Thursday, June 08, 2006

1 Corinthians 3:16

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?

Southern U.S. residents would have a different way of rendering this verse:

Do y’all not know that y’all are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in y’all?

When Paul writes passionately about being God’s temple here, he does not mean that we all carry God’s Spirit around inside us individually. Rather, he means that together, we as the church are the dwelling-place for God’s Spirit.

This is quite an important thought. Together, we are building a place where God’s Spirit will live, a place for God’s Spirit to be at home, a home base from which (through us) God’s Spirit will go into all the world in love.

Kinda makes you re-think church, doesn’t it?

At least in our culture, church is considered the kind of thing you do to meet a certain need in your life. Maybe you need to make friends, so you join a church; or you feel the need for something for your kids, something spiritual, so you join a church.

And this is all fine, I suppose. But the fact is that once we grow to a certain level of maturity as Christians, we begin to realize that church isn’t really about us or our needs at all. It’s about giving our all to an intentional community for the community’s sake, so that the whole community is strengthened with God’s Spirit to go and serve.

And so failing to “hold up our end of the bargain” does not only hurt us, but hurts the sturdiness of the temple we’re building together.

Let me encourage you, especially as we head into the summer, to not take the summer off from your faith or your church. Many ministries—at least at Exton—take some Sabbath resting time during the summer. And I for one think that’s OK and healthy.

What’s not healthy is to totally disappear from the church, absent even on weeks you are in town and available. It’s not healthy for you and it sure isn’t good for that temple we’re building together. Together, we want to give God's Spirit a home built with care and love!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Romans 3:16

Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known. (Romans 3:15-17a)

This passage in Romans is part of a series of Old Testament quotations Paul makes to support his idea that all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, are under the power of sin. This particular quotation is from Isaiah 59:7-8.

Paul is not writing here about a specific person. Rather, he quotes Isaiah because to Paul it seems to represent a universal truth about humanity: given the chance, we become violent, leaving behind ruin and misery in our wake, while leaving the path of peace pristine, untrod.

In heaven, I’d like to talk with the Apostle Paul. I suppose I’ll have to get in line to do so. Paul’s strong rhetoric has confounded many for nineteen and a half centuries now.

I think I’d ask him if it’s really as universal as all that. After all, I’m a fairly passive person. I hate conflict, dislike when relationships fracture. Having had a traumatic near-tears episode running over a groundhog in our church parking lot the other day, I will not be swift to shed blood again, much less actual human blood. I have no desire to see other in ruin and misery—in fact, I’m quite willing to be peaceful.
Or am I? There’s a big difference between being passive and being peaceful. A passive person doesn’t mind if blood is shed as long as he doesn’t have to clean it up. A passive person doesn’t mind ruin and misery of another as long as she doesn’t have to look at the overwhelming pathos of the situation. A passive person doesn’t mind if a relationship fractures as long as it maintains the appearance of being whole. A passive person doesn’t mind conflict as long as it never comes to confrontation.

This is substantially different than being a peaceful person. A peaceful person is unafraid to be in the presence of another who is bleeding—physically or emotionally—because they know the strength of Christ’s presence at such a time. A peaceful person is unafraid to confront another, because they can also be confronted willingly. A peaceful person’s identity is not bound up in relationships appearing well, and so they are free to breathe actual healing into relationships.
Ironically, passive people can leave ruin and misery in their wake because they are afraid to confront and be confronted, leaving themselves and others to spiritual stagnation rather than growth. But peaceful people leave love and joy in their wake, for they are unafraid.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Sunday, June 4

Hi all--here is the sermon from Sunday, June 4, Pentecost Sunday, on Ezekiel 37:1-14.

If you are a Law and Order junkie, as I confess to being, you know that the show has a formula it follows pretty closely. The first three minutes of the show rarely have much to do with the rest of the show at all. In the first three minutes of the show, usually, they just show ordinary people in New York City doing ordinary things–maybe playing basketball or coming home from the grocery store, maybe going to the movie theater, maybe a homeless man rummaging through a dumpster. And then you hear the bass play a certain note, and you know what is about to happen–they are about to discover a dead body. And then they scream and call the police, and then the rest of the show can start.

Ordinary people doing ordinary things, when death bursts in and confronts them without any warning at all. They didn’t know to look for it, it’s just suddenly there–a dead person.

Ezekiel has a similar experience, except that Ezekiel’s life is far from the life of a normal New Yorker. Ezekiel is a prophet, and he frequently is called by God to do things that might seem bizarre to the rest of us. He was commanded to lay on his side for 390 days to represent the 390 years of punishment that Israel was receiving from the Lord, eating bread baked over cow dung. He was constantly subjected to frightening visions: in chapter 1, he has a vision of a great fiery chariot with four living creatures in it that had the bodies of humans, but each with four faces–one human face, one the face of a lion, one of an ox and one of an eagle– and four wings, and the feet of calves. In chapter 3, he has a vision of a scroll which he is told to go and eat, and he does.

But now, in chapter 37, he has perhaps his most frightening vision of all. He is plopped down into a vast valley of human bones. Just going on with life as usual, and then out of nowhere he is surrounded by death, surrounded by life that used to be but would never ever be again. And we read that the Lord led Ezekiel “all around” the bones. Not to be content with the sheer dramatic effect of a huge valley of bones, Ezekiel is forced to be shown around, to take in the whole scope and magnitude of the death surrounding him.

After receiving the grand tour, the Lord asks Ezekiel a question: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Now, of course, the logical answer is “No.” Nobody even bothers to ask that question on Law and Order because we all know bones cannot live again. But I guess if you’re Ezekiel and you’ve spent your whole life laying on your side, eating scrolls and seeing chariots with heavenly beings, you learn to take nothing for granted. So he says, “Lord, you alone know.” In other words, I have no idea anymore, Lord.

And the Lord says to Ezekiel, “Say to the bones: This is what God says: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” And so Ezekiel does. Again, if you are willing to eat scrolls and bread baked over cow dung, I guess speaking to a graveyard isn’t such a big deal. And he does, and as he watches, he sees muscles come onto the bodies, and flesh laid on top of them. But they were still dead. And so the Lord says through Ezekiel, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

You all are good Hebrew scholars, or at least you’re good sermon listeners, so you know that the Hebrew word for breath is the same word as used for spirit. While God was calling for breath to come, it was not just some disembodied breath; he was calling for His spirit to come upon these bodies, because His Spirit can alone bring life.

God explains the vision to Ezekiel: “Mortal, these bones represent Israel.” Israel has given itself up for dead. Israel sees herself as dried up, dead and buried, completely without hope. But Ezekiel, you must tell them that I am going to bring them back to life. And just as the breath of my Spirit came upon these bodies, my Spirit will be in my people Israel, and they shall live. And then, when you are alive again, you will know that I am the Lord. Then, when I have brought you back from the grave, when I have brought you back from the deepest pit, then you will know that I am the Lord. Then you will know who I am, what I can do.

I suppose if we looked hard enough at our lives, we would all see dreams that have died. Perhaps it is a relationship that has suffered and apparently died. Maybe it is a career path you always wish you had taken. Maybe it’s a move you wish you had made to another state, a bad habit you wish you had broken, or a virtue you wish you had cultivated.

But I want to urge you to think maybe more deeply about it. There is a deep level of brokenness that we very rarely think about, a level of spiritual brokenness. And though we rarely think about it, it is from this level of spiritual brokenness that all of our other brokenness springs. For example, relationships don’t just fracture on their own; they fracture because of the spiritual immaturity of one, or usually both, partners. Their spiritual immaturity makes them unable to solve problems in the relationship. We take on bad habits and neglect good ones, not just by chance, but often because of our level of spiritual immaturity.

It might play out differently in each of our lives, but the fact is we are all affected by the same spiritual brokenness. Like all of humanity, we find our relationship with God fractured by our own sinfulness and God’s essential goodness. We are not able to be perfectly the people that God has called us to be and so where God has life for us, we know death. Be it in the area of relationships, bad choices, bad habits, or just plain emptiness, we are dead in ways God would have us to be alive. Our broken relationships, bad choices, habits, depression: these are not the causes; they are the effects of our spiritual deadness.

We might not like to think about it in this way. We like to think that if all of those things would just get better, we would be happier people, more fully alive. If our relationships healed, if my bad habits magically went away, if I could undo the past and make the right decisions, then I’d be happy. But I don’t think that’s the case. Rather, I think if we could learn to be truly spiritually alive, if we could learn to be alive in Christ, that would be the key to turn it all around. Some relationships would heal, and we would learn to be content with those that wouldn’t. Bad choices could be undone, and those that couldn’t, we’d learn to cope with. Bad habits could be broken, replaced with newly cultivated virtue. Our spiritual death is at the root of all this pain.

Now, of course, this is a difficult thing for most of us to hear. We know how to cope with life if we think all we need is the right drugs or the right situation. It can be hard to hear that really, our problem is not dependent on anything we can do, but is fully dependent on a touch from God’s Spirit, something that is out of our hands. We may be filled with a despair knowing that our healing depends not on anything we do, but on a touch from God’s Spirit.

In fact, our despair might feel a little bit like Ezekiel, who looked around at miles and miles of dry bones and knew there was nothing he could do to make them alive again. But listen, here is the good news:

God wants the dry bones of your spirit to live again.

Even though we would rather manage the pain, God has something more in mind, something more powerful, something that would be more than just managing life, something that would start us living it again.

Even today, on Pentecost, that day that we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the church, the breath of God is still here, still powerful, still breathing life into things that are dead and gone. And it can happen in our spirits, today, even starting here, if we are willing to make room for God’s Spirit in our lives. If we are willing to put God’s Spirit at the center of our lives, and re-orient our lives around God, we may just find life being breathed to all corners of our lives, even those corners we thought were dead and gone.

How do we put God’s Spirit at the center of our lives? Well, it’s important to remember that God’s spirit isn’t like my baby daughter. You can’t just pick the Holy Spirit up and put it wherever you want it. The Spirit, like the wind, blows where the Spirit wants to.

All that we can do is to remove obstacles.

So that’s what we do. We remove obstacles. We remove obstacles when we develop a habit of
disciplined prayer. When we pray, even when we don’t feel like it, little by little we come to understand that we are not at the center of our lives; and we learn to get ourselves out of the way to give God room.

We remove obstacles when we develop a habit of being at worship, of clearing our busy schedules so that once a week we get together with other disciples and celebrate the thing in life most worth celebrating.

We remove obstacles when we engage in worship, singing like we mean it, praying like we know the one we pray to, listening for the voice of God in all things.

We remove obstacles when we study and learn to grow in our faith.

Maybe, most importantly, we remove obstacles and make room for God’s Spirit when we come to the Table where we gather this morning. When we gather at the Table, we remember that there was One broken like bread and poured out like wine for us. When we gather at the Table, we remember that we too must be broken like bread and poured out like wine for the world. When we gather at the Table, we remember the paradox of our faith: the ones who are broken are the ones raised to new life. The more we lay ourselves down, the more we are raised up. The more we pour ourselves out, the more we are filled. And when we remember this, when we do that special remembering we do at the Table, we remove obstacles. We make room for God’s Spirit to come in, to take control, to breathe new life to all the dead parts of our lives.