Archives: Year C

The Comforter Is Not All That Comforting When You Get Down To It

You know, I wish I could translate the Gospel the wrong way.

Or rather, I wish the Bible translation we read in church used the word that I like and makes me feel comfortable to describe the Holy Spirit.

But it doesn’t, and I think I’m finally beginning to understand why.

Today is the great Feast of Pentecost. In the Book of Acts, we read of the tongues of fire lighting on the disciples and enabling them to proclaim the Good News in many languages simultaneously, just like we had in worship here this morning.

And it felt as unexpected to them as it might have to you. That’s precisely why we didn’t warn you that was going to happen.

If it caught you off guard and you wondered what was happening, you had a very authentic apostolic experience of Pentecost.

And that ties into what I wish our translation says, but doesn’t.

The word Jesus uses in John for the Holy Spirit is paraclete, which can be translated as it is in the NRSV that we read in church, as Advocate.

That is by far the most accurate translation. It comes from Greek roots meaning “to call alongside,” and it meant having a friend show up with you in court to help you defend yourself against charges, like having a lawyer only with a closer relationship.

Paraclete has been translated as Intercessor, and also the word I want to use: Comforter.

(Side note: my seminary had a soccer team that played against the other professional schools at Yale—the Div School vs. the Law School vs. the Med School, etc.—and they were called the Paracleats. Get it? Like soccer cleats? The Paracleats? That will never not be funny to me.)

So anyway, I like to think of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, because frankly, I really am in need of some comfort every now and then.

I know I’m not the only one.

And while I certainly believe the Holy Spirit does bring us comfort and solace, I really don’t see that happening in our texts this morning.

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Singing from Prison for the Earthquake of God

Today we are going to talk about one of the most important characteristics of the gospel.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, above all other things, is liberation.

We see this dynamic all over our story from Acts.

We read that Paul and Silas, as they minister in Philippi, attract a hanger-on.

She is an enslaved woman, and she is said to have a spirit of divination.

We don’t really know what that means or how we would think of that in modern terms, but the author makes clear what the practical result was: “She brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.”

This woman was being doubly exploited.

First, she was held in slavery, and second, she was used to make money by manipulating what was either a genuine spiritual gift of her own, or the gullibility and spiritual hunger of anyone her owners could attract.

She had no freedom or self-determination, and she was being used as a circus side-show act.

But she could sense the true spiritual power of Paul and Silas, and she pursued it.

“She would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days,” we read, and then Luke tells us that Paul was “very much annoyed.”

Why was he annoyed?

Well, I think anyone following you around shouting out the same sentence for days at a time might get a bit annoying after a while.

It’s also possible that Paul was irritated that someone was stealing his dramatic thunder in the public square.  Never one to shy from the limelight, Paul loved being a showstopper for Christ, and this woman was rather upstaging him.

But I wonder if there’s another explanation for his annoyance. Continue reading

Do You Want to Be Healed?

Thirty-eight years.

Trapped just on the edge of healing for thirty-eight years.

It would be like living next door to a pharmacy but every time you go to it to try and get your life-saving cancer medication, it’s closed.

You are condemned to a painful and debilitating physical condition that may eventually kill you, because the means of getting treatment lies just beyond your reach.

This is the unenviable situation of the man in our gospel story today.

For thirty-eight years he has lived in the porticoes surrounding the Pool of Beth-zatha, and every time he tries to reach the pool and receive its healing waters, someone else beats him to it.

Can you imagine the frustration? The despair?

We get so little detail about this man that we have to speculate and use our imaginations to try and understand his incomprehensible situation.

First of all, what kind of medical condition did he have?

We don’t know, but we know that the other people at the pool were described as invalids and named as blind, lame, and/or paralyzed.

These are people who are limited in their mobility.

We know he can move at least a bit, because he keeps trying to get down to the pool, but he can’t ever make it fast enough. He may have only been able to crawl.

Thirty-eight years?

We’re immediately tempted to question how hard he really was trying to get down there and be healed.

That temptation is reinforced by Jesus’ own question to the man: “Do you want to be healed?”

We don’t know, because this man never answers directly, yes or no.

He basically says, “Well, I’ve been trying.”

Is that an excuse? Or is it a legitimate description of his disability? We don’t know.

But either way, we need to stop our judgement in its tracks and realize how very much we are like this man ourselves. Continue reading

This Is How I Break My Vows

Well, folks, we’ve got a weird one.

This scripture from the Book of Acts is one of the more bizarre episodes in the Bible, and we’ve got a lot to choose from.

Peter has this vision of a sheet full of live animals being lowered down from heaven before him, with “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air,” and he is commanded to kill and eat them.

Reptiles? Really? An angel commands him to kill and eat snakes and lizards?

Sounds more like a bad acid trip than a manifestation of God.

But I was thinking also it may be the first occurrence of a venerable church tradition: the church picnic.

Both my parents were raised Southern Baptist.

My mother was raised in a university Southern Baptist church, right off the campus of Baylor in Waco. They were very sober, respectable, pillar of the community types, and based on her descriptions of the services, were the closest thing to high church Baptists I can picture.

My father’s church, however…well, to begin with it was called Confederate Avenue Baptist Church, and if that doesn’t sum up the Old South I don’t know what does.

And Confederate Avenue was an old-fashioned, sawdust on the floor, traveling preacher, week-long revivals in the summer type of church.

The hellfire and damnation preaching was so intense, my father says, that he got saved two or three times just to be sure.

And at my father’s church, there was a regular phenomenon called “chicken on the grounds.” “Chicken on the grounds,” from what I can tell, was a combination outdoor coffee hour and church picnic that happened every Sunday.

This was also the type of church for which the noon meal was only halftime, there was church that night as well, with some kind of educational program for the kids called “Training Union” that still makes my parents shudder to remember it.

So at chicken on the grounds, my father says, everyone would sit down at the tables out in the yard. Continue reading

Want Transformation? Try An Upper Room

The Architecture of Transformation. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Our first scripture is from the Book of Acts, and you could be forgiven if it’s not one of the ones you have memorized by heart.

It’s the story of a woman named Tabitha, also called Dorcas, and her life and death as a disciple.

She was given the name and title of disciple, mathetria in Greek, and she’s the only woman given that title in the entire New Testament.

The community is convulsed with grief at her death. They clearly relied on her for leadership and service.

She mattered to them, deeply.

And so when she dies, the saints notify the leader of the entire fledgling Christian community, Peter.

Peter drops everything and comes to Joppa.

He finds her sisters in faith grieving deeply. They show him the evidence not just of her good works, the clothing she has made for the poor, but of how much she meant to them.

They struggle to see how they can go forward without her.

Peter sees how pivotal this female disciple was, this leader of the Joppa church, and he sends the mourners away.

He prays, and then he calls her by her name to rise up, and she does. She comes back to life.

No doubt the church and the entire community were overjoyed, and the text says that many people came to believe in Jesus after having heard about this event.

So that’s the basic story. But I want to call your attention to where this miracle occurs. Continue reading

A Week Late to the Resurrection: Wounded, Stubborn, Alive

Today, the first Sunday after Easter, is traditionally known as Low Sunday.

That’s a tremendously unflattering nickname for us as the Church.

Last week we presented the triumph of the church year.

We announced to the world the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: Jesus died and rose again to new life for love of us.

And the result is that the next Sunday is the lowest attendance of the whole church year, all the way across Christendom.

Ouch.

Was it something we said?

It may well have been. Continue reading

Vigil, Notre Dame, and the First Law of Thermodynamics

Alleluia, Christ is risen! It feels so good to say that!

One of the things I love about Easter is that we say alleluia and mean it.

We mean it even when there are some parts of our lives that don’t feel very “alleluia-like” at all.

All of us in this nave have brought different things on our hearts to this liturgy tonight.

Some of us carry griefs and burdens that weigh us down.

Some of us are joyful about new possibilities awakening in our lives.

All of us carry hopes for this beautiful father-daughter pair who are being baptized tonight, hopes for how we may best love and support them on their voyage of faith.

Easter Vigil is a unique and sometimes overlooked moment in our Holy Week journey.

It is the hinge point between darkness and light. It is the pivot point.

It is the meeting of life and death in an explosion of resurrection.

We have prayed for the courage all week to face the darkness in our path through the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the agony of Good Friday, and the awful echoing silence of Holy Saturday.

Tomorrow will dawn bright and beautiful and we will be bathed in the unfettered joy of Easter Day.

But tonight is when the grief and the radiance, the pain and the jubilation, come together.

To experience this viscerally, we need look no further than the haunting beauty of the small flame of the Paschal candle advancing bravely through the cavernous darkness of the nave.

This liturgy, with its marriage of death and life, makes me think of the First Law of Thermodynamics.

For those of you for whom high school physics class was some years ago, this law states that “the total energy of an isolated system is constant; energy can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed.”

I realized some years ago that we have the First Law of Thermodynamics in our very own Book of Common Prayer, although the language may not be quite so scientific.

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Useless Love: Bethany and Leningrad

Realistic. Practical. Sensible. Those are words we all like to use to describe ourselves and our churches.

We are Christians who believe in an amazing story of death and resurrection, but in the end we have to come back down to earth and live in the real world.

Someone has to make sure the budget balances.

This is exactly the attitude of Judas in our gospel story today, the attitude Jesus condemns.

We don’t normally think of ourselves in the same category with Judas.

And a great deal of the time, those practical considerations do need to guide our behavior as individuals and communities.

But Jesus profoundly values Mary and her gesture in this gospel.

He finds her pouring of fragrant oil over his feet and wiping them with her hair deeply meaningful, and he will not allow this beautiful, intimate moment to be ruined by the mean-spirited practicality of Judas.

What makes Judas even more blameworthy—and even more of a warning to us!—is that he overlays his criticism of Mary with a virtuous moral justification.

“We could have used that money to serve the poor!” he laments with outward heartfelt piety and inward smug self-righteousness.

Have you ever seen this happen at church?

Someone takes the moral high ground, not out of love but because it places him or her in a position to score points on someone else.

“I’m more Christian than you are,” is a game that has no winners.

Jesus saw this and Jesus cuts right through Judas’ posturing.

In this moment, Mary and her gesture mean more than Judas and his proposed action.

That’s hard for us action-oriented Americans to take!

All the beautiful gestures in the world won’t get the pledge campaign launched or the nave vacuumed or the food pantry stocked.

Or will they? Continue reading

How To Bless God Even When You Feel Like You’re Stuck In a Pigsty

As we build our life of faith, we ask to be conformed to the Mind of Christ, so that we might be ever more able to live faithfully as the Body of Christ.

And part of that process is taking on some of the characteristics of God—as lofty and intimidating as that might sound at first!

We usually think of asking God to bless us. But in the Way of Love, God is asking us to bless the world.

And all of our spiritual practices make us ready to say yes to that calling.

Many of us might feel pretty inadequate to take on something as big as blessing the world.

In that, we have something in common with our brother the Prodigal Son.

In our story from Luke today, one of the most well-known and beloved in the gospels, we hear of a young man who made certain choices.

To some, those choices might seem rash, selfish, and short-sighted.

To others, they may simply seem like the folly of youth.

The Prodigal Son actually sounds eerily like a denizen of 21st century America, a natural product of a highly individualistic, self-centered, and hedonistic society.

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The Wild Prayer of Lent

If wilderness is the landscape of Lent, then prayer is the road that takes us there.

We live in a blind and busy city most of the time, a crowded confine of social norms, work and family obligations, and a general “business as usual” status quo.

It can be difficult to sustain a dedicated prayer life in the chaotic swirl of trying to keep up with our calendars, care for our dear ones, and cope with the unsettled tension of our common life.

The great gift of Lent is the call into the wilderness. It is an invitation to let the dust of daily life settle, and the graced silence of the desert begin to soothe and open our weary hearts.

But the wilderness cannot invade the city. It can’t come knock on our doors and drag us out into an encounter with the Holy.

We have to say yes.

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