Happy Birthday Church!
Does that sound odd to you? To wish the church a Happy Birthday?
Perhaps you never quite thought of it that way, but the day of Pentecost, which we celebrate each year, 50 days after Easter – really is an observance of the birthday of the Church.
So let’s say it together one more time – Happy Birthday Church!
In some ways, this birthday is just like any other birthday. The Acts reading presents an image of a group of people gathering in wait for the guest to arrive - perhaps thinking they will provide a surprise greeting to an unexpecting honoree. The guests are filled with expectation and anticipation of the arrival of one that has promised to arrive at any moment.
And like all birthdays, the one we observe today is not just an event – not simply a moment in time to be remembered - but it is also a threshold in history - one which marks the end of one process and the beginning of another. Just as a child is formed over time inside its mother prior to being born - the birth of the church at Pentecost is linked forever to HER formation in the holy womb nurtured by God’s Word and nourished by God’s promises – Word and promises made alive in Jesus Christ – the God who came to dwell with us.
And like any other birthday - today we remember the emergence of new life as the Holy Spirit launched God’s people along a trajectory on which we are still travelling nearly 2000 years later.
We were then – just as we are now - a church sent out into a dangerous world of confusing voices and noises. But because of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of God which gave birth to the church at Pentecost – we do so as a church empowered with a wonderful message of clarity and unity of purpose which breaks boundaries and tears down walls.
So Pentecost - like any other birthday - is a moment “in between” – between Jesus’ preparation of his followers - and the sending of those followers as apostles into the world – A moment pregnant with the anticipation of something special waiting to happen – some new life bound to emerge – and as any first time parent knows – new life changes everything.
Yet in many ways– this is a birthday like no other birthday. A birthday party - like no other birthday party.
Instead of singing the jovial Happy Birthday jingle - the Holy Spirit makes a different kind of music – signaling her presence with a loud echoing sound - a heavy billowing wind gust - a noise that made the gathered witnesses shudder. The Spirit is the one who shouts “SURPRISE” at the gathered guests.
And like no other party - instead of blowing candles out on her birthday cake the Spirit’s wind lit candles ablaze - not just for the twelve disciples - but to unify - and give purpose to - an entire movement we know as the church.
And these candles are even more resilient than those tricky relighting candles some of us have placed on a birthday cake as a cute practical joke. After the fun wears off, you can still put those flames out. But once the Holy Spirit lights YOUR candle – nothing can douse its flame – you are forever ablaze for God.
And like no other birthday party, the gifts that were given - at this party - were not given TO the birthday girl, but were instead poured out by the host of the party onto all the guests – God’s Holy Spirit now living inside each of us, and swarming all around us
Out of the Spirit’s unlimited treasury of grace – we remember today the gifts that were poured out on the church and upon each of us that have been baptized into her promises. These gifts are not just party favors – we don’t all get the same one - and they don’t sit on the shelf gathering dust. The gifts the Holy Spirit rains down on us, are gifts to be used – to be given to others – as we pass on the empowering Holy Spirit to all those we meet.
The church was born into a world that was messy. The disciples that day were gathered together in great anticipation - but also in fear that their lives were in jeopardy. Those first Pentecost celebrants, and the ones that celebrated the church’s birthday for decades to follow also lived in fear that their lives were at risk. Their world was as violent and confusing a place as our world is today – and perhaps even more so.
And in the face all those risks – all those reasons to just run away and hide – all the death and violence and messiness of the world – new life broke in and changed things forever. Now let’s be clear - The Holy Spirit did not emerge on Pentecost to miraculously alter the state of the world – and maybe that’s the biggest surprise of this birthday party!
Instead the Holy Spirit came and has changed us – changed the way we see the world into the way God sees the world.
God is not blind to the world that is broken all around us. God doesn’t ignore the fact that the world remains a violent place, unsafe for so many – that the world is our home – but one with no home for refugees - or for street dwellers – a world that is too divided into rich and poor – black, brown and white – weak and powerful – deserving and undeserving – stranger and native. A world where serving the interests of a few TRUMP the virtues of serving and caring for the common good.
The Holy Spirit helps us see this suffering the way God sees it – and calls us to live in solidarity with those who suffer violence and injustice in the world. To notice those who might otherwise be invisible to us. To see everyone as one of God’s beloved children – as someone to be claimed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And while the Spirit indeed opens our eyes to what is really happening around us, we are not simply observers – we become actors in the church’s birthday story. Our blown-out candles are lit by this incredible power poured onto us by God. In the face of the world’s brokenness and injustices – we are empowered by God to speak with tongues of fire – to say to the world – enough to racism - enough to planet abuse - enough to bombs - enough to hunger.
And we remember today, on the church’s birthday, that WE are the ones who receive the gifts – the gifts of the Spirit. They are not all the same gifts – but none are more or less valuable than others. They are to be used – but can never be used up, because they come from God. Whether you teach or preach - lead or serve - organize or support – you are enabled to do these things because of the Holy Spirit that has been poured out upon you.
And now – one more time – – let's say together – Happy Birthday Church!
It's been another tough week in the world, don't you think?
On Tuesday morning, we awoke to news that terror had struck again - this time in the English city of Manchester, where bombs claimed the lives of more than 20 people who had just enjoyed a concert given by the pop star Ariana Grande.
Then on Friday, more hateful violence splattered our news reports. This time 28 Christians aboard a bus traveling to a monastic retreat south of Cairo Egypt were executed by religious fundamentalists, further escalating a series of attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt.
The sadness attached to these two incidents of mass violence, overwhelmed even our dear President's latest odd behavior.
It's been another tough week in the world, but we can be sure of one thing - Jesus prays for us!
You might wonder why the Son of God would continue to bother caring about a world that seems so driven apart by hate, racism, violence, war and greed. You might wonder why the Prince of Peace would pray for a world to be one, when everything around us seems to race in the opposite direction. You might wonder why, the God who came to dwell with us, would even listen when our actions seem to deny the presence of Emmanuel. Yes - you might wonder why Jesus would bother with us at all.
And yet, it is the very nature of God's love for us that sets all that wonder aside. And that is why Jesus prays for us - because he loves us all so much that he can't help but pray for us, pray for our protection, pray for us to see Christ in each other, pray for us to become one as sisters and brothers, children of the living and loving God.
It's been another tough week in the world, and there's no promise that next week will be any easier.
Yet, we rest with confidence in the promise of the one who prays for us, and wants the best for us - and in the face of the world's cauldron of death, promises us eternal life.
So remember, no matter what, Jesus prays for you. Jesus prays for us!
New Yorkers know, probably more than most, that roads are the most unpredictable of things we use in our lives each and every day. Weather conditions, traffic congestion, unexpected turns and construction detours are just a few of the things that make roads, even hopeful-looking open roads like the one in this image, not just ways to get from point A to point B, but are pathways into an unknown future, one that often brings with it anxiety and worry about what lay ahead.
Usually, we’re on the road so we can get somewhere by a time at which we are expected to arrive. Because we can’t really have faith in road travel, the fear of being late, or being caught in traffic has given rise in a very short time to the absolute necessity of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and traffic aps on our smartphones as ways in which we can improve the odds of completing our journey safely and on time. We hope these devices show us the best way to travel, tell us the truth about what we can expect on the road, and preserve and enhance our lives in the process.
It’s important to note that our Gospel passage today begins with these words “Do not let your hearts be troubled”. Placed at the front of the reading, these words of assurance from Jesus provide a key to understanding the rest of the passage, including the bold claim Jesus makes to be “the way, the truth and the life. They serve as a different kind of GPS, if you will, a Grace Positioning System, guiding us through the rest of the reading, and through the rest of our lives together.
We need to remember that these words “Do not let your hearts be troubled”, foreshadow that the verses following must be understood from a perspective of providing comfort and assurance through faith in Jesus Christ, and not for the purpose of perpetuating the fear of being excluded from the mercies of almighty God. Jesus’ words are designed to welcome, invite and include, not to judge, sort and exclude.
The disciples are on the road with Jesus, but they are growing concerned about Jesus’ mysterious predictions of his own death and of leaving the disciples behind to fend for themselves. As the spokesperson for this anxiety and fear, Thomas admits what all the others are probably thinking – that they don’t know how to follow Jesus on this road to the unknown and he asks Jesus to show them the way. To give his followers faith in the face of fear, Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, staking the claim that Jesus himself is the Grace Positioning System that guides us throughout the uncertainties of life.
While the key phrase “Do not let your hearts be troubled” serves us as the gateway to understanding the intent of this story, too often the church has in its history seen this passage as justification for a view of God that is tied to sorting or separating God’s people onto one or the other side of a border. On one side of the border are those who adhere to strict systems of belief, or behaviors – those who are “in”, and the ones who don’t quite measure up to those standards – those who are “out”. Those who are in, receive the gift of life, while those who are out, do not.
When Jesus claims himself as the way, the truth, and the life, his purpose for doing so is not to draw a border between the peoples of the world God has loved from the beginning of time, but to enwrap all those who worry about their eternal futures in the assurance that Jesus will walk alongside them all the way to the final border crossing, facing every doubt, every obstacle, every detour and every turn with the promise that our hearts never need be troubled, that we travel the road in faith knowing that our Jesus, our Grace Positioning System has it all mapped out for us.
Where does your road lead? What borders are you afraid to cross?
Do not let year hearts be troubled! Jesus is and knows the way to life. Set Jesus as your GPS.
For the full text of the Sermon - CLICK HERE
Perhaps the most beloved and enduring of all the images we treasure of Jesus is Christ “The Good Shepherd”. I think that’s true because the metaphor is multivalent in the what it communicates to people of faith. Of course, the shepherd is clearly a leader and guide who the sheep trust to keep them safe and to find nourishment to sustain and help them grow. We confess this each time we say the oft-memorized 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie in green pastures, and leads me by the still waters”. This image of Christ is pastoral and peaceful, and we are soothed knowing that all things can be faced if we follow the lead of the one true and good shepherd.
Christ the Good Shepherd is also a protector of the sheep. The shepherd leads us away from danger, the things that would seek to hurt us or even take our lives from us. The Good Shepherd is always present, never leaving the sheep to fend for themselves, preferring to give up his own life, rather than endanger those under his care.
Our Good Shepherd is also committed to never giving up on us. Even though we stray off the path of discipleship, the watchful shepherd both calls and prods us into returning to the fold, never desiring that even one of us be lost forever. This shepherd is faithful to his flock, and to his mission of care even of those who don’t love him back.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd is also the gate, an often misunderstood metaphor which some people claim separates some sheep from the others – as if the Good Shepherd only allows a certain kind of sheep to be dmitted to his care. But the gate is not there to keep the sheep out, but to keep out those who might want to do harm to the sheep. The key to understanding Jesus as the gate, is not to assume it is a tool for sorting, the good sheep from the bad sheep, but to give us assurance that our connection to Christ is always a life-giving and life-enhancing relationship. This Good Shepherd engages only in life-giving activities for the good of all the sheep under his care. The gate is always an instrument of life, never a separator that dooms some to death while selecting others to live.
When you look at the beloved icon of the Good Shepherd, or recite the 23rd Psalm in a moment of prayer, remember all these images of Jesus, our Good Shepherd knowing that you have been claimed into God’s holy flock for life, for abundant life, for eternal life.
For the full text of today's sermon - CLICK HERE
Devotions for Week of May 7, 2017
This week’s gospel, found only in Luke’s narrative, tells the story of two followers of Jesus travelling the way to Emmaus, a Jerusalem suburb, on the afternoon following the amazing news of an empty tomb which was spreading around the city. We don’t know why they taking this journey together, but perhaps they had been in Jerusalem for the eventful weekend, and were returning home before dark to their home village.
On the way, they are met by a third traveler, unknown to them at first, who doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to the extraordinary events that took place the past few days. This unexpected traveler listens as the two share their stories mixed with grief and wonder at what took place. Then we encounter an interesting twist while the three continue on their way. The third traveler (who Luke tells us is Jesus) takes control of the conversation, and reminds the others that the prophets had foreseen these events, and he began to teach them more and more about the ways of God, while they were on the way to Emmaus. The climax of this story occurs after the traveler is welcomed to stay the night, and as they were sitting down to dinner, the two followers realize that it was Jesus, the risen Christ, who was with them all along the way.
This theme of being “on the way” is one which is used frequently in scripture to describe the life of faith and discipleship to which we are called. The phrase used in Greek is “en tay hodos". This was used to identify the early Christian movement, which was known as “People of The Way”, indicating that discipleship was not so much about belief in a series of events, but a way of life, shaped by those events, but placed in continuous service to the world that Christ loved. I see this story of the way to Emmaus as another picture of what the life of the disciple is all about. It’s very tempting to sit at the empty tomb appreciating the wondrous gift of Easter morning, but Jesus reminds us along the way, that even the tomb itself is just a brief stop along a much longer journey.
The Greek word “hodos" translated as road or way, is the same word used in John’s Gospel when Jesus says “I am the WAY, the truth and the life”. So often, this verse is wrongly interpreted as the Way being belief in a set of events or dogma that separates Christians from those of other faiths. What if we interpreted Jesus statement as I am the JOURNEY? Perhaps thinking of the Way as a journey, rather than a method, we can experience Christ just as the Emmaus disciples did, in unexpected and inspiring ways, when we remain open to learning from the risen Christ as we walk the way of faith in the world.
Lord, help us live as your disciples as people of the Way, the people of the journey. Inspire us and appear to us when we do not expect you. Teach us to love others as you love them. Teach us to walk along the Way!
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About this website
Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church (GA) in New York City has been chosen as one of eight internship congregations to participate this year in a church-wide initiative designed to increase our understanding of Holy Scripture and most importantly, to cultivate our engagement with it. In partnership with The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Vicar John Heidgerd will be working to develop innovative ways to deepen our faith formation and sense of discipleship for the sake of ourselves and our communities.