Sunday, May 27, 2012

i HATE pentecost

To listen online:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Every once in a while I sit down to write a sermon and get stuck. And I’ve got a low threshold for stuck-ness. I don’t have time for it. Four hours waiting, just staring at a blank screen is not my idea of a good time, but that’s what happened Wednesday.

And not for lack of preparation – I read the readings. I made notes. I read commentaries. But nothing clicked. So I browsed through old sermons hoping to recycle one. But I decided you deserve better. Plus, I didn’t have any – this is my first time preaching on Pentecost. And so I returned in despair to the blinking cursor. And 45 minutes later out it came, a much louder than I anticipated. “I hate Pentecost.”

It was funny. People in the office literally thought “the formation guy” was having a breakdown. But I wasn’t – I was having a breakthrough. Because, it’s true – I really do hate Pentecost.

You see Pentecost is about the initiative of God’s Holy Spirit. God sends the wind. God sends the fire. God comes to us. In other words, God is in control! And at a deep, deep level I hate that because I want to be in control. I am not always convinced that God knows what He’s doing. So I habitually decide to step in and help Him out.

For example, God says something like, Forgive seventy times seven. My reply is, “God, you may want to rethink that one – it’s not healthy to be a doormat?” Clothe the naked, God says. But I object. “Where they live is dangerous.” Share the Gospel with your friends. No thanks God, I want to keep my friends. In other words, God says, “Don’t eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil.” And our response is always to say “we know what’s good for ourselves, we’re in control,” and so we eat the fruit. And as a result “we fall.”

That’s what “the fall” is about after all – rebellious humanity seizing control, and it doesn’t end with Genesis 3, but with Genesis 11 – the story of Babel. And actually, today’s reading from Acts is playing off of Genesis 11. Because – Pentecost is a reversal of Babel. You see in Genesis 11 humanity decides they want to build a city, and in the midst of that city they plan to build a tower that reaches the heavens. But, as the story goes, God knocks the tower down, the people scatter, and everyone ends up confused. And I think the point here is that whatever city we build – the image, the achievements, the dreams, the pursuits, you know “the city” – it is always reduced to nothing.

And so here’s what I’ve come to believe about Pentecost. Pentecost asks us to shift our deepest hope from the city we do see to the city we don’t (2X).

You see Pentecost, which predates Christianity, commemorated two things in Judaism: First, the giving of the Law, where God came down at Mount Sinai. Second, Pentecost was the feast of “first fruits.” At the beginning of the harvest, people brought “the first fruits” of their crop to the temple to eat them in thanksgiving to God. The first sheaf was merely an installment of the massive harvest they would enjoy in the future.

And that’s exactly where the church is today. We have an installment – “the first sheaf” of the heavenly city we’re waiting for. Listen again to what Paul says in today’s reading from Romans:

We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the belief that, when the curtain on history closes, a heavenly city will descend to this earth and that God will eliminate pain, death and fear forever. That’s the Christian hope – “the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” as we say in our Creed. But, as we all know a bit too well, it hasn’t happened yet, and the entire creation will continue to groan – as will we – until it does. Our life is lived between promise and fulfillment. We don’t yet see fulfillment. But, what we do have is an installment – the “first fruits” of the Spirit. And that’s what Pentecost is all about.

Now I hope you know I was being a little facetious in saying that I hated Pentecost. But here’s what I meant. In a world of pain, fear and death, of course we want to control things to minimize pain, and not feel afraid, and to keep death as far away from our conscious mind as possible. But to live a Spirit-filled life, we cannot climb up. God must come down, and that means there’s something we have to let go of – control.

And so here’s the word I’d like to give you that best captures what Pentecost is all about: relinquishment. It’s a word that means to renounce, to surrender, to let go of, to release. And I want you to be present to double-meaning here. We renounce control, God releases God’s Spirit. And if we think about it, relinquishment is at the heart of the Christian Gospel. Jesus relinquished the privileges of godhood, reduced himself to nothing and took the form of a slave (Phil 2). Think of Gethsemane. “The bloodlike sweat falling to the ground. The human longing for the cup to pass. The final relinquishment: Not my will, but your will be done. (Luke 22: 39-46) In Jesus we see the complete surrender of the human will. You see Jesus Christ was many things. But one thing he wasn’t was in control (John 5:19).

Now, you might be wondering why this really matters. Right? Why not manage our own lives, stay out of people’s way, give a little money to the church, chart our own course, find our own dream, mind our own manners, and then die, go to heaven and let God take the wheel from there. Well, two things I’d like to say about that.

First, there are two views of what it means to live a fully-human, abundant life. The Western view, which says maximize pleasure and ease, minimize pain and discomfort, be nice, follow the rules, and pursue your own dream. And then, there is Jesus’ view – lose your life for me and for the sake of the Gospel and you’ll find it. Seek first the Kingdom of God and everything else will be added to you. Now hard as we may try to mesh these two views together, they’re incompatible. Abundant life is with found in Jesus’ way of relinquishment, or it isn’t. I submit that it is.

Second, the continual practice of relinquishment brings us to a priceless treasure – and that’s the crucifixion of the human will, which is what “Christian formation” is all about. God doesn’t want to destroy our will but transform it so that in time we come to freely will what God wills and to love what God loves, which by the way frees us from the tyranny of the self-sins that oppress us: self-sufficiency, self-pity, self-absorption, self-deception, self-depreciation, self-hatred, and a thousand more like them. Because losing our life, giving up control, is always a means to an end. The “end game” is always finding our life – abundant life – in Jesus through the power of the Spirit. As Søren Kierkegaard once put it, “God creates everything out of nothing – and everything which God will use he first reduces to nothing.” His point – our stubborn, rebellious will must be nailed to a cross with Jesus.

I do appreciate how hard relinquishment is. Trusting God with our family and reputation and money and deepest needs – that’s hard. It’s a lot easier to try and control those things ourselves – to build our own city. But remember, the city we build – the image, the achievements, the dreams, the pursuits –it’s always reduced to nothing. And that’s why Pentecost asks us to shift our deepest hope from the city we do see to the city we don’t.

God knocked Babel down. Do you trust God enough to let Him knock you down? Enough to let him come down? In other words, can we come to this meal – a mere installment of the great celebration that we’ll enjoy in the future – and ask that God break us like the bread we receive? I know. It’s hard. And that’s why we hate Pentecost. It’s a lot easier to build a tower than it is to wait for adoption.

And so let me leave you with a prayer written by Richard Foster.

O Lord, how do I let go when I’m so unsure of things? I’m unsure of your will, … I’m sure of myself. [But] that really isn’t the problem at all, is it? The truth … is I hate the very idea of letting go. I really want to be in control. No, I need to be in control. I’m afraid to give up control, afraid of what might happen. Heal my fear, Lord. AMEN.

Monday, May 7, 2012



Jesus said, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word I’ve spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you.

So here’s the question I’d like to wrestle with this morning. How does spiritual growth happen? And of course the sister question – how does it not happen?

And here’s the paradox that makes talking about this so hard. Spiritual growth is not something we do, and yet there is something we must do! “My father is the vine grower!” It’s God’s work. “Unless you abide in me you will not grow.” It’s our work. That’s the paradox of spiritual formation. It is first and foremost God’s work! It’s our work.

And so first, spiritual growth isn’t something we make happen. And this is important for us to hear because most of us, when we decide to make a change, only have one plan – we roll up our sleeves and we try really, really hard. The only problem is that our willpower is actually pretty impotent. And I know that runs counter to what we’ve been told – “you can do anything you set your mind to!” But Christian Gospel would say that actually that’s not true. In the long run, trying harder to be like Jesus is a pretty poor strategy. Right? Because – we’ll either fail and feel shame, and upon feeling shame use something unhealthy to medicate our shame. Or worse, we’ll succeed, and feel pride, and eventually come to look down on people that don’t quite have it all together like we do. But either way, we’ve spiritually regressed. Because – before Jesus ever asks us to get out there and do what he did, Jesus asks us to submit to the Father’s pruning so that we can acquire His heart. Remember, the Pharisees were on a mission to change everyone. And they were unbearable.

And so spiritual growth isn’t primarily something we do. There is a big difference between bearing fruit and being productive. As Henry Nouwen once put it,

“In our contemporary society, with its emphasis on accomplishment and success, we often live as if being productive is the same as being fruitful. Productivity gives us a certain notoriety and helps take away our fear of being useless. But if we want to live as followers of Jesus, we must come to know that products, successes, and results often belong more to the house of fear than the house of love.” (Lifesigns, 48-49)

What Nouwen actually says here is revolutionary. He says our need to achieve and produce – whether in the world or in the spiritual life – more often than not comes not from a place of love, but a place of fear. You see I think our big problem is that we’re terrified that we have no value and so we try and produce it. We make the grades, we volunteer, we excel, we serve. Like the story of Babel in Genesis 11, we build not a tower but an image, and we take that into the world. And we say subconsciously what they did. “Let us make a name for ourselves.” After all, if we don’t make a name for ourselves – by being a good person or by making more money or by always being the funny one or perhaps getting a shinier – what will give us value? I’m reminded of the story of Martha and Mary in Luke chapter 10. Martha stays busy! She’s really productive serving Jesus, while Mary just sits adoringly at Jesus’ feet. And it’s Mary, according to Jesus, that chose the better part, which makes us wonder who Martha was really serving in the first place.

Spiritual growth isn’t something we do, and yet, we all know we have a part to play. And so where do we begin?

Well, I think first we need to hear, and keep returning, to what Jesus says in verse 3 – “you have already been cleansed.” The first thing that’s got to go is the idea that we’ve got something to prove, or that God will meet us halfway, but that we’ve got to do the rest. Babel is about making a name for ourselves. Baptism is about receiving a new name through grace. In fact, twice in the Bible God cries out, “it is finished!” The first is in creation, on the 7th day, and the second is from the cross. The point is that both creation and redemption belong to God and as far as the Bible is concerned they’re finished! Has the drama of salvation fully been played out yet in our lives or in our world? NO. But as Paul says in Philippians, “he who began a good work in you” – that is, God – will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus. It’s finished. You have already been cleansed.

And here’s why this matters. Jesus says God wants to prune us. Now, that’s a painful image. The point is we don’t escape the knife. This means that in order to grow we have to be willing to face those things inside of us that we’re ashamed of and bring them into the light. We need to confess those things to God. We need to confess those things to each other. And that’s scary, which means we need a firm understanding that we’ve already been cleansed. Our identity, our name, is not tied to what we do, but to what God in Christ has already done for us.

That’s step 1 – knowing we’ve got nothing to prove.

Second, Jesus says abide. 8 times in 8 verses Jesus uses this word to describe the part we play in our spiritual growth. And this is a word that means “actively seek to remain.” We are to actively seek to remain in Jesus.

And so there are two key ingredients I’d like to point out – “abiding 101.” The first is authentic community where vulnerability is the norm. I don’t mean just going to church. I mean having a group of people where we’re in the habit of taking off our masks to confess where we need to be pruned. And so a personal example, I’m a control freak because at a deep, deep level part of me doesn’t believe that God is competent. And on top of that, my fear of abandonment can make me a spineless people-pleaser. Oh yea, and I also have an anger problem. Now, I did not know these things about myself last year. God only knows what I’ll discover next, but, it’s the knowledge that I’ve already been cleansed that will give me the courage to look.

Because – the way of God is the way of weakness. There was nothing “productive” about the crucifixion. But it did bear fruit. You see only in becoming small and weak and vulnerable could God save us. And so surely, this must mean something for our life together. We must learn to be honest and authentic and vulnerable. We are all branches on the same vine. We only abide in community.

But second, I believe it’s impossible to abide in Jesus unless Scripture becomes the primary lens through which we view life. And for a lot of us I know this is intimidating. But Jesus is clear – the way we abide in him is to let His words abide in us. You see the only way to stop trying to make a name for ourselves is to keep return to that sacred book that is so eager to name us. According to Ephesians we’re God’s masterpiece. According to Jeremiah God knit us together in the womb. According to 1 John we’re God’s beloved children. According to Matthew we’re the light of the world. Now, I’m sure you already know those things. But do you know those things? We abide in Jesus to the extent that his words abide in us.

And as we abide the Father will do His work. Apparently when Michelangelo was asked how he carved his magnificent David, he apparently replied, “I looked inside the marble and just took away the bits that weren’t David.”

Each one of us is like a wonderful block of marble. Our job is to abide. God’s job is to chisel. We are the clay, Isaiah says and God is the potter.

And so as you go out into the world this week, here’s what I leave you with. Trust. Trust that you’ve already been cleansed and don’t have anything to prove. Trust Jesus enough to actively remain in Him, which at a minimum requires authentic community and a continual return to scripture. Trust that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus. In God’s mind the statue, His masterpiece, is finished.

I am the true vine, Jesus said, and my Father is the vine grower. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word I’ve spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you.