In Praise of Inefficiency: Thoughts on Pentecost

5791933614*Acts 2:1-21

If we back up to the first chapter of Acts, we hear Jesus’ instructions to the gathered believers: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Wait for the gift . . . in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” What is all of this waiting for the Spirit about? Surely Jesus, God incarnate, could have empowered them right then to go forth and witness.

Sometimes in the mornings as the kids are getting ready for school I will see that one of them has put a waffle in the toaster oven and they are just standing there watching the thing toast. This drives me nuts. There are clothes to put on, lunches to make, backpacks to pack. “Don’t just sit there waiting for the waffle to toast. Do something while you wait!”

But Jesus says “wait.” His followers could have been preparing speeches or sending letters. But Jesus says wait. They could have been recruiting friends and family or designing a PR campaign. But Jesus says wait. They could have made some picket signs and headed over to the temple: “No more robbers in God’s house of prayer!” But Jesus says wait. They could have been out on the city streets tending to the sick, feeding the hungry. But Jesus says wait.

And so these believers wait for the Holy Spirit. There are about 120 believers. And they gather and they wait. Obviously, they did not have a strategic plan.

But sure enough, after about ten days of waiting . . . a waiting that involved prayer and preaching and singing . . . after about ten days of waiting the Holy Spirit did indeed come upon them.

They were all gathered together in one place, and suddenly there was a loud, violent noise, and those things that seemed to be tongues of fire came down on them. This is frightening and exciting. They now have the power. The power of the Holy Spirit for which they have been waiting.

Now each of the believers is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! . . .

Well, not quite. But, when they speak, those who are listening in the gathered crowd hear them in their own native tongues. And this really is quite impressive considering all of the different places these people are from.

The power of the Spirit is there, for sure. But again, this seems a highly inefficient use of Divine power.

Because really, if the disciples had just spoken Greek, everyone could have understood them. Greek was the lingua franca. Anyone in Jerusalem–residents and visitors alike–probably spoke it.

We pray each week for God to lead us not into temptation. And it seems that efficiency at any cost is one of the greatest temptations of our era.

I heard an interview on NPR a few years back. I don’t even remember which celebrity was being interviewed. I just remember him saying that he was so obsessed with efficiency that at one point he actually timed himself to see if it was faster to put on both socks and then both shoes, or to put the sock and shoe on one foot and then the other.

In the 1990′s, Russian orphanages were terribly efficient. Each nurse could care for 15-20 children. The children, of course, spent basically all of their time alone in a crib. Any family who has adopted a child from one of these orphanages could tell you about the troubling results of this efficient system.

We see, Paul says, as in a mirror darkly. But our God has a deep and abiding wisdom. A wisdom that often seems as foolishness to the world. A wisdom that often seems absurd and terribly inefficient.

It is precisely in the inefficiency of waiting that those first 120 believers become a community. It is in that inefficiency of waiting that they train their hearts towards God, thus preparing themselves to receive those things that seemed like tongues of fire–without getting burned.

And after that inefficient–after that ridiculously absurd–display of Holy Spirit power at Pentecost, about three thousand people are baptized and added to the number of believers.

As followers of Christ, the Holy Spirit leads us not into efficiency, but into faithfulness.

Thanks be to God.

(This post is excerpted from a sermon. The full text is here.)

Categories: Bible Study, Preaching | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

Worship Pieces: Holy Spirit

photo

An icon depicting Pentecost–given to Peace Mennonite in memory of Cindy Wiens.

Call to Worship

Come, Holy Spirit,
The wind of God, the breath of Life.
Come, Holy Spirit,
Our Advocate, our Counselor.
Come, Holy Spirit,
Teacher of Wisdom, Reminder of Christ.
Come, Holy Spirit,
Granter of forgiveness, giver of peace.
Come, Holy Spirit.
May we feel God breathing through our worship.
May we receive the Holy Spirit in this place. Amen.

Offertory Prayer

Holy One, you have given yourself to us in Creator, in Christ, in the Spirit. We now give back to you:
this money that seems so little; this worship that seems so small; these words that never quite get it right.
Receive what we offer and transform it by the power of your Spirit into:
enough money, sufficient praise, worthy words
for proclaiming and enacting your peace, justice, and love in the world.

Link to Pentecost Call to Worship and Benediction.

A sermon on Pentecost and Baptism.

And another Pentecost sermon “In Praise of Inefficiency.”

Categories: Call to Worship, Offertory Prayer, Worship Pieces | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Birding by Ear

A Prothonotary warbler

A Prothonotary warbler

Some people who love birds can listen to the forest chatter and tell you what kinds of birds are singing. The titmouse and the mourning dove, the chickadee and the robin and the wren and even–I’ve seen them out my back window–the stunningly yellow Prothonotary  warbler. For some people, all of these birds are like friends who call on the phone and don’t have to say who they are because you recognize their voices right away.

But I’m sitting on my back deck right now as dawn turns to morning, and I just hear birds. Lots of them, to be sure. Looking for food, calling for mates, declaring their territory, greeting the day. Chips and chirps and whistles and trills. I would know many of these birds if I saw them, but I when I just hear their voices I’m at a loss.

There’s the neighbor’s rooster, though. I learned about cock-a-doodle-doo in preschool. And technically a rooster is a bird, right?

And a cardinal. I know what they sound like because even living in town they were all over the place. I got used to hearing their proud, jaunty proclamations and looking up to see a bright spot of red perched high on a tree or wire or pole singing his little heart out. I try not to take the cardinals for granted; they are truly beautiful birds. When I hear their call–long notes followed by short–I look for the flash of red. . . . I see him now, near the top of a dead tree. And there’s another across the way calling back to him.

I know some of the birds I hear this morning are woodpeckers. The little hairy woodpeckers and the red-bellied and the flickers, maybe even a redheaded, though I haven’t seen any of those. I don’t know what their calls sound like, but I know the sharp raps they make when they are drilling into trees–or the siding on our outbuilding. It’s sharp and loud and echoes from a distance.

In the past week I’ve learned what an oriel sounds like, though I don’t hear any right now. There are a few that hang out in the trees in my front yard and I’ve learned that even with a bright orange chest an oriel can hide behind a leaf where his shrill call taunts me and I can’t quite see him–even with the binoculars. Luckily one of the trees in our front yard is dead, and when he sits high up in those bare branches I have a lovely view. (Though I’m afraid my husband plans to cut down that tree and then I may never see an oriel again.)

I’m pretty sure I heard an owl last night, though I couldn’t begin to tell you what kind. And it’s possible I dreamed it because I never fully woke up. I just have this warm cozy memory of darkness and hooting.

Birding by ear is something I’m learning. Very slowly. In fact, it may take the rest of my life. And even then I may not be able to identify more than a handful of birds by sound. And that is OK.

For now, this back deck is a good place to practice listening. This early morning is a good time to realize that there is beauty hiding within beauty in this world.

Categories: Ponderings | Tags: , | Leave a comment

On Worship, Freedom, & Fear

wildgooseThe Wild Goose Festival is a gathering at the intersection of justice, spirituality, music and the arts. Happening June 26-29 outside of Asheville in Hot Springs, NC. You can get more information and tickets here: www.wildgoosefestival.org. I am honored to be part of the Wild Goose blog tour and connect through cyberspace with many other people of faith who long to celebrate and embody the living liberation of God!

 

Several weeks ago, blog tour participants were given a list of topics from which to choose, all related to this year’s festival theme: Living Liberation! When I finally for real had to pick one of those topics, my spirit settled on “living liberation through worship.”

 

Maybe because I’m a pastor, and facilitating worship is one of my primary activities every week.

 

Maybe because–at least in my white middle-class context–I don’t generally connect the act of worship with liberation, so the idea intrigues me.

 

Maybe because I was getting to the end of the list and I’m not brave enough to write about “living liberation as sexual beings”–which was the last option.

 

So, “living liberation through worship” it is. And this whole idea makes me think of what Annie Dillard wrote in Teaching a Stone to Talk:

 

It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church. We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may awake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.

 

Somehow for me the danger of worship and the liberation of worship are connected. Because a truly healthy fear of God–a realization of the full power of the Almighty–puts my earthly fears in perspective. And I have plenty of earthly fears. Petty fears about things like whether or not you will like this blog post. Deeper fears about what life holds for my teenage son when he finishes high school next year. Life-grabbing fears about the storms and tornadoes that sweep into Kansas this time of year, about the prevalence of guns in our society and the hurting, violent people who might use those guns to kill people I love.

 

If you need more fear in your life, just let me know. I’d be glad to give you some of mine.

 

And fear, as I imagine we have all experienced, is an imprisoning force. It is the opposite of liberation. It can hold us back and lock us in and keep us from living the abundant life that Jesus said he came to give.

 

Now I won’t claim that worship is some kind of magic ritual that will erase fear from our lives. But I do think that regular and true worship can help us release our fears–at least a little bit. Because in worship we acknowledge the true Power of this world–and the next. We remind ourselves that the forces of bondage and death that we fear are not the most potent forces in this world.  Worship reminds us–against the loudest of cultural voices–that our own individual lives are not the most important things in this world. And through worship God reminds us that the end of the Story–the true and real end–is Life. No. Matter. What.

 

In that way, worship gives us perspective. And perspective, it turns out, can be very liberating indeed.

Categories: Ponderings, Worship Pieces | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Matthew’s Marys: Thoughts on the Resurrection

5633767190[This post is adapted from a sermon on Matthew 28:1-10]

A rather interesting discussion emerged on my Facebook page this week about Easter sermons. Many were lamenting how difficult they are; a couple were suggesting that there is no need to even preach on Easter–that the story speaks for itself. And then my college chaplain wrote: “Every year at Easter I felt like the fellow in Garrison Keillor’s ‘News…’ who went to the lectern to read the Christmas story one Christmas Eve service, looked down at the text, looked back up at the congregation, and said, ‘Stop me if you’ve heard this one!'”

Right? We’ve all heard this one. We all know the Easter story. Which, actually, is four stories. Each Gospel tells of Jesus’ resurrection with it’s own distinct slant and unique details. In all four Gospels the story happens on Sunday, Mary Magdalene is there, and the tomb is empty. Beyond that, though, the Gospels writers present the events of that morning in quite distinct ways.

So even though we’ve all heard this one before, the story itself bears repeating. And the four versions merit our repeated attention. This year, I didn’t get very far into Matthew’s story before I noticed something unexpected: “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.”

That is not what is supposed to happen. The women are supposed to bring spices to the tomb. I know, because I wrote a touching essay about it. The women offer practical service in the midst of their devastating grief, coming to the tomb to rub spices on Jesus’ body.

But apparently only Mark and Luke’s company of women do that. They are the no nonsense, get ‘er done, work through the tears kind of women. But Matthew’s Marys? They don’t have any spices. They don’t even have a real purpose as far as we can tell. They go simply to “see the tomb.”

“Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.”

It’s not much.

Our tendency is to either avoid places of death,–to not show up at the tomb at all–or to enter places of death with all of the tools we think we need to fix them.

Matthew’s account of the resurrection is a strong reminder of the deep truth of the Gospel: Bringing life from death is not our work to do.

It is God’s power that rolls away stones, God’s power that shatters graves and hauls life out of the pit of death. It is God’s power alone that enacts resurrection.

When we enter the graveyards, we do not need to bring a crane to lift the stone. We do not need to bring spices to anoint the body. We do not need to bring anything except ourselves.

“Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.”

It’s not much.

But it is enough. Their willingness to simply see the tomb–to be present with death–was enough to put them in place to be the first human witnesses to the resurrection.

And I believe God will honor our willingness to be present with death as well. There are many dark places in our world–even within our own communities, our own homes, our own selves. And we should not avoid these places. And we need not carry all the heavy tools we think we need to fix these places.

We don’t need to drive around with a crane to move the rocks. We don’t need to stash spices in our purses and pockets just in case.

God asks simply that we go and see.

Because that will put us in the place where we can experience the power of God at work. We can feel the earthquake and see the lightning and hear the truth proclaimed: “Jesus Christ is risen!” He is risen indeed.

Categories: Lent/Easter | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Easter Benediction

From Romans 8:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through God who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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To All My Pastor Friends in Holy Week

*In the midst of Holy Week stress and missing my dad, I found this post from a few years back. I thought others (especially pastors) might also need to be re-reminded of this truth on this Maundy Thursday. So I’ve edited it just a bit and re-posted.

- – – -

I love to plan worship services. I love to select the hymns, write the prayers, choose the readings . . . I love every part. And I want it all to be perfect.

I had this problem even before I was a pastor. My wedding, for example. I didn’t spend much time on the dresses or flowers, but I wanted each word of the ceremony to be right. As my anxiety built in the days leading up to the wedding, my dad pulled me aside. “Joanna,” he said, “whatever happens, you and Ryan will be married when this wedding is over. And that’s what really matters.”

I suppose that it is generally a good thing for a pastor to care deeply about the content and structure of worship. But I will tell you that my worship-planning perfectionism has just about exhausted me this week. I preached yesterday at an ecumenical service—and was re-writing my “perfect” words until about an hour before worship. I will participate in one Good Friday service tomorrow and lead another.  And I need to plan for Easter Sunrise.

Then, of course, the “big” worship service is yet to come. I know it’s not rationally or grammatically correct to say this, but I always want Easter Sunday worship to be even more perfect than all the other worship services. Yesterday I was thinking, “Wow, it’s a lot of stress, trying to lead people in a celebration of the resurrection.”

Then my “inner dad” pulled me aside. “Joanna,” he said, “whatever happens at your church, Jesus is out of that tomb on Easter morning. And that’s what really matters.”

Amen. And thanks be to God!

Categories: Lent/Easter | Leave a comment

Easter Call to Worship: Matthew 28

Carrying Friday’s stale grief,
we come to see the tomb.
We come to mourn on solid ground,
and instead find the earth shifting beneath our feet.
We expect bloody grave clothes,
and instead see the gleaming white robe of the angel.
The angel who says, “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he is risen.”

And our hearts swell with fear and great joy as we run to share the news:
Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed!

*Other Easter calls to worship are available here.

Categories: Lent/Easter | 2 Comments

The Palm Sunday Crowd

442780252This reflection is excerpted from a sermon on Mark 11:1-11. As you prepare for Palm Sunday, you might also appreciate this prayer of confession and offertory prayer.  For more Lent and Easter worship material, check the “Lent/Easter” category on the right side bar or go to the Index and scroll down to “The Year” section.

- – – – – -

For the Palm Sunday crowd, I think that Jesus was a convenient person on whom to pin their hopes. A learned Jewish teacher, said to have performed miracles, riding into the holy city on a donkey colt. It must be him!

“Him” being . . . whoever they were wanting him to be. And they took his silence as consent. Because he did not tell them otherwise, they clung dearly to their ideas of how and when and why Jesus would save them. In their own minds, the people in the crowd made Jesus into the savior they most desired.

Now, if you know anything about history, then you know that the original Palm Sunday crowd is not the only group of people guilty of taking advantage of Jesus. From Constantine to the Crusaders to Nazis to the Klu Klux Klan to Fred Phelps and his “church.” It is so easy for people to use Jesus as a rallying cry for their own ideals and causes.

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Of course, there are examples less drastic than Hitler. A perusal of the religious bookstore will prove my point. Now, I am sure that some of these books contain good theology. I’m also sure some of them don’t. Still, it is instructive to consider the range of titles available on Amazon:

Jesus CEO; Jesus, Entrepreneur; Jesus, MD; Jesus, Life Coach; Rabbi Jesus; Jesus the Pastor; Jesus . . . A Religious Revolutionary; Jesus, the Greatest Therapist who Ever Lived; The Laughing Jesus; Jesus Mean and Wild; Jesus in Blue Jeans; My Best Friend, Jesus; Jesus Christ, Superstar; The Yoga of Jesus; The Politics of Jesus.

Save us, we beseech you! O please, please, give us success!”

We are desperate for salvation. When a savior comes along, our tendency is to mold that savior, in our own minds, into whatever we think we need from a savior.

It is easy to follow Jesus when we simply make Jesus into the person we want to follow. It is much harder to follow the one who rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey colt in silence, tottering towards death.

I imagine this was a lonely, heartbreaking time for Jesus. As he listened to the praises of the crowd, he must have known that he would not live up to their expectations. That the salvation he offered was not the salvation they wanted.

It is easy to do. To make Jesus into what we want him to be. To latch onto him at just those moments when he seems to fulfill our hopes, our needs, our expectations.

But ultimately, when we only look to Jesus for the salvation we want, we deprive ourselves of the fullness of the salvation Jesus offers.

Categories: Lent/Easter, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Thinking About the Cross

6194423069This is an excerpt of the sermon I preached on John 19:31-37 this past Sunday, April 6, 2014. It is a complex topic and I commend to you the sermon in its entirety.

- – – – – -

I attended a discussion this past week with Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver. He has written The Nonviolent Atonement, and said during the discussion that there are all kinds of problems with a god who would require the torture and death of his child. He would agree with feminist and womanist theologians who term this traditional theory (since Anselm in the 11th Century) “divine child abuse.”

So my friend Joshua Paul Smith asked him, “What about understanding Jesus’ identity not primarily as the Son of God, but as Godself? Then the cross is not divine child abuse, but a willing submission, a sacrifice God makes on our behalf.”

“That,” said Weaver, “is taking divine child abuse and replacing it with divine suicide. I don’t think that is much better.”

The problem, according to Weaver, is the very notion that God requires violence in any form. Weaver rejects the notion that God desires or requires any kind of suffering and death as a means of reconciling humanity to Godself. God is big enough to enact reconciliation without violence.

For a pacifist, his arguments make a lot of sense. If we believe God wills peace and justice, then we cannot understand the crucifixion–that incredibly violent and deeply unjust event–as being in line with the will of God.

So where does that leave us during Lent–or any time, really–living within the Jesus story that has, at its crux (literally), this story of violent death? Does God as Father require the slaughter of this Paschal Lamb to enact liberation for the people? Does Jesus as God provoke his own death because it is necessary for liberation?

It matters deeply whether or not we think violence is necessary for salvation. The idea of violence as redemptive fuels the prison industrial complex and the military industrial complex; it justifies abuse and torture and war. As Christians who follow the Prince of Peace, we should be very concerned about the ways the central story of our faith gets used to affirm this connection between violence and salvation.

I’ve struggled with these questions about the cross for a long time. Now, when I see the cross, I do not see God’s violence. I do not see divine child abuse or divine suicide.

I see human sin–human tendency toward misunderstanding and fear and injustice and violence.

And I see Jesus hanging there, not because he is acting out some preordained divine salvation scheme that requires a blood sacrifice, but because he is committed to loving us fully.

Jesus’ death on the cross is not an enactment of divine violence, it is a sign of divine love. The crucifixion is central to our faith because it reveals God’s commitment to love us even in the face of our most violent and destructive tendencies; the cross shows God’s commitment to love us through our sin . . . all the way to the other side.

Categories: Lent/Easter, Preaching | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

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