Yesterday, council and a couple of other folks talked about a lot of things. I asked them, how would you finish the sentence, “The church is. . .”
Many people responded, “The church is a family.” This is true. The church is a very special kind of family. The church is an adoptive family.
In the Old Testament lesson for today, Isaiah is in the temple. This is a huge building, one of the seven wonders of the world. Its giant doors, gold plated, shine in the sun so brightly you can see them from miles away. This space is filled with only the bottom of the hem of God’s robe. There is smoke everywhere. Strange angel-creatures called seraphim are singing so loudly that the doorposts and hinges shake.
They sing “holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory,” Seraphs have six wings. With two they cover themselves, with two they fly, with two they cover their eyes because God is so huge and different, so infinitely more beautiful and real than anything we can possibly conceive, if anybody looks at God, even a seraph, they will be utterly blown out of existence.
And yet, even though we know it’s dangerous, we are drawn toward this absolute greatness, this utter beauty.
We see God in huge waterfalls and vast landscapes. We stand outside and look at the thunderstorm, and it’s like the Psalm we read today, the voice of the Lord makes the wilderness shake. The voice of the Lord, this crashing thunder, makes the oak trees whirl, breaks the cedars of Lebanon, these giant trees. We stand outside, fascinated by the flashes of lightning, the fire from heaven, and the rain pouring down.
That’s the family. That’s the way God is.
Sometimes people ask me about that storm. If God is so huge and powerful, why does God allow these storms to come and pull the roofs off of people’s, thousands of people’s houses in many countries. I’m not just talking about the storms of weather either. Why does God allow the storm of cancer, the storms of depression and poverty?
When people ask me that, I look them in the eye and say “I don’t know why. I don’t. But I do know who. I know who.” In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that whoever believes might not perish but might have eternal life.”
We’re talking about the cross here. God as Jesus came to us in the middle of the storm. In the case of the cross it is a storm of brutality, a storm of intentional, malicious cruelty, of humiliation and death that we created. We created the storm of the cross.
We create a lot of storms. I suspect that if it weren’t for all the storms that we create, we would understand God’s storms a lot more and weather them a lot better.
God as Jesus comes to us in the middle of the storms, even our own storms that we have made. God feels every stick of destruction from the storms of nature. God feels every ounce of pain from the storm of cancer, every moment of depression, every grinding hour of poverty. In the middle of those storms, Jesus takes us by the hand, and leads us home.
That’s the family. That’s the way God is.
Jesus says, “The wind, the Spirit, the breath,” they are all one word in both Greek and Hebrew, wind that blew across the waters of chaos in the dark at the dawn of time, breath that God breathed into our lungs when we were first created, that God breaths into us again and again every day. This wind, Spirit, breath “blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit, of the wind.”
So I knew a kid in one of my former parishes, I’ll call him Joey. Joey’s family had a hard time making ends meet. His dad couldn’t work because of an injury. His mom worked at a nursing home and was going to school to be a nurse’s aid. This is exhausting, to work full time, have three kids, go to school. She was always tired.
It was Advent that year, the time we get ready for Christmas. All the kids were excited about the presents they would get. I preached a sermon about some of the folks that would come to the food pantry at church. How a lot of them had never had to do this before. They’d say “I would go hungry, but I’ve got kids so I’ve got to get something to give them.” They would say “thank you.” I would ask them if there was anything they wanted to pray about, and they always wanted to pray, for their children, for cousins and friends who were sick, for people who were dying. Didn’t pray for themselves much.
I talked about what a gift it was to work with those folks.
Couple weeks later it was Christmas Eve. It was a good Christmas Eve, you know. Christmas Eve is always good. We read the account of Jesus’ Birth in Luke with the shepherds and the angels and the baby in the manger. We sang the Christmas carols. It was good, but I was kind of going through the motions. It wasn’t a really great Christmas.
After church, I was putting some things away. I turn around and there’s Joey and Joey’s mom standing behind me. Joey’s mom, tired as usual, says, “Joey wants to give his Christmas money for the food pantry.” I didn’t get it, quite. I looked down at Joey. He was serious as a heart attack. I looked up at his mom. She said “We’ve talked about it. He’s sure.” I said okay. I started to cry. Eight bucks. That was Christmas.
“The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it. But you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
That’s the family. That’s the way God is.
So the Bible talks about God in three ways. God is grand and powerful, like the voice of thunder. God enters our storms and takes us by the hand, is close and loving as Jesus. God the Holy Spirit, the breath, the wind is unpredictable, gets people to do things that surprise you, that make you cry with wonder.
That’s the family. That’s the way God is.
PENTECOST SUNDAY, MAY 24, 2015
Some years ago, the youth at my church, the youth at the Episcopal church of the road, the priest there and I took a mission trip to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. This is a reservation of the Lakota people. You may remember a great Indian chief, Sitting Bull. He was Lakota.
Lakota people have their own language, as most Indian tribes do. Language has its own insights, its own world. For example in the Lakota world, everything is connected by the great hoop. The buffalo, the plains, the stars, the people. Family is everything, and people help each other.
We were going to do a Vacation Bible School with the Lutheran and Episcopal church that was there, but evidently everybody else in the country was doing a Vacation Bible School there, so there were no kids for us. When you are serving God, and especially if you are somebody else’s guest, you have to be flexible. God might have something in mind for you that you didn't. So we asked what we could do, and, among other things, our hosts suggested that instead of working with the children, we go to the nursing home, and work with the elders. These folks had families who had moved away from the reservation and couldn't come to visit. They were delighted to see us and talk with all these young folks.
One old woman told us stories, like how, long ago, the people were journeying through some hills and a great storm came. Many tornadoes in that storm, so the people hid in some caves. They put the little ones, the children in the back of the cave to keep them safe, and they took the space up front. And now the people are looking out the front of the caves at these tornadoes in the sky, many tornadoes, whirling round and round. The people saw, in the tornadoes, many trees that had been uprooted out of the ground, whirling around in the tornadoes. And the tornadoes, threw the trees down across the plains, and the trees landed in the arroyos of that country, the empty stream beds and gullies that fill with water when it rains. And that is how all those trees got into the arroyos. You can see them there today.
They told lots of stories like that.
We were camping, so we had to go to the grocery store in Pine Ridge to buy food. One day, we saw a fellow in a wheel chair, looked to be in his mid forties. Very thin. He was trying to get up from the asphalt parking lot to the curb, from which a very steep ramp led three feet up to the level of the store. We came up to him and said “Can we give you a hand,” and he says “Yes.” So everybody grabbed a wheel or a handle or an armrest of the wheelchair, and we lifted up about three feet to the top of the ramp, where he could get in the store. He said something, in a kind of a hum, an almost whisper. He said “Indians.” For that moment, we were. Cause in the Lakota language, the Lakota world, people help each other.
We had a couple of the older men from church out to our campsite one night. We talked about many things. There are many problems on the reservation. Maybe eighty percent unemployment. Eighty percent alcoholism rate. The hoop is broken. One of their main concerns was the future of the Lakota language. Many of the people who could speak Lakota fluently were old. The young folks weren't interested. We looked at the fire, which mirrored the burnt orange sunset stretched across the South Dakota sky. One of our youth asked, “Is there any hope for the Lakota language?” One of the men, his wife had just died that fall, so he had a dim view of things in general. He said “No hope. No hope.”
The hoop was broken. Shattered, actually. Hoop’s been shattered for a long time.
In the verses immediately before the first lesson for today, Jesus has risen from the dead, so the disciples ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” The nation of Israel could use restoring. Their hoop had been broken. They had occupied by the Babylonians and then the Persians and then the Greeks and then the Romans. “Is it finally time for the kingdom of God to come to our nation?”
Jesus says, “We don’t know when God will restore the nation. But you are to wait in Jerusalem to be clothed with power from on high.”
So they have waited.
And today comes their answer. There is the rush, thunder like a violent wind, a howling, roaring of a freight train right beside your ears, the sound of a tornado passing as you hide in a cave somewhere on the great plains. Wind, strong enough to uproot trees, that’s the Holy Spirit.
And now all of the disciples stand there, speaking God’s deeds of power, God’s freeing of people from slavery, God healing of people from brokenness, God turning sinners from pride and fear and apathy to repentance. And they are not just speaking in their own language. They are not just speaking in Hebrew, the sacred language of Judaism, in which the creation stories are written, stories of Noah and the great flood.
They were speaking in the languages of Parthians and Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene.
So here is the first point of the sermon. It’s a point that you know already.
God does not just speak in one language, whether it’s Hebrew or English. God speaks in many languages. God does not just work in one nation, whether it’s Israel or America or Europe. God works in many nations. That’s why we have songs in many languages in the hymnal, songs from many nations. That’s why our church, does work in many nations. Lutheran World Hunger appeal does work in Iowa City, Iowa, as well as India and Tanzania and many other places. The Indiana-Kentucky Synod shares the mission of the Gospel with the Lutheran church in Indonesia and in Chile. God works in many places. We all know this.
But I want to dig a little deeper here, because I found out something that amazed me this week, that I did not know before. I found out that this list of nations in the First Lesson for today—Parthians, Medes, Elamites and so on—this list drives Biblical scholars crazy. They don’t know what to do with it. All kinds of problems.
For example, most prominently, Elamites were wiped out by the Assyrians in six hundred and forty B.C., nearly seven centuries before this Bible passage was written. The Medes had been absorbed into the Persian Empire five hundred years before this. And Luke would have known that. The writer of the book of Acts, Luke, would have known.
It is even stranger than if someone stood on the street corner in Louisville Kentucky and started telling about God’s freedom, God’s resurrection in the language of the Lakota people. It’s even stranger because the Lakota people still have their language, identity, dignity, way of looking at the world. The Elamites were gone.
Here’s the point. We thought the Elamites were wiped from the face of the earth. We were wrong. We thought the Medes were wiped from existence. We were wrong. We thought that the Lakota, the Cheyanne, the Iriquois, the Cherokee language, way of being was on its way out. We thought that the hoop was broken and could not be healed. We thought we could get the Romans to kill Jesus, and all his terrifying, upending ways of doing things, and that Jesus would stay dead. We were wrong about that too. God holds all people. Jesus holds all languages in his wounded hands.
The Lakota language. It may die. The hoop is indeed broken. But maybe that hoop might be made new. Remember what God says? “I make all things new.”
This is what we are about, to be a part of God making all things new, a part of the Holy Spirit that comes roaring down.
I said this last week, I will say it again. We live in a world where you can see some horrible, horrible things on the internet. In the church, we use the power of God, the power of the cross to fight those things, to preserve the hoop, to be a part of God making the world new.
We say the youth are the future of the church, the future of our struggle. You are not just the future. You are the present. We can’t do this without you.
In a few minutes, we are going to ask you to be a part of this work. Going to ask everyone to affirm their baptism, their place in God’s restoration of us all.
If you feel so called, answer “Yes, by the help of God.” “Yes, I believe in God the Father Almighty. I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I believe in God the Holy Spirit. Yes, by the help of God.”
In many ways, in many lives, we wield the power of the cross, we are a part of God making the hoop again, continually making all things new.