The Sacred Text was Ezekiel 2:1-3:3.
In her Reflection, Laura Ruth talked some about the prophecy Ezekiel is given about the dry bones, and I remembered that at Holy Saturday vigil, one of the readings had been Ezekiel 37:1-14 (Life in the Midst of Death) and when I listened to it being read, I was hearing it literally and was very weirded out, but in her reflection, Pastor Tiffany talked about it as speaking to a people who felt that they were dried up, cut off, without hope.
Laura Ruth said that from a Christian perspective, Ezekiel's story prefigures Pentecost (which she did say we celebrate as the birth of the Church) -- God breathing into people and giving them voice, though she then said that of course God doing that long predates Ezekiel (I later thought, "Yeah, like Adam"), he's just a very good example of it (and apparently it's one of the readings you have the option of doing for Pentecost ... and in fact we read it at my Sunday morning church at Pentecost this year). I thought, "But Pentecost is the birth of the church because it happens in community." As I was articulating to my best friend that night what about the Acts story of Pentecost makes it the story of the birth of the church (like the fact that everyone gathered heard it in their native language, symbolic of reaching out and being so much more than just a Jewish revival/reform movement), I realized that I was so stuck on community being the important part of our Pentecost story in reaction to Laura Ruth's analogy, but if you had asked me previously to tell you what Pentecost is about, I probably would have said: fire, speaking in tongues, birth of the church (in that order).
She also talked about (and this was one of the pieces I was most struck by listening to the reading) God telling Ezekiel to eat the scroll and his finding it to taste as sweet as honey. She talked about embodying the Word by physically ingesting it and pointed out that we ingest the Word every time we take Communion, which I hadn't thought of (hi, I have a low theology of Communion) but which immediately made me think of the time we had milk and honey with Communion at my Sunday evening church once.
A few days later, I came across an entry on the "When love comes to town" blog -- "Pentecost, peace and grace..." Excerpt [apologies for the masculine gendering of the Holy Spirit]:
How does John’s gospel for today put it?***
“I still have many things to tell you,” Jesus said, “but you can't handle them now. But when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, he will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is. He won't draw attention to himself, but will make sense out of what is going on… indeed, out of all that I have done and said. He will honor me; he will take from me and deliver it to you. Everything the Father has is mine. That is why I've said, 'He takes from me and delivers to you.
And then he concludes with these words: Fix this firmly in your minds: You're going to be in deep mourning while the godless world throws a party. You'll be sad – very sad – but your pain will turn into joy.
Did you hear that? God will be sending Christ’s friend to us – the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Truth – and the Spirit will come to us and comfort us so that our pain might be turned into joy. And that is what an adult Pentecost is all about, it seems to me: learning how to live and nourish the Spirit within and among us so that we might experience Christ’s joy.
Pentecost, writes Jim Callahan, is not the birthday of the church; that probably happened on Good Friday when Jesus was hanging on the Cross and pleading with God that we might be forgiven for sins we couldn’t even name or imagine. No Pentecost is God’s reply to Good Friday – a day of great joy, power, fire and spirit – that isn’t reserved just for Jesus alone but is poured out upon all of the faithful disciples. How does the book of Acts put it?
When the Feast of Pentecost came, the faithful were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them. There were many others staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. And when they heard the sound, they came on the run… because one after another heard their own mother tongues being spoken. They couldn't for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, "Aren't these all Galileans? How come we're hearing them talk in our various mother tongues? Are they drunk?”
Strangers became kin folk on Pentecost. Frightened disciples became fearless evangelists on Pentecost. Women and men became equals on Pentecost. And everyone who experienced this revival could only talk about it like a banquet – or a beer fest – because the sadness was gone and joy filled the air. “In the midst of a numbingly sober and sour world, these women and men looked like a bunch of happy drunks,” Callahan writes, “because at last they knew that they were God’s beloved.”
Every last one of them experienced from the inside out that they were beloved by God just as Jesus had promised. What’s more they knew deep within that the heart of God was love – “not just in poetic theory, but in palpable fact.” They experienced, too, that in belonging to God they were not alone – they belonged to one another – in community. And the joy this gave them not only filled their hearts, “but gave them the inspiration to go out into the streets to heal and redeem.”
· This is what the spirit of the Lord had promised to Ezekiel when he prophesied to that valley of dry bones.
· This is what the prophet Joel had “predicted when he said that there will come a time when the Lord will pour out the Spirit upon all people” so that our sons and daughters might speak truth to power, our old men might live as visionaries again and our young people clear their heads in compassionate ways.
It is what Isaiah shared once and what Jesus took up again: the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach and bring good news to the poor and all who are wounded and broken. And Pentecost is the proof – the encounter – the experience that God really will turn our sorrow into joy.
And here is where I have to come down out of this wonderful and elevated pulpit… and talk with you as one broken and wounded soul to another. Pentecost, beloved, is not magic. It is not merely the stuff of hope filled myth nor sacred and spiritual fantasy. Pentecost is real. The joy of Christ is real.
+ Release from addiction is real. The end of our sorrow is real. The turning of our pain into joy is real, too.
+ Not that we still won’t have pain – not that all our tears will end in this life or the next – or that our experience of the living kingdom of God in the 21st century won’t also know anxiety, wounds, confusion and all the rest.
Jesus didn’t say that – and neither do I. As John’s gospel continues this morning, Jesus talks about the gift of the Holy Spirit coming to us like a woman giving birth. Listen carefully:
When a woman gives birth, she has a hard time, there's no getting around it. But when the baby is born, there is joy in the birth. This new life in the world wipes out memory of the pain. The sadness you have right now is similar to that pain, but the coming joy is also similar. When I see you again, you'll be full of joy, and it will be a joy no one can rob from you. You'll no longer be so full of questions. This is what I want you to do: Ask the Father for whatever is in keeping with the things I've revealed to you. Ask in my name, according to my will, and he'll most certainly give it to you. Your joy will be a river overflowing its banks!
This, you see, is a call for training – an invitation to prepare our hearts and minds for the Spirit – just like Jesus said to his first disciples. Here is what the resurrection/Easter story says without ambiguity: once the shock of encountering the Risen Christ was over, Jesus spent the next 40 days teaching his bewildered disciples new and essential spiritual practices. He had done this in the flesh for three years, but the apparently needed a refresher course.
And at the end of these 40 days – 10 days before the Feast of Pentecost – he told them, “Now I want you to stay together and study and pray. Wait for power from on high. And when it comes… then you will be ready to act.” Now listen to what the book of Acts tells us happened next because it is instructive for us:
· First the disciples went back to Jerusalem as Jesus instructed and spent time in prayer. (Acts 1: 12-14)
· Second, they decided they needed to replace Judas who had fled and taken his life – that is they needed to restore the number of disciples to 12 again – why? To symbolically fulfill their calling as the 12 tribes of Israel.
· And third they studied and shared life together: do you see what is taking place here?
They weren’t looking for a miracle. They weren’t pretending that their grief and confusion wasn’t real. And they weren’t just going through the motions or playing church. They were studying, they were learning new ways of prayer and… they were practicing the unforced rhythms of God’s grace.
Remember those words of Jesus? Back in Matthew 11 he was explicit: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.
It is my deepest conviction that what the disciples were doing was practicing the lessons Jesus gave them – they were learning the unforced rhythms of grace – getting ready to both see and experience the Holy Spirit when it was given. And they didn’t have to go anyplace special to receive this gift, did you notice that? They didn’t need to go to a university or a seminar, they just had to be together, open their heads and hearts and practice the unforced rhythms of grace.
Then, in the fullness of time, they were ready to receive, experience and claim the blessings of joy born of the Holy Spirit. Beloved in Christ, what was true then is no less true now… but we have some work to do: some study, some practice, some time spent learning the unforced rhythms of grace.
+ That is the promise of Pentecost: right here – right now – in our lives and in our time we, too, might come to know Christ’s joy.
· We will still weep – Jesus wept. We will still hurt – Jesus grieved for those who wounded him and ached when his body was attacked. We will still die even as the Lord died before us.
But we will also be grounded in a peace that passes all understanding – a joy that will change us from children to adults – a love that will not let us go. For we will know from the inside out that we are truly the beloved of the Lord - and this is where joy is born - when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, he will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is. He won't draw attention to himself, but will make sense out of what is going on…so that your joy may be full.
In looking at the Archives of that blog, I saw a post titled "What if God was one of us..." and wondered if it was like this post (responding to an Onion piece), but actually...
Well, my friends, in case you haven’t guessed, today we’re going to be talking about Jesus: specifically I want to consider what the Cross of Jesus Christ has to tell us about God’s love and our humanity in these early hours of the 21st century. Theologian Douglas John Hall writes that: The cross of Jesus Christ represents simultaneously a high estimate of the human creature, a grave realism concerning human alienation, and the compassionate determination of God to bring humankind to the realization of our potential for authenticity.I think it's somewhat sloppy exegesis to extrapolate all this from the Cross -- though I do agree with the basic ideas about humanity being "created, fallen and lifted," and certainly the ideas that we are each a Bright Brilliant Beloved Beautiful Child of God and that God never stops seeking us in love [though I don't actually know if the blogger would say "never;" I don't know his salvation theology] and that we are called to love everyone and that Christian living is constantly a process.
Did you get all that? In the tongue of popular culture, we’re going to think about three essential insights in the Cross:
+ God’s deep love for us as beings created in the Lord’s image
+ The profound pain we cause through our alienation
+ And the relentless compassion of God’s grace
Are you with me? Love, pain and grace – or as Hall writes – our experience of being created, fallen and lifted: a new/old encounter with the Cross of Jesus Christ for our generation. So let’s see where this conversation might take us, ok?
Western Christians – conservative or progressive – often forget a spiritual insight that our cousins in Judaism regularly celebrate: namely, that as women, men and children created in the image of God we are just “a little lower than the angels” as the Psalmist tells us. We are NOT sinners first – sin is involved in our human experience – but we were never created in God’s image as sinners broken and wounded.
Sadly, and I believe incorrectly, most of Christian tradition has focused on our fallen and sinful relationship with God. And God knows that sin is real – any newscast or newspaper is documentation – but we have forgotten that alienation and separation from the Lord is not our primary condition. Rather, “the Hebraic/Jewish origins of our faith teach us to respect the goodness of creation and the promise of human life.” (Hall, p. 94)
Blaise Paschal, the 17th century French physicist and religious philosopher, suggested that loving Christians adopt a dialectic of grandeur and misery to keep us from acting too proud or too stupid. We like to make life seem either black or white he said – we tend to emphasize either optimism or pessimism – when in reality it is always both. At the same time, however, we must remember that the balance between these:
…two polarities is an asymmetrical one. The two sides of the dialectic – the yes and the no – are not equal. The weightier of the two is the first – the grandeur, not because humankind in itself and as such is so grand, but because we are God’s creation, created for a purpose that entails and affects all creation.”
The first insight the Cross of Jesus offers us is that we are the beloved of the Lord – created in God’s image just a little lower than the angels.
To be the church of Jesus Christ – the body of our Lord alive in the world today – demands that we start with an affirmation of our original blessing because God don’t make junk. “It is imperative for Christians to counter defeatism… in a sane and nuanced way” for we were created by the Source of ALL creativity.
That is the first insight from the Cross – we have been created by the Creator as a little less than the angels – the second is this: sometimes we despise this truth. If the story of the scriptures tells us anything it is that many times we don’t want to be LESS than the Lord: we want to BE the LORD. Douglas John Hall says it best:
The Scriptures of both Testaments demonstrate that humankind from the mythic Adam of the first Garden to the historic Adam of the second Garden, Gethsemane, “cannot stand God.” Even Jesus pleads with God to “remove the cup,” to take away the destiny of his vocation. And in between the two gardens every one of the prophets tries valiantly to resist his or her calling. Israel itself, as the name suggests, “struggles with God,” contends with the Unnamable... because our election is not a privilege but a responsibility. Even in the New Testament, where the central image of the kingdom of God is depicted poetically as a great banquet feast… everyone wants to flee from it. Even St. Paul himself, the most articulate and fervent of all the apostles of the early church, could only be brought into the sphere of Christ’s lordship kicking and screaming! (Hall, p. 101)
Isn’t that right? That the whole testimony of the Bible points to the fact that while God loves us we spend most of our lives running away – not towards – the Lord? If nothing else, the Cross of Christ shows us what it looks like when we keep on running: we wound and destroy the very heart of love itself. The Cross, you see, is not about God’s will, it is about what happens when we choose to flee from the responsibility of love.
To put forward the events of Holy Week and the Cross as a kind of divinely predetermined Oberammergau play whose author and director is none other than Almighty God is to have substituted fatalism for Biblical faith. Because the crucifixion is no more the direct will and plan of God than the fact that a million innocent children were slain in the Holocaust. (Hall, p. 103)
The Cross exposes the consequences of broken relationships – it makes clear for all with eyes to see what life looks like when we run away from our deepest commitments – and it is a sad and ugly picture. No wonder Jesus speaks to us of a vine and its branches: we are all connected. The disciple, John, amplified this when he told us:
If anyone boasts, "I love God," and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won't love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can't see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You've got to love both. God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we're free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ's. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love. So we are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first." (I John 4)
First we are created a little less than the angels. Second we have fallen and run away from the responsibilities of love. And third we are lifted – raised beyond the filth by God’s compassionate grace – that like the old American hymn tells us, “is a love that wilt not let me go.” We may get tired – we may feel lazy or beaten down – but God’s grace endures for ever.
· Let me say that again: God’s grace endures – and searches – and lifts us up over and over again because God’s love endures for… what?
· Forever! Remember what St. Paul told us? Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled. When I was an infant at my mother's breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good. We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love. (I Corinthians 13)
There is a brokenness in the world, an incomplete aching in our hearts, and the third insight from the Cross is clear: the only way through it is with the grace of God that gives us a strength from the inside out. It cleanses. It heals. It renews us over and over again so that we can be fully human.
+ We’re not called to be God – we were created to be human – fully human – by grace we are humanized.
+ By grace the word becomes flesh and dwells within and among us.
+ By grace, we are made whole.
Not the same as God – that would be arrogant and stupid – but only a little less than the angels, too. One of the best expressions of this truth in popular culture came from the soul singer, Joan Osborne, who put it like this in a song called, “One of Us.”
Martin Luther, the father of our Protestant tradition, told those who had ears to hear in the 16th century: “Christian living does not mean to be good, but to become good; not to be well, but to get well; not being but becoming; not rest, but training. We are not there yet, but we shall be. It has not yet happened, but it is on the way.”
… and that way is love - a love exposed paradoxically and honstely on the Cross. So let those who have ears to hear, hear.
I'm also uncomfortable not only with the blogger's constant use of masculine language for all the persons of the Trinity, but also with the "quoting" of Scripture which not only sounds somewhat The Message-like in its contemporary sound, but also feels a bit to me like it's rewriting a bit beyond what's in the original text.
I love the editorial comment in Walter Wink's "translation" of Jesus' final prayer on behalf of his disciples (which we read on Ascension Sunday this year), but I also had a squick moment because that's not actually in the original text -- that's commentary. And commentary is awesome and important, but... I dunno, it's a difficult line. Because yes, every single translation makes choices -- you can't retain all the resonances of imagery and wordplay and sociohistorical relevance (though I think footnotes are AWESOME), and you want to make it understandable and accessible and relevant and relatable to your audience in this particular moment. But... I dunno.
Velveteen Rabbi wrote (in a post worth reading in full):
This kind of interaction with the text -- turning it in different directions like a prism to see how it refracts the light of holiness -- is a, maybe the, quintessential Jewish act. One of my favorite teachings on that subject comes from the former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Ismar Schorsch, who writes:After a dialogue session on human sexuality (by which we mostly mean queers) and the United Methodist Church, one of the women I'd gone with was expressing frustration at the universalizing -- couldn't God have said something to Adam and Eve and be saying something else to different people at a different time who are reading those same words? She mentioned that someone recently was telling her about someone in like the 2nd century (Clement?) who was saying, "Okay, we've fulfilled the 'be fruitful and multiply' commandment -- we're starting to have too many people, in fact -- so we can stop doing that."[I]n Judaism precisely because the Torah is revered as divine, it becomes susceptible to unending interpretation. It would be a denigration of God's word to saddle it with just a single meaning. In contrast to human speech, which carries a finite range of meanings, the language of God was deemed to be endowed with an infinity of meanings.Within the infinity of meanings compressed into this one line of Torah, there are many which celebrate the full personhood of all, regardless of gender or orientation. We owe it to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to God to wrestle with the text until it yields these blessings.
I wasn't that taken with most of the Pentecost stuff from actual Pentecost Sunday this year, but one of the things I liked best was from the Children's Time our seminary intern at my Sunday morning church did. She said she had been trying to program her husband's radio alarm clock but it wasn't working, and she asked the kids what they might try if they were having that problem. One kid said, "I would check if it's turned on or plugged in." And indeed that was exactly the problem. She said, "It's very important to plug in electrical appliances before you try to program them."
It actually reminds me somewhat of the Pentecost blogpost I quoted above.
From a Pentecost sermon ("See My People Through") at a church I didn't attend on Pentecost Sunday:
When we are done, when we can’t go on any longer, when we are all dried up, when we’re toast, when we have put down the bags, spent our last dime, when we have woken up in someone’s bed and we don’t remember whose, when we have alienated our last friend and relative, when we have drunk everything in the house including the mouthwash, when we have stolen from those we love and been caught, when we are too ashamed to live anymore, when we have sold our birth rite, when we can’t remember our essential sweet goodness, when we have sold out our friends and family, when we have been conquered, when someone not interested in our welfare is occupying our heart, our homeland and our minds, God will blow life back into us.
Even though we are a heap of desiccated bones, if we watch and notice, God will bring us back to life. God will help us to reassemble ourselves, to grow into the people God made us to be, humans whose essence is the same essence of God.
And more than that, and it is the story of that day of Pentecost, if we remember to ask for the presence of God, she will come and not only save us, but give us the gifts we need to heal and to become like Jesus, bring justice, she will set us free to be fully human, fully free.