Monday, July 17, 2017
The Grace of Doing Nothing
July 17, 2011
Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
Two years ago, when we were moving Mickey into his first college dorm room, the R.A.s had put a cartoon on each door, one of which I simply couldn’t resist going home and finding online and copying to my own files. It was a stick figure cartoon, which depicted one person sitting at a desk working furiously on a computer and another person talking from outside of the picture. The first voice asks, “Are you coming to bed?” The person at the desk answers, “I can’t this is important.” First voice asks, “What?” And the person at the desk says, “Someone is wrong on the internet!”
I fell in love with that cartoon because it names my worst tendencies so vividly. I can be a real sucker for getting lured into online arguments, or real life arguments for that matter. I try not to, I try to let it go, I try to roll my eyes, I try to get perspective. But, too often I find myself feeling as if I cannot rest – indeed, the world cannot rest – until I straighten someone else out. Nothing seems more offensive to human nature and God’s very purpose of existence than for someone to throw an obviously wrong idea out there and call it truth.
As you can imagine, someone with the task of setting aright every wrong idea can stay pretty busy, because there is just no end to wrong ideas out there. And, it almost seems as though it is even one’s Christian duty to preserve the truth by standing firm against any idea that might be tainted with untruth. Isn’t it?
Last week, when we ordained Mark Crouch as a new ‘ruling elder,’ I asked him a number of questions, which every elder in this church has been asked upon our ordination. One of those questions is, “Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?” And, I can say, that to this date every elder whom we have ordained has willingly answered that question, “I do.” It is a good answer, but a deceptively simple one. The task of furthering the peace, unity, and purity of the church often seems like a three-fold task that is at odds with itself, rather than a singular one that can be answered with a single answer. Sometimes it only seems possible to further the peace and unity of the church by letting the ‘purity’ clause go. Likewise, sometimes it seems that the only way we can further the purity of the church is to risk the peace and unity of the church by rooting out that which seems to be ill-fitted and unworthy of our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ. So, there often seems to be an internal conflict within that admirable intention of furthering peace, unity, and purity of the church.
That problem gets amplified whenever we think about the church’s role within society at large. The Scriptures often speak of this as the relationship between ‘the church’ and ‘the world.’ If we take, for example, the parable that the reign of God is like leaven that is mixed into the flour of the world until the whole lump of dough is leavened, then we have an image of the church as being called to transform the world around us, rather than simply living side-by-side with it. For many people of faith, that means that it is not just wrong-headed, false, and even harmful ideas within the church that need correcting, but also that we are called to speak up and to try to correct wrong-headed, false, or harmful ideas in the society of which we are a part.
The Presbyterian Church has always understood its role within the world in this kind of transformational way. We don’t have monasteries, where certain religious folk are called to go and to live in self-sustaining communities apart from the community at large. We have never advocated setting up ascetic communes in the wilderness or distinct communities living off of the grid, like many Amish communities. We do not necessarily criticize those expressions of the church. In fact, we often admire them and fully recognize that there are seasons in our lives when we all could benefit from periods of retreat, in order to be less distracted by the cares of the world and more attentive to meditation, prayer, or study. However, the normative mode of being the church in our tradition is not the church as a community that is physically and economically set apart from the rest of the world, but a church that is fully engaged in the world, however messy and ambiguous that might be. And therein lies the temptation for us to sit at our computers furiously setting every wrong-headed, false, or harmful idea straight. Or, to put it more positively, therein lies our calling to engage boldly in the world, to believe and live as though being a disciple of Jesus Christ really matters in how we engage one another. In that respect, we have every reason to have political involvements that are shaped by our faith, to practice economics in a way that is instructed by our faith, and to engage in civic participation in ways that we can live out our faith.
But, it’s messy. None of us wants to be part of that self-righteous community that only seems to engage the world in order to berate it and to trumpet one’s own understanding as the only right way. I know I don’t want to be aligned with those expressions of faith that act as if the church is opposed to scientific thinking, or that act as if their own interpretation of selective scriptures gives them the right to dictate how everyone else should live. It’s messy, and it is particularly messy when we remember that there have been times in history when ‘the world’ has been way out in front of ‘the church’ in being right about some things. In our own country’s history, many parts of the church had to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting the fact that slavery is immoral. Many parts of the church still have yet to recognize that women have valid gifts and callings of leadership. It is possible to look at many parts of the church and to conclude that it is not transformation, but a hard-headed adhesion to the vanity of its own opinions that dictates how it engages in ‘the world.’
This morning we have the chance to look at one way that the early church approached this messy issue of how the church engages in the world. It comes to us in the form of a parable, which – typically – is a manner of speech that is fluid and opens up numerous possibilities. The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds is a stark example of a church trying to understand its role within the world. And, as you heard, it goes like this: A landowner sowed good wheat seed in his field, but while he was sleeping an enemy came and sowed weeds among them. When his field workers saw that there were weeds growing there, they asked the landowner, “Did we not sow good wheat? Where did these weeds come from?” The landowner perceives that an enemy sowed the weeds. Then, the field workers ask the crucial question: “Then do you want us to go and gather the weeds?” That question and the landowner’s response to that question are not given in the ‘explanation’ that Matthew offers later in this chapter. In fact, that’s the only part of the parable that is not addressed in the explanation. That seems significant, because the focus of the parable is on the end of the age and how God will ultimately judge evil. But, the question of now – the question of the church’s relationship to the weeds – is only found in this question and answer of the parable. And the landowner’s answer is this: “No. Do not go and try to gather the weeds, because in doing so you may uproot the wheat as well.”
In the end, this is a parable that assures the battered Christian community in Matthew’s day that evil will be judged. But, in the mean time, this is a parable that recognizes the church’s inability to uproot every weed without also unintentionally harming the wheat. In that respect, it is a very humbling parable about the church’s role that in our zeal to set the world straight, we might be those very persons who harm the innocent.
Back in 1933, when Japan invaded Manchuria, many people of faith were arguing that the United States should intervene in the Pacific and take action against Japan. In response, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote an article in the Christian Century entitled, “On the Grace of Doing Nothing.” I’ve always read Niebuhr’s article as a modern interpretation of our parable. He argued that too often, in our zeal to “do something!” the church has found itself actually causing more harm than good. So, he argued, there are times when it is an expression of grace to do ‘nothing.’ “Doing nothing,” for Niebuhr was different than “not doing anything.” He was not advocating that one ignore the problem, that one say nothing about the problem, that one act as though the problem did not exist. He was not advocating passivity or apathy as the Christian response to what he clearly saw as an unjust action. Rather, he was saying that just because we can clearly identify something as ‘weed’ among ‘wheat,’ does not mean that we also have the capacity to fix it. In the end, we may do more harm than good by banging furiously on our computers to set every wrong-headed idea on the internet straight. In the end, we may do more harm than good to the name of the Christian church by pretending that we alone understand the true nature of covenant relationships. In the end, our zeal to be right may be precisely what makes us wrong. There are times – and this is a matter of discernment in a messy world – when the best Christian alternative is not decisive action, but the prayerful and grace-filled act of doing “nothing.”
It must have been unsatisfying for those workers to hear that they were not to set about pulling weeds from the field. It is often unsatisfying for us to imagine that it is not our calling to set aright everything wrong. But, there are times that ‘doing nothing’ is the most faithful thing we can do. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Monday, July 10, 2017
God’s Word in Human Voice
July 10, 2011
Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
Tony Campolo once told a story that I will never forget. One day Tony was going to a convention where he was going to speak to a Pentecostal gathering of some sort. And, just before the event started, Tony gathered with the leaders in a room backstage because they wanted to have prayer for him. If you’ve ever been in a Pentecostal prayer group, you’ll know that, while one person is technically ‘leading’ the prayer, everyone prays aloud all at the same time (a nightmarish form of prayer for polite Presbyterians.) One guy in particular was praying quite loudly and he wasn’t even praying for Tony. Tony heard him saying, “Oh, God, please reach out today and touch Bernie Stolzfus.” Then the guy went on to help God figure out who Bernie Stolzfus was and what the problem was. He said, “Oh, God, you know Bernie Stolzfus, who lives in the blue trailer in that first road in the park next exit 40 off the highway. Bernie is struggling and he’s about to leave his wife Elise and he’s just very confused and Elise loves him so much and he just doesn’t realize how much she loves him and wants to work things out with him. Oh, Lord, just reach out to Bernie today and lead him home to that blue trailer in the first road next to exit 40 off the highway.” Tony, of course, has simply left off praying entirely, and is now wondering, “Okay, why are you telling God where Bernie lives? Shouldn’t we assume that God already knows that? And other such questions.” So, eventually, the prayer ends and Tony does his thing and ‘a good time was had by all’ and later he gets in his car to drive back to his home in St. David, Pennsylvania.
As he’s getting near the highway, Tony sees a hitch-hiker. And, while this is often an ill-advised thing to do, Tony decided that the guy looked harmless enough and he offers him a ride. The guy is clearly troubled about something and as they’re making small talk he says that his name is Bernie Stolzfus and he’s heading to the next town. Tony pulled off at the next exit and turned around to head back where they came from. Bernie looked at him puzzled and asked, “What are you doing?” Tony answered, “I am taking you home! Your wife Elise is sitting at home right now crying, wanting to you to come home more than anything else in the world, and you just don’t realize how much she loves you.” And Tony drove to exit 40 and got off the highway and turned onto the first road and drove to a blue trailer. As they pulled up, a weeping Elise came to the door and said, “Bernie, what’s going on?” Bernie looked at her and said, “Honey, we need to talk.” Then, he turned and looked at Tony and said, “How did you know all of this?” To which Tony says, “God told me!” And whenever Tony tells this story and the audience is laughing at his response “God told me!” Tony will look at the audience and add, “And he did.”
So, what, exactly, is “the Word of God” here? Is it a curiously inappropriate prayer, which happens to contain just the right amount of detail which will later serve to help reconcile a couple in crisis? What is this thing we call “The Word of God”?
In many Christian churches, the phrase “the Word of God” is used to signify the Bible itself, this collection of 66 books written across centuries and put together as a collection across other centuries. But, within the Bible itself, the phrase “the Word of God” has a much more dynamic meaning than simply a collection of books. In the Hebrew Scriptures, when the prophets speak of “The Word of the Lord,” they are very clearly speaking of something that is given to them prior to the spoken message, and therefore much more original than any written account of their spoken message. Likewise, in the New Testament, “the Word of God” is not used simply to refer to what we now know as the Bible. In fact, in the Gospel of John, the writer begins by describing “the Word” as something that existed from the beginning with God, and which was the means by which God called all things into being in the first place. And, it was the Apostle Paul who made the excellent distinction between letters written in ink or chiseled on stone and the Spirit that gives life in the message of the gospel. We will, on occasion, use the shorthand of referring to the Bible itself as “the Word of God,” but I have often found it helpful to follow the theologian Karl Barth’s lead and refer to the Bible as that which ‘contains’ the Word of God, but not to equate the Bible with the Word of God. The Word of God is a dynamic, life-giving entity, which might even come in the form of a curiously inappropriate prayer that just so happens to say the right thing.
For the early church, particularly the community to whom the parable that we have read this morning is written, the question of what “the Word of God” is was a pressing question. It is not that they were trying to root out heretics by deciding who was the real “Bible-believing” church and who was not. It is not that they were trying to justify their own point of view on a hot-button topic of the day by equating their perspective with “the Word of God” and everyone else’s perspective with some depraved form of “human wisdom.” Matthew’s community saw itself as a ‘missional community.’ We saw that a few weeks ago when we read the end of Matthew’s gospel and heard them being commissioned to disciple others in the way of Christ, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. They saw their reason for existence, not to build a more impressive church than all of the other churches in town, but to continue the work that Jesus began, preaching, healing, and making God’s reign a reality for others in the world.
But, this was also a community that struggled. Many of them were part of the Diaspora, that dispersion of people out of Jerusalem after Rome attacked the city and destroyed its center, including the great temple. Many of them had not gone out deliberately, but had fled the violence and destruction, leaving as refugees, looking for some kind of sustenance and shelter. This original mission was not a program being smartly led by directors from abroad, but a way of life that was both a scraping to get by and a mission of hope. Their lives were the message, the “Word of God” that they sowed was not a written Bible or even dumbed-down cartoon pamphlets, but a message that was embodied in real living. The “Word of God,” for them, was the dynamic power of living with purpose, even as the world around them was inflamed with violence and despair. When we read of “the Word” in this parable, it is “the Word of God” that was originally embodied in the life of Christ, and then alive in those who saw themselves as “the body of Christ” in the world. And this parable of the Sower is a way of framing what this missional community would experience.
Matthew’s community saw that when “the Word of God” was sown, sometimes it would lay, unattended and never rooted, because some places were beaten down and compacted. When “the Word of God” was sown, sometimes it would take root very quickly, but some ground has never been tilled and the stones along the surface will not allow roots to grow, so the plants would wither in the sun. When “the Word of God” was sown, sometimes it would grow among other more vicious forms of life that overwhelmed it. The same seed, thrown with the same abandon, the same message lived through the same faithful lives, would often come to very different results. And this missional community would experience times of rejection and times of dashed hopes and times of conflict with other concerns. That is just how it is for the missional community. It is not a signal that their message was bad or that they embodied it insufficiently or anything of that sort. That is just how it goes for “the Word of God” in human life.
But, in a twist of hope, there was the seed that fell on good soil. In this parable, the seed that fell on the good soil produced a ridiculous amount of harvest – some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold, and some a-crazy-hundred-fold! This is where some people criticize Jesus, saying that it is obvious that he was a son of a carpenter, and not the son of a farmer. The point, of course, it not whether or not Jesus knows reasonable yields for seeds. The point is that the missional community – with all of their struggles and failures – can take heart, because under the right conditions “the Word of God” produces abundant life, so abundant that it provides enough, despite those dry and barren patches.
That is the hope that sustains us when we find ways to spread the dynamic “Word of God” with abandon. The results may lie far outside of our influence, but the hope is that, by God’s grace, the harvest is plentiful. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Tuesday, June 6, 2017
Lying, Doubting and Sending
May 5, 2013
Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
We come this morning to the last of our Easter stories that we’ve been reading together since Easter Sunday. What we’ve seen is that different communities have found similar, but different ways of telling the Easter story. We’ve read in John’s gospel how Jesus reconciles with a chastened Simon Peter, who has three opportunities to express his love for Jesus, even if the best he can do is to express friendship rather than deep God-like love. We’ve read in Luke’s gospel how the community moves from a mixture of terror and amazement to sheer joy as Christ commissions them to tell what they have seen and heard. We’ve read a curious ending that was added to Mark’s gospel – some years later, I would argue – that testifies how an early Christian community experienced the presence of the risen Christ as they continued the message and work of Jesus long after the resurrection. Today we’ve read Matthew’s gospel, which is the most popular Easter story for many churches, because it contains what has become known as “the Great Commission.” In each of these Easter stories, we’ve seen an alarming degree of frankness, of people struggling with their doubts and hoping against hope that the resurrection of Christ can empower their community after the death of Christ dealt such a devastating blow to them.
Some folks would be bothered by the fact that not all four gospels give the exact same details about the resurrection. Since it is the resurrection that gives meaning and hope to the devastating story of the cross, we – who are children of a very different way of telling stories – want all four gospels to say the exact same thing so that we can base our faith on something that we consider verifiable and certain. What this collection of Easter stories gives us is quite different. They tell the story in a way that invites us to peek back behind the text and to see some of the reality that the early Christian community was dealing with as they lived their faith under some very trying circumstances. We saw in Mark’s gospel how an early Christian community found itself strangely empowered as it dared to take up that same message of repentance and forgiveness that got John the Baptizer and Jesus killed. We saw in John’s community how those who had failed so miserably were reconciled and assured that Christ was still with them. We saw in Luke’s community how the Christian community remained in Jerusalem and from there it would spread out to the farthest reaches of the Empire in the book of Acts. These stories let us see Christ resurrected by letting us visit those communities that rose up with new life after the devastation of the cross. These communities, which had been dealt such a staggering blow with the execution of Christ, were not in hiding, they were not cowed, and they had no illusions of being perfect. They were fearful, devastated people who found new life and boldness through the continuing presence of Christ. To me, these various testimonies of different communities finding new life after the cross is exactly the resurrection story that gives the cross meaning.
So, today we read Matthew’s gospel and we see the kind of challenges that this early church community was facing. First, there were the rumors. We have seen, repeatedly, in El Salvador how the honest intentions and humble work of a people can be derailed by rumors. What begins as a lie – or, at least as someone’s very partial perspective that misrepresents the whole truth – becomes “true” only by virtue of the fact that ‘so and so’ heard ‘so and so’ say ‘such and such’ so many times over that eventually it is accepted as fact. And then, to try to correct the rumor seems only to give is some kind of legitimacy. The early church was not immune from the power of a lying tongue. They actually had to describe to people something as silly as, “No. We did not sneak to the tomb while the guards were asleep, roll a tremendous stone away from the mouth of the tomb, pick up a dead body, and carry it off quietly enough not to wake up these guards.” Rumors have a way of bringing us all to a ridiculous level, which is why James was certainly correct when he described the power of the tongue by saying, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” The early church lived with rumors that questioned their integrity and message.
Second, they lived with their own doubts. There is probably no more genuine expression of faith than Matthew’s resurrection story that says when they saw Jesus, they worshipped, and they doubted. Bible translators and commentators do all kinds of gymnastics to try to avoid the plain translation of this text, that they worshipped and they doubted. If we operate on the assumption that worship and doubt are incompatible, then I suppose we have to come up with a clever resolution to this problem. But, if we accept that this early community was both a worshipping community and a community that harbored questions along the way, this is not a problem. It is a candid expression of the life of faith, which is often dogged with unanswerable questions. I suspect that the church has long been comprised of two types of believers: Those whose trust in Jesus allows them to admit that they have doubts; and those who think faith means that they cannot admit that they have doubts. What I don’t suspect has ever been true of the church is that it has been a community of folks who never harbor any doubt. That sounds almost sub-human and unworthy of the dignity of intellect that God has given humanity. The early church faced rumors; and their trust in Christ included the honesty of their doubts.
Finally, the mark of the church in Matthew’s community was that despite the rumors from without or the doubts from within they were a community with a mission. The language that is en vogue these days, which I think is wonderfully accurate, is that the church is a “missional community.” As Emil Brunner put it, “The church exists for mission as fire exists for burning.” It is our essential nature that we are here for a purpose and not simply to benefit ourselves. George Hunsberger has described it well by comparing the missional church to the “vendor” shape of many churches. The “vendor” church is a place where “members” expect “the church” to provide certain goods and services to them. The “vendor” church is divided into a small group of providers and a large group of consumer. The “missional” church, on the other hand, is not divided. We all gather alike as those who are sent into the world to bear the joy and justice of the gospel. The “missional” church worships the God who sent prophets, who sent Jesus Christ, and who sends us into the world in service. That is how Matthew’s gospel ends, with Matthew’s community giving witness that the church is the “missional” community, called together in worship and sent into the world to share the joy and justice of God’s reign.
When we read Matthew’s Easter story, we get a glimpse of an early Christian community’s experience of the risen Christ. But, as many of you have already perceived, it is not a history lesson of a community that is now dead and gone. It is a story of the church, of our church. I will admit that if we are deficient in any way compared to Matthew’s church, it’s this: We don’t have a lot of rumors that are attacking our character – that I know of. (I don’t know about you, but I feel no need whatsoever to ‘fix’ that part of our story.) But, we are a community that has questions and we do know what it means to worship and doubt all in the same moment. And we are, by all means, a “missional” community. Whether it is our collective missional work – when we prepare meals and serve at the shelter, or when we work together to enhance the life and community of our sisters and brothers in El Salvador – or, whether it is the missional work that one of us carries out in counseling bereaved persons and another carries out in fixing damaged cars, and another carries out in promoting healthy diets. We are a sent community and to be part of this community means to be part of the worship and work, celebrating and living out God’s reign here on earth. So, this morning, we gathered around a family and Adriana child, offering ourselves as partners in their journey together. We know that when we baptize a child, we make it our place to encounter every child as a “beloved child of God,” regardless of their nationality, their sexuality, or whether they are in our ‘tribe’ or not. When we break bread together, we are undertaking a mission to see that all are fed and not just we who happen to be here at this table. Everything we do as a community empowers and prepares us as we go to make disciples and to bring the joy and justice of God’s reign to our world.
Thanks be to God for the witness of Matthew’s community. Thanks be to God for the plethora of Easter stories. Thanks be to God that the risen Christ continues to live among us, calling us, empowering us, and sending us into the world with purpose and mission. Amen.
Sunday, May 28, 2017
Acts 1:1-8; Acts 2:1-21
June 8, 2014
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
[After our Scripture reading, we will all read aloud a portion of the Pentecost story, in our own voice at our own pace. Each of us reading, but not in unison.]
As a child, growing up in the Pentecostal Holiness Church, this story was very familiar to me – particularly verses 1-4. We used to joke about how, if a Pentecostal Holiness person dropped her Bible, the spine was broken so that it would hit the ground and automatically open to Acts 2. But, honestly, we mostly read verses 1-4. In fact, I think many of us memorized Acts 2:4, second only to John 3:16 – and a close second! We read this verse and memorized it because it was, for us, the proof positive that everybody was supposed to be “filled with the Spirit” and “speak in other tongues.”
As an adult, living and working in the Presbyterian Church, I have found numerous persons who have had various encounters with the kind of experience that my Pentecostal roots would talk about. Some have had that deep abiding sense of God’s presence in a way that was very palpable and life-changing. Others have had the experience of ‘speaking in tongues,’ which is one of those things that you can hardly understand, much less explain to someone who has not been there. Others actually admire and have a longing for the kind of zeal and zest that Pentecostals have – the enthusiastic worship and the boldness for evangelism. And even the most starchy and anti-Pentecostal Presbyterians among us at least appreciate that, in some way, we are supposed to be a church that is “filled with the Spirit.”
So, this morning, I’d like for us to spend time with our Pentecostal brothers and sisters in the first four verses of this story as we ask, “What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit?”
This story begins with an incredible phrase, which as close to literal as possible reads: “In the fulfilling the Day of Pentecost …”. It is a very awkward phrase, which most translators and commentators simply treat as a calendar reference, like, “When the day of Pentecost had come …” That makes the story more readable, but I believe that we lose something powerful about this story when we translate it that way. The narrator says that what happened that day in Jerusalem is the fulfillment of the Day of Pentecost. So, before we read on, we should make sure that we know what the expectations were for the day of Pentecost, in order to see what exactly is fulfilled by this story.
The Day of Pentecost was an annual Jewish celebration and began as a harvest feast. Back before Jerusalem became a large city, with lots of people living there, the people of Israel were mostly agrarian people, farming communities with large, family-owned fields. As subsistence farmers, the city was not where the people lived. It was where they would gather on occasion – perhaps to worship, perhaps to decide matters of the common good, or perhaps to visit the market to barter and exchange goods. One reason people would make a pilgrimage to the city each year, was for the Feast of Pentecost, also known as the “festival of weeks.” The word Pentecost is based on the word for “50,” because after the celebration of the Passover, the people would count of 49 days – that is seven weeks or seven sevens – and the next day, the 50th day, they would celebrate. It would be about the time that the grain had been harvested, so they would bring two loaves of bread, which the priests would ‘elevate’ and wave around as part of the celebration. It was a reminder of how dependent these farming folk were on God’s gifts of rain and sunshine, in order to have as successful harvest.
Of course, anyone who has ever farmed knows that farming is a perilous activity. One can depend on rain and sunshine, but not always in the right proportions. Flood and drought mean that every now and then a crop is ruined. And when one’s crops are sustenance crops, it is a tragedy. Food is scarce, prices are high, and one has nothing to pay anyway, because the farm is all one has. So, you mortgage, sell, and many folks eventually lose their land and become landless squatters. It happened a lot, which is why the celebration of Pentecost was not just a liturgical event. It had ethical implications. In the book of Leviticus, where the instructions for how to celebrate Pentecost correctly are given in minute detail, the tone changes to the responsibilities of those who are enjoying a full harvest: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.”
So, the practice was that when the harvesters would walk through the fields gleaning the wheat and gathering them in sheaves, the landless folk would be waiting. After the harvest, they would go on the land and anything that remained or was dropped was theirs to keep. (That is where the phrase “2nd Harvest” gets its meaning.) What the celebration of Pentecost said was that the reapers were to reap in a way that the poor and landless would have plenty and not scarcity. They were not to reap efficiently, but sloppily. If they dropped a sheaf, they were not to go and pick it up again. And there was no protest – “Hey, but that’s MY wheat!” because the Lord God had given them the land and the dirt and the rain and the sunshine. The liturgy, then, gave the people the right disposition for their ethics. If you thank God for the abundance, then you have no claims for hoarding. Be generous as God is generous.
That’s what the Day of Pentecost was all about – recognizing that every good gift comes from God and then turning around and living with that kind of grace. So, when the narrator says that what happened in the book of Acts was “the fulfilling of the day of Pentecost,” it means that it is more than a “spiritual experience” or a liturgical moment. It is the realization of a community that is given to grace, where the laudable phrases of our worship are not empty but filled with meaning by living toward justice.
By the time we get to verse 4, when the narrator says that “all of them were filled,” now we have some content for what that means. Each person in that house was an embodiment of that Spirit of justice, mercy, and grace. Each of them found their tongue and began to speak – as the crowd later attests – of the mighty deeds of God. The narrator later describes the community as a community that held all things in common and where nobody was deprived of anything. What it means to be filled with the Spirit is to participate in that fulfillment of God’s vision for justice, security for those who have food insecurity. It is a way of living that sees everything as a gift from God, not so that we can say, “See, God provides for us and not for you,” but that we can say, “God provides for us, so, here, now God provides for you.” It’s radical because we like to think that we are self-made people and that everything we have is ours alone and woe be to anyone who tries to say otherwise. Perhaps one reason why this Spirit blows in with such force and power is because it is radically changing our psychology and our sociology. Everything is God’s. Including me. Including all that I have. And including those who are without.
May God’s Spirit blow into this place, transforming us into the kind of community that lives toward a grace-filled justice. May we say, on this day Pentecost is fulfilled and each of us is filled with that Spirit. Amen.
Acts 1:6-11; John 17:1-11
May 27/28, 2017
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
[Prior to reading John 17:1-11. “It is Jesus’ prayer that we will be one. To do that, we need a whole new way of seeing the world and seeing one another. I pray that we will have that before we leave this room today.”]
I was listening to a fascinating interview once while driving down the freeway into Des Moines. Of all things, it was Terri Gross – whose show “Fresh Air” is celebrating its 30th year of broadcasting this month – interviewing a baker. It was a man who bakes bread for a living. Bread baking is a bit of a lost art in our time, when it is so easy and convenient simply to grab a loaf along with everything else at the market. And while some of you may still, occasionally or regularly, bake your own bread, most of us have simply given up on the process because it can be so time-consuming and can actually turn out pretty badly if we don’t do it well. So, this interview was fascinating because here is someone who bakes bread each day, walking through the process and identifying not simply the recipes or the steps, but the whole nature of what is happening to the ingredients as they are mixed together into one common ball of dough.
And, it’s a little bit horrifying. There’s the carbohydrate starch, whose granules are being attacked by the enzymes in the flour. There’s the yeast, which is a live, single-celled fungus that is dormant until it comes into contact with warm water. Once reactivated, yeast begins feeding on the sugars in flour, and releases bubbly carbon dioxide that makes bread rise. In the same process the dough produces alcohol, which is why it smells like beer, and that alcohol is turned into gas during the baking that makes the dough rise even more into a loaf. And meanwhile there are two proteins that get bonded together making a stretchy, gummy gluten, which is why all of these little bubbling explosions don’t simply release out into the world and keeps all of this activity inside of the dough except for those occasional crater or two that pops through the surface. And we dignify this whole process and call it “fermentation,” but we know that underneath that doughy surface that that final, beautiful crusty finish – there’s like this miniature nuclear war taking place right there in our kitchen!
And, it can go badly. Left to their own devices, all of these chemical interactions in the dough are actually aiming toward destruction. What we call “putrefaction” is the same process of fungi feeding off proteins and decomposing them into a million little pieces, releasing putrid-smelling oxidized gasses. And that’s when the baker said something that was so profound I literally took the next exit in order to park somewhere and write it down. He said, “There’s a fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.”
That is probably the best, brief description I have ever heard of what it means to live in time: That fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.
We experience that fine line all the time. Think of the difference between ‘growing up’ and ‘growing old.’ It’s the same process, only at one point it leads to muscular development and at another point it leads to muscular degeneration. The various ways that we speak of “aging” are nice ways of saying, “There’s a fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.” Think of the difference between a “classic” piece of furniture and a piece of junk. What we call “antiquing” is a dignified way of saying “There’s a fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.” Think of those so very groovy those psychedelic-covered new “Living Bibles” from back in the 70’s when people in orange turtlenecks and bell-bottomed pants thought they were the neatest thing in Christianity since the cross necklace. And just imagine all of the churches across the nation now hiding them somewhere because nobody wants them any more than we want to use the word “groovy” and you can’t simply throw away a Bible. What we often call “church closets” is a way of saying, “There’s a fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.” To live in time means that those very same things that seemed once to be bubbling up with new life become the same process degenerating into decay. And it happens to everything that we know – whether we are talking about matter or ideas – so much that we simply accept it as how life is. “Time” is our way of naming that line between fermentation and putrefaction.
Into this normalized expected way of life comes a radical Christian doctrine that defies everything that we know. It’s called “eternal life.” I know. The phrase “eternal life” sounds like a bit of a letdown after I called it a “radical doctrine that defies everything we know,” but that’s partly because we seem to have this phrase all wrong. Let me offer how it is that I think we often hear this phrase and then let me offer another way of hearing it, which I believe capture its real power, particularly as Jesus uses it in his prayer that we have read together.
I think when we hear the phrase “eternal life” we often have in mind the “Energizer Bunny” version of time. Time that just keeps going and going. It’s as if we see time as a solid horizontal line. There’s History over there, but our line begins when we were born ‘here’; we had this tragic experience ‘here’; we finally achieved this goal ‘here’; we had this wonderful blessing ‘here’; face a challenge “here”; went through a change “here”; and finally we die ‘here.’ Aft that, the solid, horizontal line become a broken line where we guess that, either immediately or after the great resurrection day we will continue to live on and on as time keeps going and going and going. And, frankly, the farther out it gets the harder it is to imagine because we’re so accustomed to time as that journey from fermentation to putrefaction. And, to be honest, I think our deepest apprehension may be boredom. Even though the idea of being in the full presence of God and being overwhelmed with glory and alive with praise and worship is beautiful, even that sort of beatific moment seems like it might get a little old after about thirty-seven million years. But, that is, I think how we most often hear the phrase, “eternal life.”
But, what if the phrase “eternal life” pointed not to life in time that just keeps going and going, but life apart from time itself. What if synchronicity – things happening at the same time – and sequence – things happening one after the other; and past, present, and future; and tomorrow, today, and yesterday; and now and then and back then; and all of the other ways that we have grown accustomed to knowing time itself were transcended into what the theologian Paul Tillich famously called “the eternal now.” What if the end is the beginning and the middle and everything in between. What if all of the regrets from yesteryear that cause us pain right now and those fears of tomorrow that cause us anxiety right now were all melded into one single, ongoing way of being called “blessed.” The phrase “eternal life” is not a way of resigning ourselves to this march of time, just for a lot longer than any of us can imagine. It points to something greater than time itself, loosed from the bondage of time, transcending even that process from fermentation to putrefaction. Chris and I had a glimpse of this when one of our children was a maddening, stubborn, and mule-headed two-year-old. And one day, just as I was battling against the desire to throttle him, I looked at her and said, “This is the same personality that will one day allow him to stand up to his friends and say ‘no’ to drugs.”
Or, think of it this way. We tend to think of that timeline as flat. What if eternal life does not intend to length of the line, but the depth of that line at every moment. Every single moment that we experience is not just a step between the last and the next, but is a moment that is filled with eternal meaning, filled with eternal purpose, filled with God’s own presence. It would mean that, even now, even in the most apparently mundane moment of life, even in the storm or the dark or the confusion or the boredom, even then each moment is filled with eternal significance. Because in that moment, God is in you, you are in God, God’s purpose is being worked out in your life, you are a carrier of God’s own spirit.
Before Jesus prayed to God that his followers may be one, he thanked God that God had given him the authority to grant eternal life to his disciples. And he said, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” So I want you to look hard around this room. Every person you see here is living in eternal life. I invite you to look hard at the persons whom you love, with whom you are close. Look them in the eye and don’t stop until see it! Don’t stop until you see the eternal written all over them. And the next time you look into a mirror, you look hard at that persons looking back at you and don’t stop until you see it – that person is filled with eternal life. And it doesn’t matter if you are having a bad day or are in a dark place – remember, Jesus is praying for a bunch of losers in this prayer! It is true because God is faithful, not because we are strong. And when you’ve been able to look into the eyes of someone you love and see the eternal there; when you’ve been able to look into the eyes of the one in the mirror and see the eternal there; then you’ll be able to go out and see the eternal in everyone – the casual friend, the stranger, even the enemy. When we see the eternal in each moment, eternal life in each person, then we can be one, as Jesus and God are one. And that is Jesus’ prayer for you today. Amen.