, but women are not welcome in the pulpit.

At conference and seminars I attend, I hear story after story after story of churches where people want to treat their church as a museum to the past, rather than focus on Christ’s message of power and witness into the future.
These churches, these museums to the past, cling to Jesus’ robes before he ascends into heaven and plead:
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of the past?”

And with an air of dismissal to that misguided question, Jesus replies:
“In the future, you will receive power, power to proclaim my message to everyone.”

Churches and people who focus primarily on past glories - are also churches and people who are dying.
Yet churches and people who focus primarily on a message of hope and love in the future - are also churches and people who are thriving and alive in the Spirit!

Mark my words, in the next 10 to 15 years, we will see church after church after church shut their doors and close - because people are so preoccupied with Jesus restoring the “good old days.”
For Jesus’ final message to us before he ascends has nothing to do with preserving the institution of the Church.
But Jesus’ final message to us before he ascends has everything to do with a future-oriented power, the power to proclaim his message.
And Jesus’ message is that everyone is forgiven and loved.

And Jesus’ final message before he ascends into heaven does not just pertain to churches.
Jesus’ future-oriented message is for individuals, as well.
The question is whether we are looking backward - or upward.

Do you ask Jesus to restore the kingdom of your former glories?
Do you plead with Jesus to restore the days when you won trophies and blue ribbons in life?
Do you tug at Jesus’ robe to restore the days when your stomach was flat and your hair was full?
Do you prefer to focus on your past, rather than Jesus’ final words of hope as he ascends?

For from now and into the future, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you;
And you will proclaim Jesus’ message…to the ends of the earth.

So do not dwell on demolished restaurants and vacant glories from your past that will never be restored.
But break down the walls of human institutions - and receive the power of Jesus to love all people.
Do not be curators of a museum dedicated to the past.
But open the temple of your heart to forgiveness and love and hope for everyone.

Do not look back to the past.
But look up,
To an ascended future.


Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Energy You Bring into this Space

I took a few days at the end of May to spend time with my parents in Houston. One of my mother’s favorite shows is the Oprah Winfrey Show. On May 25, Oprah broadcast her last show and I watched the show with my Mom. Oprah’s last show was actually a monologue, with no guest stars, no car giveaways. She imparted some of the lessons that she had learned in 25 years of hosting her show. I was impressed that Oprah gave a teaching, instruction for life using plain language and real examples. Essentially, Oprah gave a very effective sermon.

In her “sermon,” one of the nuggets of wisdom that Oprah shared was something she learned years ago from one of her guests, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. Dr. Taylor told Oprah that a lesson for life is this:

Please take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space.

Everyone has energy. Some people have energy that is upbeat and optimistic. Others have an energy that is pessimistic and defeated. I have known some people who, just by walking into a room, can either suck the life out of the room, or can fill the room with radiant joy.

Jesus has energy, as well. And Jesus takes responsibility for the energy he brings into the room. To the Pharisees and religious muckety-mucks, Jesus is responsible for his energy that calls us to task for injustice, bigotry and hypocrisy. To prostitutes and tax collectors, Jesus is responsible for his energy that calls us to forgiveness and grace. To everyone, Jesus is responsible for his energy of tough love that calls us to lay down our lives for our friends, even on a cross.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the energy that I bring into a room. At home, do I bring an energy of engagement with my family, or a preoccupation with things from earlier in the workday? At my work, do I bring an energy of optimism, or of pessimism? At church, do I bring into worship an energy that is ready for prayer and praise, or a mind packed with a to-do list for Sunday afternoon?

To me, a good thing (no, a great thing) about being a Christian, is that the Spirit of Jesus helps me to bring a more loving and merciful energy into spaces. The Holy Spirit, when invited, can fill in the gaps where Jeff Fisher’s energy falls short, so that Jesus’ Spirit of Love can assist me to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.

This summer, I invite us to ponder the energy that we bring into our homes, into our workplaces, into our places of leisure, into this church. When our own energy seems to fall short, invite the energy and power of Jesus (aka the Holy Spirit) into the space, as well.

Take responsibility for your own energy - and invite Jesus’ energy into the spaces of your life.