Posts Tagged ‘pentecost’

3001809-poster-942-you-are-here-why-location-smartphones-killer-mapThe Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

My reflection this morning will be a little different. Those of you who come here regularly are probably saying to yourself, “So, what’s new?”

Fair enough; on this Pentecost morning, the Spirit will draw us again and again into now as we mark several important events happening in the life of our community, ultimately gathering around the table to break bread and share cup. The gift that the Holy Spirit gives us, one that we are likely to neglect otherwise, is to pay attention to this moment: here…now…reminding us that God is at work for us, in us, and through us.

Most of us tend to avoid the moment before us. And for some of us, that means getting caught up in the past. We let grievances and traumas get the best of us, defining us not as who we are, but as what has happened to us. Or maybe we think that the best approach is to just put those things behind us, to gut them out.

The truth, of course, is much more complicated. Our ability to heal from old wounds can only come when we are willing to seek out those who have the spiritual gift of healing – healing in body, in mind, in spirit. They are the ones God has gifted to strengthen us so that we can face the past, come to terms with it, and even find redemption in it.

In healing our pasts, we would do well to remember the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis. Jacob was a fierce seeker of God. It was this fierceness that gave him the limp that he carried the rest of his life. And so, his battle scars ran deep – but his faith ran far, far deeper.

For others of us, the past defines us in ways that seem like misty, near perfection. We reminisce, holding onto precious memories, wishing life could be that way now. The more we learn about memory, however, the more we understand how unreliable it is. This means that we risk becoming captives to nostalgia, to things that never were or, at least, were not the way we choose to remember them.

More importantly, though, as people of faith, it means that we tend to think of God as someone or something that was at work only in the past, as though God has given up on creation, leaving us to our own devices. This idea runs counter to everything we say we believe; and yet, it can take hold of us.

The truth is that God is at much at work in this moment as at any other time behind or before us. Even in those times that it feels like God is away, God is very much here – closer than our own breath.

There are times when we need to be reminded of that truth, of God’s constant presence.

Some of us flee the present moment in exchange for what is yet to come. We get caught up in looking forward, planning ahead, mapping out the road in front of us, that we neglect the beauty of what is happening. It’s as though we are walking along the beach, but remain focused on where the car is back in the parking lot, and never cast our gaze toward the endless horizon.

We can also let anxiety about the unknown future take hold of us. Our financial worries, our medical fears, our relationship uncertainties – all of them can trap us in places where hope gets dampened. And yet, just like we talked about last week, even if we don’t know what the future holds, we know who holds the future. In other words, we are going to be OK, no matter what, because God will always be God.

The Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

From our lesson this morning, when Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth about spiritual gifts, this is exactly what he was talking about. God uses our excellence, those things that bring us joy, for the sake of God’s desires. We are, each of us, gifted by God for the working of God’s hopes and joys. The invitation is to move deeper into God so that we might not only find those gifts, but also to discover God’s own self.

And in exploring that faith, we also hope to find ourselves and our unique calling, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit that rests on each of us. In other words, faith in Christ ought to be something that speaks to us in its own particular way and, at the same time, knit each of our strands into a wonderful tapestry of shared faith.

The Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

Today we mark that ancient Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit visited the disciples, flames of fire dancing on their heads, sending them out into the streets, gifting them with languages they had never known, giving birth to the Church.

And yet, what made all of that possible was the fact that the disciples first gathered together. Jesus, their teacher and friend, was gone. Unsure what to do, they only knew to do what they had done with Jesus: they came together. They prayed. They sang. And…they ate.

Around the table, that first generation of Jesus’ followers broke bread and shared cup together. And when they did, they found themselves connected across time and space with an infinite number of tables, all different shapes and sizes, that look back and forward at the same time.

As do we.

At the table, we look back to that moment in the upper room when Jesus broke bread, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of me.” We look back to that moment when Jesus took the cup, poured it, and said, “This is the cup of the new covenant, sealed with my blood, shed for you and for many. Do this in remembrance of me.”

At the same time, we look forward with expectation to that heavenly banquet, that moment where all of God’s beloved, former enemies and friends alike, gather in God’s presence and feast together.

And, above all, we are in this moment, now, because God is here! In this sacred space at this sacred time, Jesus is in our midst. After all, this is not our table. It is his. And when we break the bread and share the cup, we are somehow, by the grace of God and God alone, opened to God’s Holy Spirit moving us, shaping us, inviting us to be who it is that God has created us to be!



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It’s like we threw a party, but nobody got the invitation…

Elizabeth and I moved into a third story walk-up apartment on the Southside of Chicago. We shared the stairwell with five other apartments, but had not met any of the other residents yet. So we decided that we ought to take the lead. A couple of weeks after we moved in, we threw a party, inviting our neighbors to come upstairs. It was scheduled to start at 6pm.

At about 6:30…well, you know that feeling when you’re the only ones at your party? That’s where we were, beginning to realize we were going to eating spinach and artichoke dip three meals a day for about a week.

Fortunately, that’s when a knock came at the door. It was the couple who lived across the hall. Not long after, another knock – the elderly bachelor who lived downstairs. Then the graduate student across the hall from him, and the retired couple from the first floor – all in all, five out of the six apartments were represented. The party was a success!

We lived in that place for seven years. And in that time, we shared lives with those neighbors: relationships came to an end, others started. There were weddings and births and deaths and moves. It was, in short, our little community near the corner of 55th and South Cornell. But that first party was the only time that we were all in the same room together.

Our apartment was nothing special; in fact, it was a cozy little one bedroom. And so, whenever we had a party, we had to pull out extra chairs (or anything resembling chairs, for that matter) so that everyone who wanted to sit could. We had set up our apartment for two people; when more were there, even for just a short period of time – a few hours or a few days – we moved furniture around, borrowed if we had to. In short, we made room.

When I read the Pentecost story, I wonder if God was at work doing something similar with the disciples: making room. After Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, their numbers were down to eleven, and they holed themselves up back in the Upper Room that had become their familiar respite. After the resurrection, when Jesus appeared to them and ate with them and spoke with them and stayed with them for almost a month and a half, they decided that maybe their story wasn’t over. And so, after Jesus left them, they gathered once again in the Upper Room as he had told them to do, and the awaited instructions. While they waited, they decided they needed one more to take Judas’ place, with that honor going to Matthias.

And still they waited…perhaps wondering if anybody else was coming to their party. Then Pentecost happened, and the church was born. Wind burst through the windows; fire lapped on their heads; languages filled the air; and Peter takes the opportunity to give his first sermon to the gathered crowd. Apparently, three thousand people were baptized that day because of what they saw and heard and experienced. This little party of eleven, then twelve, had suddenly outgrown the confines of that Upper Room – the celebration had to be taken to the streets!

I read all of this, and then I look at the state of churches today all over the country. I look around our own Sanctuary here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. Unlike the disciples, we’ve got room – plenty of room – too much room. Sure, on Easter we’re overflowing. On Christmas Eve, we’re at capacity. On Preschool Sunday, we’re packed to the gills. But the rest of the year, for the most part, we could all fit in one of our seating sections – tightly, mind you. But we certainly don’t have a problem with space…or is that our problem?

Our attendance records go back fifteen years. And in that time, the trend is downward, year after year after year. Even way back in those heady days of the late 90’s, we were under half-capacity most of the year.

We’re not alone in this challenge, either, by any stretch. It’s the same problem that faces thousands of churches all over the country: a sanctuary built for 800 now seats 80. A worship space that could hold three hundred sees an average attendance of 15 or 16. Both of these examples are actually in Presbyterian churches here in Atlanta; in thriving parts of Atlanta. This situation, sadly, seems to be much more rule than exception. It’s as though we live in a six-bedroom house permanently set up for a party, when a one-bedroom apartment would be more than enough.

So, Happy Pentecost! Nothing like slogging your way to church on a rainy Sunday morning to get a rousing, energizing, feel-good sermon, huh?

My point, though, is that I don’t think we are all that different from those early disciples. I have heard theory after theory about why the church is on the decline. There are those who want to point theological or political fingers: the church is too conservative, or too liberal. Or they blame worship styles: the music is too stuffy and the language is out of touch, or it’s trying to hard to be “relevant” and ends up abandoning age-old truths…Having been in a church professional for almost twenty years now, I’m convinced that none of those things is much of a factor at all.

And I think Oglethorpe Presbyterian is a perfect example. I really do hope you’ll stick around for lunch afterwards, because the first part of our conversation is to hear the results of the Church Assessment Tool survey we did just a few weeks back. And there is much – much – to celebrate about what God is doing here! And I know I keep returning to this topic, but your support of the Capital Campaign continues to show that this church has a place not just for the present, but on into God’s future as well! That’s not to minimize the challenges that we have, or to deny their existence. They’re there, all right; but we know they’re there. And I know I say this every year, but your session leadership is amazing, gifted, and dedicated to discerning God’s desires as we move forward as a church. It’s almost enough to make me become a Presbyterian!

But this is where my party metaphor starts to come apart. We’ve sent out invitations to the neighbors, but they’re not coming. We want to walk through those pivotal life moments together – births, deaths, marriages, divorces, celebrations, tragedies. And we want the community to know that we are here to walk alongside them in these moments. As any of you who have been there know, it’s what we do best! And yet, the time has come. It’s 6:30, and we sit here, looking at each other, wondering why nobody came.

The truth is that the rules have changed. The word is different. To use a technology analogy, we keep sending invitations through the mail when everyone is checking their inbox for an evite. I think the church’s decline is as simple as this: we are sitting in the Upper Room, waiting for a knock at the door; but really, it’s time to take the celebration to the streets!

For the disciples, it took the storm force of wind, the interruption of fire, and a good dose of linguistic chaos to get them off their be-hinds (as my grandmother would’ve said) and recognize that the Spirit was there so they could pick up where Jesus left off. What’s it gonna take for us to do the same?

I’ve got good news and bad news: the bad news is that we’re probably not gonna get the same kind of signs they did. There will likely be no burning bush, no Red Sea parting, no sky splitting open, no dove descending. But the good news is that the Spirit never left us – God is still here! It never left us! I’m just not sure we’re paying close enough attention, or that we’re able to filter out the stimuli that constantly bombard our senses long enough just to hear the wind blow…

Friends, the truth is: it’s not even our party to begin with! Maybe we have forgotten that, or maybe it happened so long ago that we don’t remember, but the celebration started long before we arrived on the scene. Somebody bothered to include us – our parents, a friend, a beloved pastor – because they knew that it was God’s party all along! Do we know that? Can we stop sending invitations and, instead, become invitations, taking it to the streets? And can we remember what the party was about in the first place – not a building, no; but the host, who meets us where we are!

My prayer today is that God would light a fire – not on our heads, but under our be-hinds, sending us out to be Christ’s deeds of power, living invitations to a world that needs healing, more than it knows. May it be so!

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The Holy Ghost has been replaced by the Holy Spirit. Oh, there are remnants of that dear old spook in some of our traditional liturgies: the Doxology’s “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”…or the Apostle’s Creed’s “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church”…But for the most part, our Trinitarian theology has become the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Why is that?

Well, if you’re looking for a theological answer, or something that would give credence to the notion that change is something that happens only to irritate us, then I’m afraid I have to disappoint. The answer has more to do with language.

We English speakers might have been more comfortable at Pentecost than we think; English is a mutt language. When it comes to categorizing English, it’s a Germanic language. Our grammar looks a lot like the grammar of the Germans, the Dutch, the Swedes. And our simpler words tend to come from the Germans: “hand” is “hand”; “hat” is “hut”; “foot” is füß”.

But we have also adapted and adopted words from just about every language under the sun. “Rodeo” comes from Spanish; “pajamas” comes from Urdu; “velcro” comes from French; “Chattahoochee” comes from the Muskogean.

And the question about Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit reflects our special breeding, and how our language simply changes over the years. “Ghost” is from German, “geist”. “Spirit” is from Latin, “spiritus”. And both are equally accurate translations of what the Greek says in the New Testament: “pneuma”.

The difference is this: when the Doxology and the Gloria Patri and the Apostle’s Creed were being translated into English, our use of language was very different. The word “spirit” was used to describe those things that haunt graveyards and visit Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmas time. “Ghost”, at that same time, meant something far more civilized and elegant.

Over the centuries, the meaning has flipped. For us, a “ghost” is Caspar; it’s what Charlie Brown dressed up as for Halloween; it’s what Scooby and Shaggy ran from; it’s what Haley Joel Osment saw in The Sixth Sense. And “spirit” means something akin to the vital source within us, our soul, our essence.

So in short, in the 21st century, to refer to God as “ghost” seems like an insult; “spirit” works much better.

And that’s all we have time for on The Writer’s Almanac today. Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

But maybe there is something more to this than just linguistic nuance. Maybe it says something about who we are as a people of God.

The ghost is something that haunts us; we often talk about the “ghosts” or even “demons” from our past that surprise and spook us from time to time. And the spirit, well, we live in a world where more and more people talk about themselves as “spiritual but not religious”; spirit is something that’s hard to pin down, define, contain. And the disciples, on that ancient Pentecost day, found themselves wrestling with both.

Ten days ago, Jesus ascended into heaven, leaving them back on Earth at the Mount of Olives to figure it out. Not knowing what to do, they went back to that upper room. It was where they last shared a meal with Jesus before his betrayal. It was where they hid after the crucifixion fearing for their lives. It was also the place where Jesus burst in, daring Thomas to touch his hands and sides. It was what they knew; it was comfortable.

And then suddenly, as they pray and seek comfort, everything changes. They are driven from their seats as a violent wind bursts in and tongues of fire appear on their heads. They are forced out into the streets, where this chaos and confusion of multiple languages and inexplicable comprehension takes over. At a moment’s notice, there is no more hiding out; their faith becomes a matter of public knowledge, and Peter finds himself in a place we never would have imagined after his denial of Christ; he becomes the first Christian street preacher. And as a result, we learn, hundreds are welcomed into this new community of faith.

As we read this story again today, I wonder if Pentecost is all about the disciples’ journey from “ghost” to “spirit”…They were in the upper room, haunted by what that place had meant. And they also had no idea what to do next. Jesus had become the ghost; they were waiting on him to make a move so that they would know how to react.

But then everything is suddenly in motion. They cannot sit still. What was once a quiet scene of contemplation becomes almost impossible to understand, as these country bumpkin Galileans suddenly have a working knowledge of every language under heaven. Spirit takes over where ghost once held the day.

Following Christ is no longer about being haunted by what came before; it is now about being moved into what’s coming next.

Could we say the same thing about the church in 2011?

This past week, I heard a speaker give a presentation on the topic “Things I couldn’t tell you if I was your pastor.” It was one of the most jarring, challenging, honest conversations I’ve heard about church in a long time. And as I listened, I couldn’t help but wonder if the purpose of it was to move us from a people of the Holy Ghost, haunted by the church of years past, to a people of the Holy Spirit, unsure – and yet excited – about what’s to come. And I want to share with you just three of the things he said.

The first was “There is more to living a Christian life than just being a good church member.” We all know this, of course; when Sunday worship is over, that’s when the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Being a Christian isn’t something we can do for only an hour a week. But there’s more to it than that: in the church, he said, our “pews are filled with people who are committed to their church, but not their faith.” And we in the pastorate end up perpetuating that by confusing the two. We convince ourselves that discipleship can only happen within the physical bounds of the church, that we are most Christian when we usher or sing in the choir.

The truth is that our work within a congregation is a part of our faith. It should not be separate from it, but neither should it be the totality of it. Discipleship is a 24-7 job. That doesn’t mean that we become obnoxious evangelists, incapable of having a benign conversation at work without mentioning Jesus. But it does mean that being Christian infuses everything we do and every relationship we have. It influences how we behave in the checkout line and what we do in traffic and how we raise our kids and love our spouses and spend our time.

There is more to living a Christian life than just being a good church member.

The second piece is this: “Church is not supposed to be comfortable.” We have used the word “challenge” here at OPC from time to time – yes, God meets us where we are, and in our brokenness and moments of heartache, there is comfort. At the same time, the calling of faith nudges us. It takes us from where we are on our journeys and moves us on down the road. It challenges us, because we don’t have all the answers.

Annie Dillard, the American writer, talks about the life-changing power of the gospel this way:

“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? It is madness to wear…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.”

Church is not supposed to be comfortable.

And finally, he dropped this little challenging nugget: “We need a whole new way of doing church.” He spoke of a mission trip he took to Jamaica. The group went up into theBlue Mountains, where they visited a church in middle of the rainforest. They were welcomed and had a wonderful worship service together. Afterwards, the pastor took them on a tour of the church. He pointed out their pipe organ, which the colonial missionaries had brought over at great expense. “We don’t use it at all these days,” the pastor said. “It’s just too hard to keep it in tune.”

Those early European missionaries could not imagine church without a pipe organ. But to build a pipe organ, an instrument which is sensitive to every nuance of weather, in the rainforest? That is nothing short of madness. The world of Atlanta in 2011 is as different from the world of Atlanta in 1980 as the Jamaican rainforest was from colonial Europe.

We need a whole new way of doing church.

There were other points in the talk, and even out of the three I mentioned, there is enough to spend weeks and months in discussion; perhaps we will do just that in the years to come. But at the very least, I want you to be left with this thought: how much time and energy and resource do we spend as a church on the worship of ghosts, trying to recreate something that once was in a world that was very different, or struggling to make sense of the things that haunt us? And how much do we spend making room for the Spirit, moving us into unknown places and unknown ministries?

The truth is that, here at OPC, we do a little bit of both. But on this Pentecost day, let’s get out those crash helmets. It’s time to move!


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The disciples do wonders for my self-esteem.

Jesus hand-picked the twelve as he wandered through the Galilee preaching and teaching. For three years they have followed him through thick and thin. About two months before our morning’s passage they went with him to Jerusalem, watched him arrested, tried, and executed. They betrayed, they denied, they fled. Then the miracle comes. He rises from the dead, and they spend the next forty days with him.

It’s like getting the DVD of your favorite movie so that you can listen to the director’s commentary. To me, that’s a feeble parallel with what’s going on here. You may have thought that, as a fan, you caught everything; but you’ll never see it the same way once the director explains to you what they were trying to get across.

Back to the disciples: you would think that, with all of this exposure that they would start getting it. They were “this close” to Jesus. Of course they could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus was merely a political king – that’s what everyone else thought the Messiah was supposed to be. And of course they should be forgiven for their fear around the crucifixion – the game changes when lives are on the line.

Then again, they get this second chance! The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

How many of us get such an opportunity? We all have those moments where we’d like another shot. Have you ever been lying in bed when suddenly you think of that perfect comeback to the conversation you had that morning? Or what about that loved one you miss: do you have a scrolling list in your head of the questions you’d ask them, if only given the chance?

The disciples had been handed a gift: forty days of intensive review with the Messiah. And as he stands on the Mount of Olives ready to ascend, that’s when they ask him: “OK, just to be sure we’ve got this: Are you going to take over Herod’s throne now?” They’re still not getting it…It’s almost absurd!

Or is it?

Author Rita Mae Brown once wrote that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” Are the disciples the only crazy ones? Or have we, too, been known to lose our mental mooring from time to time?

A few weeks ago, through a strange set of circumstances, I ended up meeting a street preacher who lives in Chamblee – you know: the perfect place for pedestrian traffic. In any case, he needed some help with the yard at the house he was renting so that the city wouldn’t fine him. I found myself at his place, bringing a lawn mower and a circular saw which I was using to chop up the tree that had fallen in front of the house (those of you who know something about saws have probably already diagnosed my insanity here).

Actually, things were going quite well, and I had finished about half of the tree. Until…(you saw that coming, didn’t you?)…after one cut, I put the saw down on the ground and heard a “POP”; when I looked down, the electrical cord had been cut in two. I stood there, dumbfounded – both by my own stupidity as well as my good fortune that I hadn’t electrocuted myself.

The street preacher came over and saw what happened, and said, “I’ve got the same kind of saw inside. I’ll be right back.” Ya’ll can write the rest of the story for me, can’t you? On the very next cut, I did the exact same thing. POP!

The next day I found myself at the hardware store asking about fixing the electrical cord. When they directed me to the guy who would do it, of course, the question came up: “How did this happen?” And I had to admit my stupidity. “That’s not very smart,” he said in about as understated a way as possible. And then, I had to swallow my pride and admit that there was not just one, but two saws in my trunk in need of repair.

It was one of those moments where I could practically see the hand of God: “If you’re going to be stupid enough to keep doing this, then I’ll make sure and stop you” – that was the grace of the first pop – “I said, ‘I’ll make sure and stop you’” – that was the grace of the second. Apparently, I still wasn’t getting it…But fortune/luck/grace wasn’t giving up, either…

Which brings us back to the lesson from Acts.

No sooner have the disciples demonstrated their ignorance yet again that Jesus ascends out of sight. There they stand, mouths agape, staring skyward. Angels appear, telling them to get going. They do, yet even then, they just head back to what they know, that upper room in Jerusalem where they had their last meal together and hid out after Jesus’ arrest, and they pray.

We know what happens next: Pentecost. God’s persistent grace continues to be at work, despite the overwhelming evidence of insanity. They pray and pray and pray until finally the Holy Spirit forces them out onto the streets, and Peter finds himself doing the very thing that Jesus said he would, witnessing to the power of God in Christ right there in Jerusalem, just around the corner from where he had denied ever knowing him.

But that’s a story for another day.

What about you? Where is your insanity? What is it that fortune/luck/grace keeps bringing to your attention over and over and over again, yet you insist that things ought to work the way that you want them to work? Is it a relationship that needs attention, that you think will just “work itself out” but really needs intervention, divine or otherwise, more than you’re willing to admit? Is it a habit which has become all-consuming, that hides itself in the shadows right now, but you know will ultimately, sooner or later, drag you into the shaming light?

Is it something we have to face as a community, as a nation, that we choose to ignore to our own detriment? Is it the way we treat those who are unlike us with un-Christlike contempt? Is it our continuing sense of entitlement to the consumption of resources or “stuff” or debt that is nothing short of irresponsible stewardship?

Is it an inward focus that borders on selfishness and denies the cross that is at the center of all we say we believe as Christians? Or is it a dogged stubbornness to our own way of doing things while God weeps for us to open our eyes and ears and hearts to what it is that God desires?

We may not like it, or we may choose benign neglect, but what our faith requires of us is unmitigated love, boundless generosity, sacrificial selflessness, willing humility. It was no less true for the disciples than it is for us.

And this same faith requires it of us whether we are talking about it as individuals or as a church. And the tough thing about this all is that it leads us not to answers, but to a question: what does it all mean?

But therein lies the good news: God knows! God knows. And it is that same God whose grace and generosity pursue us to the ends of the earth, pursue us relentlessly despite our shortcomings and all of the evidence that points to the fact that we are nuts. Even if we hole ourselves up in places of familiarity and comfort, the Holy Spirit knows where we are, knows how to find us, and knows how to get us moving again.

Will we recognize it when it comes? Will we be willing to let go of how we want things to work so that God can be at work in us? Can we open ourselves up so that God can shape and reshape, mold and remold us as witnesses to Christ to the ends of the earth?

May it be so…


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What did Jesus look like?

When I was in Seminary, I had a full beard and long hair, which I wore in a ponytail – about halfway down my back. For the day of my Old Testament final exam, I decided to wear my hair down around my shoulders. Our professor, the brilliant scholar John Collins, walked past and commented, “I swear, Marthame; you’re looking more and more like Jesus.”

It so happened that, at the time he made this comment, there was a conference going on in Chicago about the painter, Warner Sallman. Sallman is famous for that face of Christ painting – you know the one: Jesus the Nordic shepherd, with the high forehead, the pointed nose, the beautiful flowing hair, the perfectly quaffed beard…If we’re honest, we know that this majestic, European fair-skinned Jesus bears little resemblance to the man who walked the road to Emmaus, but what did Jesus look like?

When I was in high school, I attended a workshop at an Atlanta church. The speaker was presenting his evidence that Jesus was a dark-skinned African. The tribes of Israel had been in captivity inAfrica, Jesus and his family had sought refuge there, and in Revelation, the return of Christ is depicted as a man with “feet like burnished bronze” and hair “like white wool”. Of course, it was North Africa –Egypt to be precise – that was the Biblical place of both refuge and captivity. And the description of “wool” refers to the color, not the texture, of the hair in question. This was probably no more or less accurate an historical depiction of Jesus than Warner Sallman’s Jesus the Teuton. But what did Jesus look like?

My father had his own theory. He didn’t think that Jesus looked much like a white man, or a black man. He figured that Jesus probably looked a lot like a man from the Middle East. The person he knew best that fit that description was Fahed Abu-Akel, a friend of this congregation and of mine, founder of Atlanta Ministry with International Students, former moderator of our denomination’s General Assembly. Fahed is a Palestinian Israeli-Arab from theGalilee. But rather than a head of wool or a magnificent flowing mane, Fahed – even then – had very little hair to be described poetically. Fahed looks very little like the image of Jesus we likely hold in mind; but my father’s point is well-taken. What did Jesus look like?

From our gospel lesson this morning, it seems that not even the disciples knew how to answer that question. No sooner have the women found the tomb empty than two of them set off for the village of Emmaus, a town seven miles to the West of Jerusalem. The risen Christ makes a cameo, joining them as a fellow traveler; but they don’t recognize him. They talk to him about him, and they still don’t know who he is. He then explains to them how Jesus was the Messiah, explaining the Scriptures to them. And still, after close to two hours on the road together, they have no clue who this man is – and apparently they haven’t even bothered to ask his name! Finally, they get to Emmaus, and invite Jesus in for supper. And as soon as he breaks bread, their eyes are open, and they recognize him – and he vanishes. They are so astonished that, even though it is close to evening, they immediately get up and go back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

What does Jesus look like? And what happens when we recognize him?

If this story has anything to teach us today, it is that we recognize Jesus when we share with others. That’s the thought at the heart of our communion celebrations – that when we gather around the communion table, Jesus is in our midst. But it’s not limited to the communion table – any table where we gather in fellowship with one another, Jesus is there with us. And yet, like the disciples, we can be slow on the uptake. So often our eyes are closed to the presence of Jesus.

That’s why the disciples are so wonderful. They had immediate access to Jesus for three full years. After the resurrection, they got another forty days. And even so, they still don’t get it! And yet, as our first reading reminds us, despite their many shortcomings, Jesus still puts them in charge of that early church.

It hasn’t been quite two months since the events on the road to Emmaus, and as Peter addresses the crowd on the bizarre happenings of Pentecost, he becomes the face of Jesus. After all, the church is the body of Christ, right? If that’s the case, then somebody’s gotta be the face.

And that’s no less true of us today as a church, some six thousand miles and some two thousand years removed from the events in our morning’s texts. We are the body of Christ. Where we go, we bring the presence of Jesus.

Think about the ministries we support: our commitment to the Druid Hills Night Shelter is one example, where we go to serve men who are trying to get off the street, men whom society has pretty much given up on; we are the face of Jesus, sitting at table and breaking bread with others.

Or our Food Pantry, where we live out Christ’s command to feed the hungry, but even more so, to love those whom we serve; or our Habitat for Humanity build, where we become Christ’s hands and feet, working alongside a family as they work – and work hard – to put a roof over their heads. There are so many other examples – our Bargain Shop, our Christian Education classes, our Preschool, our prayers and our acts of kindness to one another as we deliver meals and help with chores. We are the face of Jesus.

What a blessing – and what a burden – in a world that is so in need of Jesus!

As if we needed any reminder of that, this past week brought news of the killing of Osama bin Laden. I don’t feel any need to add to the exhaustive and exhausting commentary you’ve already heard. But I did find this one piece of information absolutely fascinating.

Christians make up some 2% of the population of Pakistan. The Presbyterian church’s history there goes back to 1854, more than 150 years ago. Today, the estimate is that there are some 300 Presbyterian congregations in Pakistan, with membership of more than a quarter million. I knew some of this already. But here’s what I learned: there is an Abbottabad Presbyterian Church. In the town where bin Laden had been hiding for some six years, a city of some 300,000, there is a Presbyterian church no more than two miles from the now-famous fortified compound.

What that says to me is simply this: there is nowhere that Jesus won’t go. Since 2005, the very person whom most of us consider the personification of evil was living in walking distance of three churches – one of them our very own. Titus Presler, an American Episcopal priest currently serving with the church in Pakistan, put it this way: “While our tendency is to imagine the site of such an event as bin Laden’s death on some utter edge of experience, such events occur amid living and complex communities where voices of the gospel of Jesus Christ are rarely absent.”

Friends, we are the face of Christ. We may not live in Abbottabad, but we know that there is darkness in our own community. And it, too, is often out of site, hidden behind walls. It’s the darkness of addiction, of suicide, of abuse, of cruelty, of selfishness, of indifference to suffering, of hopelessness and despair. And even though it is a void, we are the ones who bring the hope of the gospel. We do that as a church, yes, as an institution, but we also do that as individuals. Our lives come in contact with the darkness each and every day – and into that darkness, we are invited to be bearers of light. We bring the gentle touch of encouragement, the thoughtful act of kindness, the listening ear of hope, the challenging word of selflessness and the promise of purpose.

In short, there is no place that Jesus will not go, which also means that we do not go there alone. Christ is with us, walking that road, opening our eyes, feeding us.

What does Jesus look like? Does he look like a Norwegian strongman, or an African warrior, or a Palestinian Israeli-Arab? Yes.

What does Jesus look like? He looks like us.

May we have the wisdom and the faith to be the presence of Christ wherever we go.


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Acts 2:1-21
Romans 8:14-17

Since I’ve been your pastor, it has been my practice to offer a kind of “state of the church” reflection on Pentecost Sunday. This year, we’ve been having an extended remix of that through our small group dinners and our Town Hall Forum immediately following worship. And on this Pentecost day, when we celebrate the birth of the Church through the gift of the Spirit to those early disciples so long ago, it is an appropriate moment for us to take stock of where we are as a congregation that gathers in the name of Christ.

The church as it exists today looks so very different than it did back then. You had a handful of disciples, wrestling with what it meant to be followers of Christ after his death and resurrection, and after he had spent forty days ministering with them before his ascension into heaven. And there they are, once again, gathered in one room together in Jerusalem. It is almost as though they were still so afraid and unsettled by the events of the past few months that they weren’t willing to take it at face value. The fear that caused Peter to deny Christ and the disciples to hole up seems to have taken sway.

That is, until the Holy Spirit comes bursting in, a fierce wind seemingly forcing them out onto the street into the midst of the gathered Jerusalem festival crowd. The other details are familiar to us: the diversity of language made irrelevant as all can understand what is being said, the long-list of the many nations from which people had gathered in Jerusalem. And it is then that the disciples finally break out of their shells and begin to share the good news to which they have been heirs.

We’re not so different from those disciples, are we? Many of us tend to be risk-averse. We like to know what’s coming next, don’t particularly appreciate surprise. And even when we learn a lesson like, “Trust God,” we may have to re-learn and re-re-learn it again and again.

It reminds me of the story of the four guys arguing about who was the greatest baseball player of all time. Three of them were convinced it was Ty Cobb; but Bill was sure it was Hank Aaron. “Sorry, Bill, it’s 3-1. Ty Cobb it is.” Bill turned to divine intervention at that moment: “Oh God, give me a sign to prove to these guys that I’m right!” At that moment, a green cloud appeared above Bill’s head and seemed to do a little dance. “See, I told you!” The other three said, “Nah – green clouds happen all the time!” Bill, frustrated, screamed, “God, give me another sign!” At that, the cloud took the shape of the number 44. “Are you convinced?” he asked. “No,” they said. “Clouds are always taking different shapes.” So Bill called again, “God, please help me out with a sign!” At that moment, the sky split open, and a voice boomed, “You idiots, he’s right!” There was a pause. And then one of the guys said, “OK, it’s 3-2.”

We each have moments where we have been reminded that God is trustworthy. And yet, we continue to hole up in fear like the disciples refusing to accept that God might really be at work and convinced that it is all on our shoulders. And it is at moments like this that we do best open ourselves to the possibility that the Spirit might shove us out of our comfort zones and into places where the signs of God’s grace can be evident to us.

It is on days like today that we tend to return to the same texts again and again; on Pentecost, we open our Bibles to Acts 2 and focus on those early disciples. So today, perhaps it’s time to pay some attention to one of the more neglected little side texts; in particular, these verses from Romans.

In it, Paul is addressing a church he has never even met; unusual for Paul’s letters. And he is writing them hearing of their issues and their faith; most strikingly, this early in the church there is already division between Jewish and Gentile Christians. And Paul’s letter is an urging toward reconciliation. In short, Paul takes advantage of his apostolic authority to say that cultural differences are not enough to break apart the church; it is in the richness of different heritages that we can see God at work most fully. And in that, there are echoes of the swirl of languages that Pentecost day.

In the text from Paul today, he is focused on this notion of inheritance. Even though Paul is the one who most often uses this image of servant or slave to talk about our relationship with God, here he is taking it apart to say that it is more appropriate to consider ourselves sons and daughters of God. Think about how radical that is! Jesus is the son of God; as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son…” Unlike the Apostles’ Creed, however, Paul is not making a doctrinal statement about Christ’s uniqueness and divinity. Instead, this is a rhetorical statement about our value in the kingdom of God and, indeed, our value within the community of faith.

For ancient Jewish and Gentile Christians, Paul has just forced them into one family, united by Christ, by divine adoption, as heirs of God’s kingdom alongside Jesus.

And just so we don’t think that this gives us the opportunity to “Lord” it over others, Paul clarifies just what it means to be heirs alongside Christ our brother: it means we suffer with Christ; and thus share in his glory.

“You almost had us, Paul,” I can hear the ancient church of Rome saying, and perhaps even us joining our voices with theirs. “We thought this whole inheritance thing was pretty cool, and we were willing to put aside our differences and say we’re one family, until you brought up this suffering thing. It’s a good thing we double-checked God’s will and testament. Suffering? Not so much…”

I hear you…The whole notion of having to take up our cross is a fearsome one. The thought that the faithful thing is to suffer and even be willing to risk our own lives for the sake of the gospel is one that sends most would-be and even self-described Christians packing for the doors. “That’s all fine and good for those who want to go be missionaries to cannibals, but not for me. I’ve got a job and a family to support, a mortgage, car payments, a retirement to enjoy or look forward to, exams coming up, summer break and college and graduation just around the corner! I’ll take the inheritance; the suffering, not so much…”

But I think this is exactly what binds Paul’s message to the church in Rome to the Spirit’s shove to the first disciples. It is an antidote to our fear – fear of those people who are
different from us, fear of the notion that we might suffer at the hands of the Romans, fear of a future that is ultimately unknowable to us. Risk is an inherent part of faith. And for those of us who are risk-averse, this hits us right between the eyes…

So let’s go back to our text from Romans. And let’s not get stuck on suffering. Paul’s keeps writing – to share in suffering is to share in glory. As Paul described baptism elsewhere, to be buried with Christ is to rise with him. To work alongside Christ our brother is to rely on God so fully that even when we’re not sure what might be next we can lean into that trust that God is at work, that the Spirit has bound us to one another and to God’s very self, leading us into a future that is ultimately, no matter how much we might like to think we’re in control, a future that is ultimately in God’s hands.

Over the next few months, as we move into the summer and begin planning for the Fall, we are in the midst of transition. We have talked in great detail about all of this in our small group dinners, and we will do so again at our Town Hall Forum immediately following worship. We may like to think that each of us knows what the future holds for OPC. The good news, my friends, is that God is trustworthy. OPC’s future is in God’s hands – not in the hands of our members, our community, our Session, our staff, our pastor. It is God who leads, it is Christ who encourages, and it is the Spirit who binds us together. And no matter what might come, trusting in our faithful adoption will lead us to inherit God’s glory.


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Reprinted from the Salt Films website here.

Tongues of Fire
June 1, 2001

It was hot.  Really hot.  Instead of cooling us, the wind brought more searing heat and stinging sand as we marveled at the ancient city of Ur, nestled in the Iraqi desert.  But the heat and wind could not stop us from exploring the immense stone ruins, for we were on a pilgrimage to the roots of our faith. Iraq is the traditional land of the Garden of Eden. Here was Babel, and its infamous tower. This is the land bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates, ancient Mesopotamia and Sumer. Here nomadic humanity began to put down its roots, and what we call civilization was born. And here at Ur, Abraham was born. The book of Genesis  tells us that Abraham’s family went from Ur to Haran, near the border of Syria and Turkey.  There, God spoke to Abraham and sent him to Shechem, now the site of the city of Nablus, about an hour away from our home in Zababdeh.  We had symbolically traced the steps of Abraham in reverse as we attended the Fifth Annual Christian Conference hosted by the churches of Iraq.

Standing at Ur, we gratefully braved the heat and winds and pondered the richness that came of its child Abraham, father of Isaac and Ishmael, the great Patriarch of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Today, Iraq is home to a rich variety of traditions springing from these faiths. For example, there are Shia’ and Sunni Muslims, Yezidis (a small group who believe that the fallen angel Lucifer must be appeased so he might reassume his place in heaven), Sabeans (who are followers of John the Baptist). But, even after months of ecumenical work with different Christian denominations in Palestine, we were unprepared for the richness of the Chistian community in Iraq (5% of the population, with more in the diaspora). We met Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant – Greek, Roman, Chaldean, Adventist, Syrian, and Assyrian Christians. Pondering this experience, braced in the hot wind, we felt like we were experiencing our own Pentecost.

Pentecost is celebrated 50 days after Easter, among Christians in remembrance of when the Holy Spirit, in a loud rush of wind, descended upon the believers as divided tongues of fire, giving each person the ability to speak in other languages. Acts 2 says:  “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked…‘How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphilia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own language we hear God’s deeds of power.’”  As Peter spoke to the crowd, they were “cut to the heart and said to Peter, ‘what should we do?’  Peter said to them, ‘Repent.’”

Like the crowd in Jerusalem, we were amazed and astonished not only by the number of traditions represented, but even more moved to find people of our own tradition.  No, there was not an English-speaking community (although we found that, as in Palestine, people in Iraq invariably speak better English than we speak Arabic). But rather, we had the blessed opportunity to visit five Presbyterian churches in Iraq.

And like that first Pentecost, the rich variety of Christian voices we heard in Iraq spoke in one voice, proclaiming God’s deeds of power and one faith in Jesus Christ.  These voices shared the witness of a church very much the minority, but treated with tolerance and acceptance by the rest of the culture. And they called with one voice to their brothers and sisters in Christ who had come to be with them (also something of a Pentecost gathering, from Dutch Calvinists to Lebanese Maronites), asking us to call for an end to the shameful sanctions. They ask us to pray for them, living in the grip of near total economic shut-down. Sanctions have deprived an innocent population of a way of life, of proper nutrition, of basic medical care, of hope for a future. And while these sanctions have curtailed the strength of the military, at the same time they make their President more powerful than ever.

As the crowd was cut to the quick by Peter’s exhortation, we felt called to repentance by our visit to Iraq. How had we been so unaware of the Christian community of Iraq?  Of our own Presbyterian brothers and sisters, whose church had first been established by American Presbyterian missionaries 150 years ago?  How could we be so blind to realities of our government’s policies, which – no matter our opinion of Saddam Hussein – have created a grim present and hopeless future for so many people, including our brothers and sisters in Christ?  How could we not realize that the demonized nation of Iraq is truly the proud cradle of so much we hold dear?

We came seeking the wisdom of our patriarch out in the blazing desert sun, but we came away with our tongues ablaze, burning with the desire to add our voices to the beautiful Pentecostal voices.

We greet you in Salaam-Shalom-Shlam-Peace,
Elizabeth and Marthame

PS  Several items of note:
1) Please check out the recent issue of Christian Century that focuses on the West Bank – it includes an article written by us that talks about the current situation in our neck of the woods.
2) We have also included another reflection on the conference, written by an Australian friend of ours.  Irene sent this to us with the note: “Whatever we may think of Saddam Hussein I don’t believe we can stand by while innocent children die.”  You can also see more about the conference and our visits to the Presbyterian Churches of Iraq on our journal website

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