Holy Spirit

Spiritual Rebirth

I’m willing to bet that you weren’t born alone. When you came into this world, there was at least one other person in the room. None of us gets born alone. Your birth was work for your mother, that’s why we call it labor. You merely allowed yourself to be pushed. All of this doubly applies to our spiritual birth. God labors to bring us to new life. This may be why Jesus speaks about being born again, instead of using an eastern turn of phrase like, coming to enlightenment.

We often forget this mystery when speak about faith. Some people make a memorial out of the moment they came to believe. They remember the evangelists, music, scriptures, teachers, and books that influenced them. In all these little details, it is easy to forget the wind of God incompressible spirit. It blows where it wills without any dependence upon human communicators. We were not saved by being in that particular church on the night so and so spoke. We are saved by God, who in His prevenient grace stacks the dominoes so that they all fall in the right sequence for us and we get pushed into new life.

Consider Nicodemus. This man had become so thoroughly enmeshed in the brotherhood of the Pharisees that his thoughts rarely returned to the singular relationship he had with God. Ask him about his faith and he will speak for hours about his teachers and the respected elders of his religious order. Jesus silences him with one phrase, “You must be born again.”

This is not a command, but a statement of fact. Nicodemus isn’t being told to adopt a new set of beliefs. Instead, he is being called to return to the place where the only other person in the room is God. There is a purity and mystery to John 3:1-17. It deserves its place as one of the most quoted passages of the Bible.

Sunday, May 27, 2018
Pentecost 2
Trinity Sunday

Why Pentecost Matters

In every parish that I served, I encouraged people to think of Pentecost as one of the three great holidays of the church. There is Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. They are of equal importance and should be celebrated with the same degree of serious preparation. Christmas allows us to speak of the Trinity and the uniqueness of Jesus among men. Our systematic theology goes into high gear as we try to speak about God’s mission to save all of humanity. In Easter we rediscover the passion of God and the wretchedness of humanity. Our theology goes low, as we identify with the people who stood by his cross and then carried our Lord to the grave. Easter is a story filled with transition, the greatest example being the resurrection.

    In Pentecost, we realized that both Christmas and Easter occurred, not simply that individuals might be saved, but that a religious community might be formed. We push people towards the end of the second chapter of acts, when we realized that all this fire and wind resulted in the birth of the church as an organization. The spiritual birth of the church, I believe, was when Jesus gathered people on a hillside and told them that they were already blessed by God (Matthew 5:1-9). Three years later, the day of Pentecost takes this awareness that we are a blessed people, and empowers us to organize to share that blessing. On Pentecost, our theology goes wide.

Sunday, May 20, 2018
Pentecost Sunday

A Double Shot of Spirit

A man walks into a bar and says, “Make mine a double.” What he means is take a shot of whatever spirits and put it in a glass, then double it by adding another shot. It’s a very literal thing. Instead of one ounce of booze, you have two. I think we should be more literal when talking about the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we have one ounce of spirit. Sometimes we have more. When Elisha asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit, he is imagining a real commodity. I always tell people that spiritual passion is measurable. Our soul is real, as is our God. Religion doesn’t deal with intangibles. In spiritual matters we deal with a substance that matters. In Bible times, every son got one portion of the family estate. But the first born son got a double share of the family farm. This was a real commodity that could be measured in furlongs and feet. Is the Holy Spirit that real to you?

Sunday, February 11, 2018
Epiphany 6
Transfiguration Sunday

Try not to fall for Dumb Idols

Idolatry is a big thing today. I visited Edmonton, Canada a few years back. They have this big silver thing in the middle of town. It’s a reproduction of the Stanley Cup that their hockey team has won a few times. Pittsburgh gets one of them things every once and a while. We try not to make an idol of it. How are we doing?

Ever since Mohamed Ali people have been saying, “I’m the greatest.” Most have been less deserving than Mr. Ali. You may have someone over you at your workplace who thinks that they are the greatest — it has a way of making them a lousy boss. Many people today work for a business that wants them to idolize the company — that is — to sacrifice your thoughts and your family time for its ends. No job should do that.

There are people both commoners and politicians today, who are making an idol out of their political party. They believe that any end that advances their agenda can be justified — whether it means gerrymandering voting districts, or spreading rumors about an opposing candidate, or giving their unqualified relatives and friends a position in office, ahead of those who know something about governing. Political crap and idolatry is ruining American democracy. If we want them to stop it, we best start calling it what it is, idolatry.

Face it, though, from the moment we are born, we are encouraged to worship false idols. As a child, I was taught that people who had lighter skin were superior — I had to unlearn, with great embarrassment and difficulty — the idolatry of racism. Some of us were led to the false idols of alcoholism and drugs. Some of us took on compulsive addictions like pornography and endless hours of computer gaming.

Paul writes in I Corinthians 12:2:

Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Pentecost 1
Day of Pentecost

Water and Spirit

Jesus says in John 3:5 that we come into the Kingdom of God by water and spirit. This makes me think of baptism, both the water kind that is common in worship, and the baptism of Pentecost that is less common these days. Water and spirit, here might also be related to the birth process. Water surrounds a baby for nine months. It gives way at birth to the spirit — in greek the same word also means breath and wind. When a child takes that first breath, they are inspired. We each re-spire until we die, or expire.  The word spirit and the words we use to talk about being creatures of the air, have deep linguistic connections. Think of it sequentially. The world was dark and void and God parted the waters. Then he breathed his breath into each creature and made us born again to a new life.Physical birth and spiritual birth have much in common.

 

Jesus goes on to say about the spirit that it is like an unexplained and unexpected wind. God is constantly involved in our world. We don’t stop to think about this as often as we should. What events are purely natural, and what events are spiritual?

Sunday, March 12, 2017
Lent 2

The Inner Voice

Jiminy Cricket acts as a conscience for Pinocchio — does the Holy Spirit do the same for us? Pinocchio was written over a hundred years ago as a morality tale. Children were to be read Pinocchio so that they would know not to rebel, disobey, or lie. Disney toned down the rascally nature of the puppet and added Jiminy Cricket to keep the story from being too sad. Many people today are living the original version of the story, which doesn’t end well for the puppet (in the Italian version he is hung). All of us need an inner voice to guide us. Don’t swat away that cricket.

    In Jeremiah 31, the prophet who has been weeping for God’s people because they are about to pay the price for their sin and go into exile, looks ahead to a better time. Long after the prophet is gone, God will forgive his people. They will be restored. They will return to Palestine and once again live as a free people. This will be the Old Testament’s second Exodus. The second time in which God will reclaim his people after a period of imprisonment. On this trip back, however, God himself will be their Moses. They won’t have to stop half-way through the wilderness to pick up the Ten Commandments, for God will set his law within each person. Jeremiah sees the Disney version, complete with Jiminy Cricket.

Sunday, October 16, 2016
Proper 24

Reversing Babel

It is often pointed out that the Day of Pentecost is the reverse of the Tower of Babel event in the Old Testament. My first pastorate was a church just south of Bangor, Maine. Bangor, like many American communities, has been struggling to make a name for itself. In the 1960s they lost a major military base and airport hub. Truth is, planes stopped needing to fuel there as they flew to Europe. Few people remember that Bangor was the destination for the King of the Road hit song by Roger Miller. Fewer people still, associate Bangor with Paul Bunyan. Like the ancient people on the Plane of Shinar, and John Katich (who?), the Bangorites had a name recognition problem. The city council decided that the solution was to build, not a tower, but a 30foot high fiberglass statue of Paul Bunyan.

 

It is good to note where the people of Bangor and the citizens of Babel went wrong. With the United Methodist General Conference meeting soon, these stories have relevance. I think the average church leader can see similarities in the crack-pot schemes of their congregation.

Reversing Babel

It is often pointed out that the Day of Pentecost is the reverse of the Tower of Babel event in the Old Testament. My first pastorate was a church just south of Bangor, Maine. Bangor, like many American communities, has been struggling to make a name for itself. In the 1960s they lost a major military base and airport hub. Truth is, planes stopped needing to fuel there as they flew to Europe. Few people remember that Bangor was the destination for the King of the Road hit song by Roger Miller. Fewer people still, associate Bangor with Paul Bunyan. Like the ancient people on the Plane of Shinar, and John Katich (who?), the Bangorites had a name recognition problem. The city council decided that the solution was to build, not a tower, but a 30foot high fiberglass statue of Paul Bunyan.

 

It is good to note where the people of Bangor and the citizens of Babel went wrong. With the United Methodist General Conference meeting soon, these stories have relevance. I think the average church leader can see similarities in the crack-pot schemes of their congregation.

Come over here and help

I’m running out the door, late, as usual. Across the street my neighbor is sitting alone, on his porch. He doesn’t look up. He doesn’t acknowledge me. Yet, I hear a silent nudge in my heart, saying, Go over and talk to him. 

    But, I have a meeting to attend. My neighbor is a recovering alcoholic who has recently left the path. His wife is forcing him to move out, saying, “I won’t live with a drunk.” I helped him pack a U-haul over the weekend. I let him borrow my car to take his son out to the park. He thanked me. I learned the next day that he had picked up a bottle of whiskey on the way back from the park. No, I didn’t want to go across the street to talk to him.

    I went on my way and didn’t think much about it until I saw the scripture for this Sunday. In Acts 16:9-15, Paul has a vision. A man from Macedonia appeared in a dream saying, “Come over to help us.”  This meant crossing the Aegean Sea and starting a new ministry in Europe. Paul already had his hands full with Asia Minor. He had meetings to attend.

Sunday, May 1, 2016
Easter 6

Holy Spirit and Effective Ministry

People came to hear Jesus teach and they asked each other, “What’s different about that guy?” The Gospel writers, who are already shifting into an institutional mindset, offer this answer, “He spoke with authority.” Actually, what people sensed was the natural flow of Jesus’ passion for God. Later, the book of Acts tells how the church, as an institution, was formed. The Apostles note that a man named Stephen was really doing a lot of service for others, so they ordained him a deacon (literally, one who serves). Luke wants to us to observe how organizational innovations like this helped the early church to grow.

Make Mine a Double

At McDonalds, we get asked if we want to supersize it. It doesn’t cost much more. Unfortunately, there isn’t a fast food restaurant that offers super-sizing for spiritual things. In the movies, the dispirited protagonist always walks into a bar and asks for ‘a double.’ I can never see how two extra fingers of whisky will make the situation better. Perhaps when we are praying about something really important, we should ask for ‘a double.’ In Bible times, first born sons stood to inherit a double share of the family farm. This was a real commodity that could be measured in furlongs and feet. When Elisha asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit, he is imagining a real commodity. I always tell people that spiritual passion is measurable. We don’t deal with intangibles. We deal with something that matters.

 

Sunday, February 15, 2015
Last week in Epiphany

3 Good Words

Whatever is preached this coming week, it should be a continuation of Pentecost. You can go to Genesis and talk about how the creating spirit of God continues to act in the world; but that we as the Church have been given the commandment to be fruitful, multiply, and care for the earth. Or you can go to the Great Commission in Matthew 28 and talk about how the Holy Spirit wasn’t given as a personal heart warmer, but as a dynamic power for the congregation to do its task of making disciples. I’m going to suggest, though, that you look at I Corinthians 13:11-13. Here Paul closes a difficult letter by highlighting three words. They are the words he would shout from the ship’s rail if he were sailing away forever from them.  They are three reminders of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, that must continue in this world of change.

 

Sunday, June 15, 2014
Pentecost 2

Jesus' Greatest Promise

Some people would say that when Jesus promised us eternal life, that would be his greatest promise. But, I would say No.  If I am a failure at my current life, then why would I want to live forever? I think Jesus came to save that half of the world that is so depressed, broken, and ashamed, that they only hope for one life to live and that it be short. To them, and those of us who already know the love of Jesus, the greatest promise is found in John 14:15-21 where he promises to send the Holy Spirit into into our lives as a strong, day to day, Advocate. With this advocate, Jesus promises that we will never be like orphans, powerless and nameless. Even the newest Christian, the person of weak faith and who has a horrible personal history, will be able to claim that they are in Jesus and through Jesus, in the creator of the Universe.

 

These words need to be unpacked in the sermon:

Sunday, May 25, 2014
Easter 6
Memorial Day Weekend

Spiritual Harvest

Joel chapter 2 means something different for rural folk. People who live out in the sticks are mindful of the weather. They bend their plans around the possibility that the creek might rise or snow might close a road or that the Fall Apple Butter Festival might happen this weekend. In Joel, God takes ownership for a series of disasters, drought, locust, caterpillar, and grub, that ruined crops and brought famine. God says, “I ruined your harvest in the past, now I’m going to make up for it” (Joel 2:23-25). The passage reminds us of our physical dependency upon God, in order to prepare us to be spiritually dependent upon God. For rural folk, this is the central theme of the fall season.

 

Urban folk need a different interpretation. For them, failing social services and crumbling infrastructure are the drought, locust, and grub, that God has to answer for. Today, Joel might hear God say, “In the past I gave you corrupt politicians, inadequate housing, and racial segregation, but now, I’m going to make up for it.” Like their country cousins, they need to know that their struggles against oppression and inequity, were part of God’s greater plan to bring them shalom and the witness of his Holy Spirit.

 

A Community of Individuals

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place... tongues of fire separated and came to rest on each of them +

I went to a large used book sale this past Saturday. Reading is such an individual thing. I usually get in trouble when I read over someone’s shoulder or read my book out loud when others are trying to sleep. So, when I shop for books, I shop for my personal enjoyment. Yet, as is often the case, my book shopping this weekend was very communal. I had four other family members with me. As we rambled through the aisles we kept separating and coming back together in little clumps of twos and threes to compare finds. Together, apart. Apart, together. The mix and match of the Kemp family’s communal love of books.

The day of Pentecost was a group experience with an individual dimension. As you read Acts 2, you bounce back and forth between the communal and the personal. The first Christians are all together, yet the spirit falls upon each individual as a personalized tongue of flame. The disciples go out on the balcony to speak to the crowds on the street. Yet each hearer experiences the Holy Spirit’s communication in their own language. This really should be known as the gift of individual ears rather than as the gift of a common tongue.

Sunday, May 19, 2013
Pentecost 1
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