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20101108-082626.jpgIn the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.

I have told the story before of my friend Fr. Thomas, the Greek Orthodox priest. We got to know him when we moved in as his neighbors during our time in Palestine. If you were going to craft a caricature of a Greek Orthodox priest you wouldn’t end up with someone as magnificent as Fr. Thomas. Everywhere he went, he wore his black robe and black hat. His grayish white beard flowed down onto his chest, and his long hair in back was tied up in a ponytail.

Fr. Thomas was never quite sure what to do with us Presbyterians. We weren’t Catholics, which was a plus in his book, but we were Protestants, which had historically had little to do with the Orthodox church. Over time, he learned to trust us. One Friday, I rode with him down to Tubas, a little village to the south of the one in which we lived. The 50 or so Christians there lived among 17,000 Muslims.

As we stood by the side of the road waiting for a car, Fr. Thomas turned toward me: “You Protestants.” I waited for the accusation that came next. “Why don’t you cross yourselves?” I paused, thinking about how Protestants had distanced themselves from Rome, probably throwing out some practices because of guilt by association, and I decided I had more to learn by listening than talking.

“Don’t you see?” he said. “These three fingers represent the unity of God in Trinity! And these two are the humanity and divinity of Christ, born from the womb of the Virgin Mary! He is True God from True God, descended to be one of us. He rose again, sits on the right hand, and will come again.”

“Oh, that! We’ve got that. Here’s the church, here’s the steeple…”

We are better in community than we are on our own.

Today we mark Trinity Sunday. In 2016, the Trinity can come across as one of those archaic philosophies that might have made sense back in 325 but not anymore. We are monotheists, but believe that God is in three persons? Jesus is God, and also God’s Son? Let’s just skip all the complications and boil it down to “try and be nice to others.”

Let’s be honest. Christian faith comes with a series of challenges. First, we claim to find eternal meaning in a collection of books written almost 2000 years ago, intended for a Middle Eastern sheep-herding, olive harvesting people. Second, we are guided by doctrines like incarnation and the Trinity that grew out of ancient Greek philosophical notions about life, the universe, and everything. And third, we live in a culture that runs counter to our faith – especially among those whom we would consider our fellow adherents, treating Christianity as a national tribe of self-defense rather than a sacrificial way of selflessness to a world in need. Why bother?

Because we are better in community than we are on our own.

Look. The Trinity, as a doctrine, might seem like impenetrable philosophical gymnastics. God is Father, God is Son, God is Spirit. Father is, and isn’t, Son; Son is, and isn’t, Spirit. Spirit is, and isn’t, Father. Three, and One. It’s like steam, water, and ice. Or like idea, word, and breath. Or like one finger with three segments. Does any of this help? And if it does, does it help us to understand something about God, or what it means to have faith in that God?

If nothing else, here’s what I hope the Trinity suggests to us today: the essence of God is community. God is one. There is no god but God. And that same God, the source of all that was, is, and will be, is expressed in the community of Trinity. The Father needs the Son. The Son needs the Spirit. The Spirit needs the Father. They all need each other for their holiness to be made real.

And what that means for us, those of us who want to reflect the character of God that we know and love, is that we are meant to be in community; because we are better in community than we are on our own.

When Paul and Timothy write to the church in Corinth in our lesson this morning, it is the sense of being knit together as people of faith that emerges in their writing. Paul and Timothy know that the Corinthians are suffering, a suffering that Paul and Timothy empathize with and even share in. In that suffering, they write, they are connected to the suffering of Jesus himself.

One summer, I worked as a chaplain at a Catholic hospital outside of Chicago. I visited one day with a young woman who had come in because of a nasty infection, only to get another one at the hospital. In abject pain and sleepless nights, she looked up on the wall and saw what was on every room in the hospital: Jesus on the cross. It was as though, she told me, Jesus was saying to her, “I know your pain. Your pain is my pain.” And being joined with Jesus’ suffering, she said, gave her great comfort and strength to endure.

As Paul and Timothy tell the Corinthians, it is the prayers of the Corinthians that give Paul and Timothy hope and perseverance. We are better in community than we are on our own.

This is why we form churches and worship together and serve together and become members – to be in community, to strengthen, challenge, and grow our faith in Christ.

We are better in community than we are on our own.

The Orthodox liturgy Fr. Thomas celebrates is a complicated liturgical dance. From the intricate clothing to the detailed instruments, everything tied into Scripture and theology – perhaps nothing more than the Eucharistic bread.

The bread itself bears a stamp that is baked into it. There is the shape of the cross, with “Christ is Victory” written three times down the middle. As the priest prepared the bread for the liturgy, he takes a golden knife in the shape of a spear, piercing the bread, carefully taking out a piece, and placing it on a plate, under a tent of sorts. This represents the grotto in which the Christ child was born.

The priest then takes the piece of Christ-bread and mixed into the chalice of wine, the body and blood coming together. He then cuts pieces of bread for the patriarchs and matriarchs of faith, the prophets and angels, the disciples, apostles and saints of the church, and mixes them into the cup. Then, as members of the congregation come forward to whisper their prayer requests to him, he cuts out pieces for each of them, mixing those into the wine.

Finally, the congregation processes forward, as the priest spoon-feeds the communion mixture to each of them. Much like the prophet Isaiah’s lips were purified with the burning coal, so the members of the congregation are being purified, the spoon representing the tongs that held the coal.

In other words, in communion, Orthodox Christians are united with this whole stretch of God’s salvation history: stretching back to creation, through Noah and the flood, sweeping through Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, into the birth of Jesus, his ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection, catching up Paul and Timothy and the Corinthians, and on into the present day, with hope for what is to come. All of this is done in community: the sufferings and joys alike united in that cup, and shared by all who are there, bearing one another in grief and celebration, all of it tied back into Jesus himself, the one who lived life out of death, redemption out of suffering, hope out of despair.

And that’s what we do today at this table. In form, it looks very different from what Fr. Thomas brings to his people. There is no spear, no spoon, no grotto. What we do have is bread and cup. And as we share in these things, we do them together, because we are better in community than we are on our own.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Does God take swimming lessons?

Between my experiences of parenting and interacting with our Preschoolers, these are the kind of deep philosophical questions I find myself facing recently. This particular one came about in a way that bears repeating.

I was coming back to the church from a late lunch when I spied one of our Preschool parents leaving the playground with her daughter. When the little girl saw me, she pointed at me and said, “Look, Mom! There’s God!” A few days later, I figured out what had led to this distressing confusion. As her class prepared to enter the sanctuary for chapel, her teacher said, “OK, boys and girls. We are about to go into God’s house, so we need to be quiet.” So they entered “God’s house” to see…me. Wearing a guitar. Logical conclusion, right?

About a week later, I ran into the same family as I was leaving the Y. The mother later told me that, after I left, her daughter had run to the door. “What are you doing?” mom asked.

“I’m looking for God,” she replied, and then added thoughtfully, “Do you think he takes swimming lessons?”

Most ministers have a story like this; I guess I just didn’t expect to encounter this for another ten or fifteen years. My own image of God is shaped by childhood pastors. Harry Fifield baptized me, and he seemed so old to me that he must’ve born the same year as God. Paul Eckl confirmed me, and even though he was much younger than Harry, he had that mellifluous preacher baritone that sang with divine resonance. But I never would’ve envisioned God as a red-headed forty-something with a guitar.

How do you see God? What is it that shapes that image of God in your mind? Is there a Biblical story that gives you insight into God’s character and paints a picture for you? Is it the parable of the prodigal son, where God becomes the father who runs to welcome the wayward child home? Is it the story of the lost coin, where God is the woman who sweeps the house frantically looking for the precious item she has lost? Is it the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God is portrayed as vengeful, judgmental, even brutal? Or is it the image of a dying Jesus on the cross, a God willing to die for the sake of a world that somehow never saw fit to return that love? How do you see God?

Today is the one day a year that we set aside as Trinity Sunday. The whole idea of the Trinity, of a single God whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is one that arose in the earliest centuries of the church as Christians struggled to make sense of confusing Biblical imagery. Our two texts this morning touch on some of that confusion. The Creator God is divine; but so is Jesus, who is somehow both God and God’s son at the same time. And the Spirit is thrown in the mix, too, as the divine breath in Creation, the descending dove in Jesus’ baptism, and as the advocate whom the Father sends after Jesus’ resurrection. So God is three, and yet, God is one. We come up with ways to wrap our minds around this concept, like ice, water, and steam, in which one chemical compound can take three very different forms.

At the end of the day, though, I think the essence of the Trinity is this: the God we worship is a God whom we can never perfectly grasp – at least, not in the here and now. And yet, there is this paradox that God breaks into the world, giving us glimpses of perfection, moments where we begin to get a sense of what God might be up to. Each of us experiences this differently. For me, the moment almost always comes in the form of surprise, when I see something I thought I knew well and discovering that there was something lingering under the surface the whole time, an unexpected grace that jumps out and grabs me. For all I know, it could be that God does take swimming lessons, and that walking on water was just a convenient way to work around a subpar backstroke.

You see, that’s the astonishment for me in the exchanges with that Preschooler: I know myself well. I know my strengths and I know my faults. How in the world could someone ever think that I am Godly? And yet, that’s just it: the glimpses of God we get rarely come in the form of a Monty Pythonesque, sky-opening, British-accented proclamation. Instead, they come through the most mundane of interactions with the most imperfect of people. Each of us bears God’s imprint. That’s what it means to be created in the image of God. And when the light hits us just right, we reflect that image onto a world – and often when we least expect that this is what we are doing.

Have you ever had a friend thank you for advice you offered years ago as part of a conversation that you don’t remember at all? Or has someone ever marveled at you for doing something so ordinary that you’re shocked that it merited any kind of notice? Or has a colleague looked at you in wonder, saying, “How did you do that?” in a way that reminded you of your unique gifts? Each of these, in some way, is a reminder of how God works through us, and how we are rarely aware that such a miracle is even possible.

We Christians can be some pretty nervy folk. We have the temerity to suggest that God can work through us, and that the church can be a vessel for God’s actions in the world. But when we’re doing it right, we know that it’s not the individual who ought to be touted; we know that it’s not the institution’s accomplishments that we should celebrate. Instead, we know that it’s God working through, and usually in spite of, us.

Friends, I think this is what Trinity Sunday has to offer us: God does not exist in a vacuum. God is not alone. Whether it’s the presence of Jesus giving us a thorough example of God’s desires, or a Spirit sent to uphold, encourage, and challenge us, the God that we Christians worship and serve is a God who must exist in community. In isolation, God makes no sense – because the essence of God is a being that is not for its own sake, but for the sake of others. And when the church reflects that image on the world, that is when we become most fully engaged with God’s activities.

We love and serve the poor not because it makes us feel good, or because we think it will help us earn our way into heaven. And we love and serve the poor not only because Jesus tells us to, but because it is so ingrained in our beings that if we didn’t do so, we would be cutting off an authentic part of our own selves. We extend the hand of invitation to others no matter what they are like not because we see every visitor as a potential donor who can help us with our budgetary challenges, but because we ourselves have experienced that welcome and know what a gift it is. And we give of ourselves in our time and talents and treasure not because we fear the death of our beloved institution, but because we don’t understand why you would want to hoard these things in the first place. We share because it has been etched on our souls to do so!

What does God look like to you? Does it need to be stretched beyond the bounds of understanding? Do you need to be moved from your place of comfort to get a glimpse of something new, challenging, exciting, and life-giving? My prayer today, for each of us, is that it would be so.

Amen.

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The service didn’t get recorded this week. sorry. But here’s a little special bonus message:

Starfish or spider?

Five years ago, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom published The Starfish and the Spider. In it, the authors compare the biology of starfish and spiders. Both have multiple legs with a central body. But there is one key difference: if you cut off a spider’s head, it will die. The starfish, on the other hand, has no head. If you cut off one of its legs, it will regenerate. And some species can regenerate from just a leg, because the genetic code and the vital organs are all there.

This difference becomes the central point of their book as they compare organizations, especially with the dawn of the 21st century and the explosion of internet technology. Every industry is changing dramatically as a result. If you are working in a business which has not been changed by the internet, please raise your hand.

The most interesting example of this is the music business. As of 2000, it was primarily in the hands of four major record labels. But this four-headed arachnid has since been crippled by internet file-sharing and piracy, a starfish with no centralized organization. The results have been financially devastating. And every time the industry wins a court-case against one form of piracy, another one springs up, each one more anonymous and harder to shut down than the last.

There is bad news in this; but I’m not sure it’s all bad news. The music industry has had a spotty record, at best, in how musicians fare financially from the top-down model. But the argument has always been that record companies, because of their size, can be trusted with the charge of distribution and promotion. And so musicians need them. Otherwise, how else would people know about them?

But as websites like MySpace and YouTube have taken off, musicians have recognized that the old way of doing things is changing.

In 2007, the English band Radiohead released its album In Rainbows. It was posted on their website without a record company present at all. People could pay whatever they wanted. It entered the charts at number one, and within a year had sold three million copies. And even though they offered it as a “pay as you like” download, most fans paid for the record, and the band made a mint.

As I’m reading this book, I’m thinking to myself: what about the church? Are we more spider, or starfish?

We Presbyterians love to talk about God’s sovereignty, the idea that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, that God is, simply put, in control. And when we talk about the church as the Body of Christ, we are always sure to make it clear that Jesus is the head of that body. That sounds like all spider to me.

Think of the Godhead at work in Genesis, forming stars and planets and grass and trees, and animals and fish and birds, and male and female. There is a center out of which everything emanates, and everything owes its life to that center. It’s a top-down hierarchy. God makes, things are made.

Or what about the “Great Commission” that comes at the end of Matthew? Jesus, the early church’s CEO, gives the disciples their mission: go and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And so they go, following orders from the head of the organization.

We are inheritors of this Scripture, and so it is not surprising that churches would be spider-like with a centralized organization, such as a Session, or a Presbytery, or, in the case of the ancient churches, Patriarch or Pope. We are spiders in a world full of starfish.

And that, perhaps more than anything else, is why the mainline churches are struggling. We struggle financially and numerically as we work to sustain, transform, maintain, evolve our forms of worship and governance and physical plant. And our evangelism approach seems to be borrowed from the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Spiders seem to be going extinct. Is that our fate, too?

But before we go too far down this road, let’s be clear about one thing: we are, indeed, inheritors of Scripture; and we are, indeed, inheritors of the church. But we are also heirs to much, much more. We are influenced by culture and language and philosophy and biology and worldview which are outside (and in some cases even trump) the influence of Scripture, of theology, of ecclesial DNA. Which is which? And how can we possibly know?

Today is Trinity Sunday. It is the one day we set aside to deal with the complicated and confusing doctrine of God as three-in-one, one-in-three.

This is my sixth Trinity Sunday as your pastor. And with this Sunday approaching, I went back and looked at the Trinity Sunday sermons I’ve preached since my arrival. And so, let me sum up the sermon I’ve preached every year in a couple of sentences:

The Trinity is the doctrine the early church created to explain the confusion of Scripture where God, Jesus, and Spirit are all described as divine. What it teaches us, ultimately, is that God is mysterious and that God exists in relationship.

But I wonder if there is more to it than that. I wonder if the Trinity can actually shed light on our starfish-spider debate…

For starters, there is no hierarchy in Trinity. Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. There is no “head”.

Look at the creation story. At first glance, it is God – the Creator, the Father – who is at work, fashioning and shaping. And yet, there is this curious pronoun at the creation of humanity: “Let us create…” Not singular, but plural. Who else is there?

Well, let’s jump back to the very beginning of Genesis. Before anything else happens, there is wind, breath, spirit, moving over the face of the waters. The Spirit is there.

And in order for there to be creation of something out of nothing, there must be Word: “And God said…” And that word of God, Jesus Christ, became flesh and dwelt among us. Creation can only happen, it seems, when the fullness of God is at work.

And as we look at the end of Matthew, where Jesus is once again with his disciples after the resurrection, he gives them the Great Commission, sending them out to baptize. But while Jesus is the divine mouthpiece, all of divinity is present. Don’t baptize in the name of God, or in the name of Jesus, but in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The church can only happen, it seems, when the fullness of God is at work.

The Trinity, the very nature of God, is actually far more starfish than spider. But it’s not about the curiosity of chopping off body parts; it’s about part of God containing the fullness of God.

And that’s the gift to the church. We, whether female or male, are created in the image of all of God, that weird first person plural that pops up in Genesis. And the church is baptized in the name of all of God, not just one part. And we, the church, and individually members of it, have that divine genetic code within us.

The question that lingers with us today is, “What do we do with this?” What do we do in a world that is becoming more starfish and less spider?

I think the truth is that we Presbyterians are in a good position to adapt. We have always been suspicious of too much power being vested in one person, whether that be pastor or elder or treasurer or staff. And I think we’ve been sadly vindicated by the evidence we see in church scandals. We are not immune from the headlines, but we are fortunate that the essence of our structure is one of both support and accountability.

When we celebrate communion, we must have at least three people present: someone to receive, an elder (representing this congregation), and a pastor (representing the wider church).

When I go to visit one of our members in the hospital, or to a community gathering, wherever I go, I take the name of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. See, it’s not just me that goes; it’s all of you. And you have given me the trust to carry all of that, the fullness of God’s OPC DNA, with me.

But the same is true with you; each of you. When you leave this worship service today, when you leave the physical confines of our physical plant, you have not left God behind. You carry the divine imprint within you. At work, at home, as a parent, a neighbor, a student, a teacher, wherever you go, you remain part of the starfish.

If you’ve bothered to read this far, I want you to do something. Click on this link. Print it out. It’s made up of three cards (appropriate for Trinity Sunday). In the next few days, give them to someone. Hand it to a friend, someone you meet at the coffee shop. Tack it to a bulletin board at the restaurant where you have lunch, the grocery store where you shop. Mail it to a family member. Put it in a neighbor’s mailbox. And as you do, may it remind you of your Godly DNA, that you are part of the body of Christ: now and forever!

Amen.

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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!

Amen.

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John 5:30-47

I never have considered myself much of an artist. I’ve told the story before of how I nearly failed a non-credit art class in high school. We were supposed to produce three pieces by the end of the summer term, but I couldn’t even finish the first.

But I remember distinctly loving to draw perspective drawings: endless horizons, hallways seeming to go on forever, a road narrowing into nothingness, a creation revolving around the center of the page as though it were a black hole slowly drawing the rest of the world into its gaping maw.

There’s something about our Scripture readings this morning which reminds me of those childhood artwork. We begin this journey with the prophet Isaiah; and as much as we might want to linger and hear him, he shoos us on down the road: “Keep moving. There’s nothing to see here. But up ahead, there’s this guy. Now that you’ll want to see. A voice crying in the wilderness!” And so we move on.

And it’s worth the trek: this wild figure with wild hair in wild clothes gestures wildly. And so we are drawn to this John the Baptist figure, ready to stop and rest, take in the scenery. But he scoots us along. “You think I’m great? Just wait. This is nothing. I’m not the main attraction. Keep going. It’s just over the hill. That guy is, well, he’s the one. What more can I say?” And so we keep going.

And then we get to this Jesus; not nearly as dramatic as the last guy, but John was right about him. This is the kind of guy you want to follow. Surely we’ve now reached that unreachable horizon, right? But as soon as we catch our breath, Jesus points off down the road toward this one he calls his Father: the creator, the one who shapes us to begin with.

We’ve just begun this season of Advent. And it, too, parallels these travels. It’s a season of preparation, four weeks leading up to those brief twelve days of Christmas. But we don’t stop there. Once we arrive at the manger, there is still more to come on down the road: there is ministry, crucifixion, resurrection. And then there is church, the body of Christ, us gathered here: more ministry, more journey, more signposts down that path toward the endless, eternal center of the page.

But isn’t that what this is all about? We don’t do what we do – whether it’s preach, or sing, or ring, play, or pray, or teach, or serve – because we think that we deserve to be the center of attention, do we? Everything we do, whether it takes place in this building or not, should, in its own perfected imperfect way, point the way to others. “Keep going. Stay on the road. You can’t miss it.”

The funny thing about perspective drawings is that they can play tricks on your eyes. Just as soon as you think that road is moving away from you, that’s when you squint; your focus was somewhere else, and for a second, just for a second, you think you see the center point popping up out of the paper, not going further into it.

We are on this journey just as much as we are sharing the road with others. But the destination isn’t the unreachable depths of the page. It’s the artist, the everlasting creator, who first drew us and continues to draw us, to beckon us ever closer.

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