Empowered by the Holy Spirit

Pentecost Worship Tent CroppedMessage for Pentecost on Acts 2:1-18 given on May 31, 2020 at the first in-person, Parking Lot Worship at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

I was trained and ordained, but I still felt so inadequate in my first church. My first call was at an urban congregation on the east side of Detroit; I was only 27 and knew I still had a lot to learn. The community was 85% African American, and the church, which was only 30% African American, wanted to become more of a neighborhood church. We worked on developing relationships with families through our summer program, and one summer, one of our youth had a conflict with one of the younger teens in the community. I had not even arrived at their house yet, and the teen came outside, looked at me, and said, “I’m not listening to this skinny girl.”

I resisted the urge to say, “you think I’m skinny?” and instead tried to act like the grown-up pastor I was trying to be. But I felt inadequate. Later that year, one of our members was murdered by her neighbors, drug addicts who got her to open her door and shot her point blank. Oh yes, I felt inadequate. I discovered that you can pray and have faith, and even think you are doing what God wants you to do, but still feel you are not up to the task and inadequate in every way.

I wonder if that is how the disciples and other followers of Jesus felt while they were praying in that upper room. There were about 120 of them—including some of Jesus’ family, and all the women who stood by him at the cross and witnessed the empty tomb. They did what Jesus told them to do after he ascended into heaven—they went back to Jerusalem and waited to receive power from on high. But how were they—this motley crew of people, rejected by their religion, and some by their families—how were they supposed to fulfill a mission that included being Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth? How many people was that anyway? How many languages? How do they do THAT without Jesus here, when they only managed to get around this region when he was here?

Their numbers, training, time with Jesus, even their culture and language skills were woefully inadequate. They prayed, they had faith, they were even doing what Jesus told them to do, but they did not feel up to the task and inadequate in every way.

Even those of us who, a few months ago, might have felt we were operating at the top of our game, may feel woefully inadequate in this world in which we now live. Do we have the resilience, the flexibility, the emotional maturity, to keep adapting to changing circumstances, letting go of expectations, and still be the reliable presence for those we love? Moreover, can we make a difference in overturning the racism in our institutions so that skin color does not determine how people are treated, and whether we, or our brown-skinned friends and family fear dying when they are arrested, go jogging, or walk home from the corner store in a hoodie.

Jesus did not leave the disciples, feeling bereft and inadequate to the tasks and challenges that faced them. With the rush of a violent wind and the power of tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit blew into the house where they were praying and pushed them out into the city, where immigrants from the whole region lived. The power of the Spirit enabled them to speak in diverse languages, so everyone heard the good news of Jesus’ forgiveness and victory over death. It sounds like Peter became the star of the show—he preached a great sermon and people experienced the power of God in Jesus Christ.

But there is an important thread in this Holy Spirit story that often gets overlooked when we are wowed by fire, by Peter’s preaching, and by the difficult-to-pronounce languages and cultures. I learned to pay attention to this thread when in my first congregation.

There was a man with Down’s Syndrome named Alex, and he and his mom, Ella, who had struggles of her own, lived in the neighborhood. About a year after I started, they began to walk to church.

Alex and Ella loved to participate in whatever was going on—they would sing with the choir, they loved church potlucks and spending time in fellowship. Sometimes, they would get mixed up on what day it was and show up for church on Saturday instead of Sunday. But I knew when I saw them in their Sunday best on Saturday, that they weren’t just confused, they were excited to get to church, they were ready to sing, to pray and praise, and to be all together with everyone in one place.

One Sunday after worship, we were all in the fellowship hall and Alex said he wanted to give me something. He took me by the shoulders and positioned me in the middle of the room, and then backed up about 5 feet, put out his arm, and began to sing, “You are so beautiful, to you…”

The gift of the Holy Spirit rested on Alex, because he shared with me his spiritual gift of encouragement. We chuckle because he got the words wrong, but I have always known he actually got them right. The Holy Spirit rested on me, too, and I needed to believe it. It was easy for me to see the gifts of the Spirit in other people, in other pastors, in my church members, and even in Alex and Ella, but not in myself, not in those difficult situations I faced. I needed to believe that God would use me, that God could make me more than I was, or none of my gifts would be available for God to use. I would be hiding them under a bushel.

Here the Pentecost story is extremely specific, and we tend to miss it, as I did: “a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” With the words, “you are so beautiful, to you…” Alex was saying, “a tongue of fire from Pentecost is resting on you and you better start believing it for yourself! Alex reminded me that I was not only adequate, I was more powerful than I would ever understand, not because of my training or my ordination, but because the Holy Spirit is in me, blessing me with skills, words and ideas I do not even possess—just like on that first Pentecost.

Because even when they felt inadequate, the Holy Spirit made the disciples not just adequate—but empowered way beyond their abilities to fulfill the mission Jesus gave them. The Spirit was so powerful that day, that later in Acts, it says that 3,000 people joined the church! From 120 to 3,000—that’s 2500%--what a growth curve!

It was not just the Peter-preaching show either—every single believer had a tongue of fire on them

• Someone started teaching people who had questions and doubts
• Someone provided food
• Someone made comfortable places for the elderly to sit
• Someone helped the families with children
• Someone prayed for healing for the sick.
• Someone preached in other languages
• Someone started baptizing
• And someone put up a tent, others passed out bulletins, and others blew up balloons!

We cannot be the people God calls us to be, the disciples Jesus beckons us to be, the church the world needs us to be, when we shun or shirk the gifts of the Spirit and the tongue of fire God has put on us. “A tongue of fire rested on each one of them” and a tongue of fire rests on YOU.”

This Pentecost fire is about YOU and YOUR gift and YOUR belief that the Holy Spirit is landing on YOU today! What are YOU going to do about it?
You are not just adequate, you are empowered beyond your abilities, skills and training to be a vehicle for God’s love and justice in the world! Accept the gift of the Holy Spirit on you and ask how God is leading you to share love and forgiveness, hope and encouragement, justice and belief, in your circle of influence, in your community, and in this church’s mission!

None of us have the gifts to do everything, but all of us have a gift to do something, something vital, something essential. St. Luke’s needs your something, your gift, your life that has been touched by the flame of the Holy Spirit.

In this time when patterns of church have been so radically altered, this is our time to flourish beyond what we think we are capable of—we will know for sure it’s the Holy Spirit’s work!

• This is our time to continue to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
• This is our time to reach out with love and prayer and compassion to those who are grieving or scared.
• This is our time to figure out how God calling us as a predominately white congregation to listen to and stand with communities of color who are not only suffering disproportionately from COVID-19, but who fear for their lives in a justice system that is supposed to protect all of us.
• This is our time to evangelize, to find new and creative ways to tell the love of Jesus and say he died for all.
• This is our time to try more neighborhood parades, parking lot events, and creative ways to connect with and serve our community.

Author Marianne Williamson writes,

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us;
It's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we're liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

As God sends the Holy Spirit of Pentecost anew to us today, God says to each one of us, “you are so beautiful to me.”
Embrace the power of the Holy Spirit in you, as you also affirm: “you are so beautiful to you!”

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It's Still There!

kaylee stepkoski fRvBsJNNlZw unsplashMessage for Ascension/Easter 7 on Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:4-14 given on May 24, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas and can be viewed on video here.

I recently read about a day care center in Jersey City that welcomes the children of homeless families. One day the nuns who run the center took the pre-schoolers to the Jersey Shore. The 3 and 4-year olds scrambled up the big dunes and when they got to the top, they could not believe what they saw—water as far as they could see. It was something they had never seen nor could ever imagine.

They chased the waves and played in the tide. At lunch time, they went off to a park for a picnic and afterward, they begged to go back to the sand dunes. One little boy Freddie ran to the top of the dunes ahead of the rest. He looked out at the ocean and turned back to the others and shouted, “it’s still there!”*

So much had disappeared in Freddie’s short life, it seemed possible the ocean could vanish over lunch. Of course, we know that the ocean is still there when we are not looking at it, but sometimes we are more like Freddie than we imagine.

These days, many things feel transitory. Life feels like we are standing on shifting sands and we are not confident about what will remain and what will disappear. What will the future hold? How will the church need to change? Will our new normal life be anything like “normal” used to be?

The truth is that no one knows—even the most experienced public health experts, research scientists, and economists do not know exactly how our lives, jobs, finances or future will unfold. In one of her poems, Adrienne Rich says, “you live in a different place though you have never moved.” We need something with staying power.

The disciples must have felt the shifting sands under their feet, as if they too, were about to live in a different place without moving. Jesus is still with them but is talking in the past tense as though he were already gone: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you.” He keeps talking about going away and really, they just got him back from the dead, so no one is interested in more change.

He promises that they will be “clothed with power from on high,” but what does that mean? What does this power look like? When will it happen? We hear some of their frustration in the verses from Acts. Like us, they too, would like answers to their questions about what’s coming next, what the future holds: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” What will the future hold? The disciples wonder what will give them the staying power they need.

Jesus gives one of those answers I that just bugs me—he essentially says Mind Your Own Business! The timing of God’s plan of salvation is not your business. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Even though I do not like being put in my creaturely place, it is true—God’s timing and cosmic plans are not mine or yours to know—and neither is the future for that matter. And that was as true on March 1 before the coronavirus changed our daily lives as it is true today. We may have more questions and more anxiety, but our ability to know or control the future was no greater two and half months ago than it is today. Still, we wonder what will give us staying power.

But Jesus does not leave the disciples or us hanging with our unanswered questions and our anxiety about the future. He gives us the next step, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

This is not any old spirit—this is power from on high—from beyond ourselves. This is the Spirit with staying power. Look at the life of Jesus to know what Spirit this is.

• This is the same Spirit that filled Jesus at his Baptism;
• This is the same Spirit that sustained Jesus for 40 days in the wilderness;
• This is the same Spirit that led Jesus to make the lame walk;
• This is the same Spirit that allowed Jesus to calm the storm;
• This is the same Spirit that enabled Jesus to turn 5 loaves and 2 fish into a feast;
• This is the same Spirit that empowered Jesus to call Lazarus from the grave back to life.

This is the power from on high that would soon be given to the disciples and even now is given to us.

Jesus blesses the disciples as he ascends into heaven because it is his departure that initiates the next chapter in God’s story of salvation—making Jesus presence and power spread throughout the whole creation. At this moment Jesus’ presence moves from one historical spot on the map to every place in the world moving out in concentric circles from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria to the ends of the earth!

The only way to do this is through the risen power of Jesus’ Spirit coming from on high and enlivening the whole creation. “Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. “From now on,” Jesus says, “I will be with you in the power of the Spirit. Though I am leaving, you will not be left alone.” This is the staying power that we need to be Jesus’s witnesses even to the ends of the earth.

In the Creed we confess that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God. We often think of the right hand of God being a physical location—a place where Jesus sits for eternity. But the right hand of God is not a physical place, rather it is a description of his authority and his power. To sit at the right hand of God is to reign over all creation. Jesus’s physical ascension leads to his spiritual expansion; his bodily absence gives all of us his complete presence; his departure into heaven signals his arrival in all our hearts. Jesus had to ascend in bodily form in order to descend in spiritual form everywhere. This is staying power.

That is why the disciples needed to go back to Jerusalem to the upper room and wait and devote themselves prayer. The staying power of Jesus’ Spirit was coming and they needed to be ready to receive that Spirit and carry the message of forgiveness of sins, freedom from all that binds us and newness in Christ, to others as far as the ends of the earth.

They did not know what the future held, and they did not need to know the details. Because they knew the staying power of Jesus’ Spirit was with them and that would provide them with whatever they needed when they needed it.

We do not know what the future will hold and how the details will work out. The staying power of Jesus in the Holy Spirit offers us peace and confidence to live into the future in the midst of not knowing. Sands can shift, and plans can change, and we will continue to live in a different place even when we have not moved. All of that has been true through the ages and it will be true once we have a COVID-19 vaccine.

But like Freddie discovered on his first trip to the beach—as the ocean is there even when he does not see it, the staying power of Christ is with us even when Jesus has ascended into heaven. For he has filled all creation, us as believers, and his church with the staying power of Holy Spirit and that is our constant even when all things around us change. Even if you cannot see it today, the Spirit has staying power with you and through you and that is what enables us all to move confidently into every tomorrow.

God has given us each other so that when we cannot see or feel the Spirit, we can be Freddie for one another. One of us will run to the top of the sand dune and shout, “It’s still there!”

*Shared by Barbara Lundbland on workingpreacher.org for the commentary on Ascension for May 5, 2016. I am indebted to her for the ideas and structure behind this sermon.

Photo by Kaylee Stepkoski, unsplash.com

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Wishing for A Jesus Button

Wishing for a Jesus ButtonMessage for Easter 6 on John 14:15-21, Acts 17:22-31 given on May 17, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas and can be viewed on video here.

I was talking with a friend this week about his struggle to remain faithful in daily life, especially now, when it is so easy to be pulled off track into fear and selfishness. He said he wished that God gave him a button-- 

• A button that he could push when he needed to get on the right track.
• A button that would keep him from the pride that leads him to think he is right when really there is more to learn; a button that would help him remain humble and remember he’s not God and not in control;
• A button that would stop him from feeling that it is always up to him to come up with the right answer and provide the solution that everyone is looking for be at work or at home.

“Wouldn’t it be great?” he mused, “to have a button that would activate Jesus so he could move our minds and bodies to the right side of the line of faith?”

As Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples, they too wished that they could have had such a button. For three years they lived constantly in Jesus’ presence. As they journeyed and ministered with him, he was always there. For three years, they had the living, breathing button of God that they could press to get the right answer or to resolve any of the conundrums of daily life—what to do when the wine ran out at a wedding, how to feed 5,000 people out in the countryside, how to help a man blind man by the side of the road. Just push the Jesus button and something amazing would happen.

But now Jesus tells his disciples that he is going away, and they are going to lose his physical presence. What were they going to do? How are they going to love each other and the world as Jesus loved them? How are they to carry out the mission of love and healing without his power and presence? What was going to happen when the next storm arose, the next crowd of hungry people pressed in and the next conflict came up with the powers that be? What are they going to do without their at-the-ready Jesus-button?

Their questions and their anxiety echo in our own hearts. If only there were a button we could push that would give us the right answers to everything in life that is now so uncertain: When and how do we return to in-person worship? How much should we go out or stay in? Do we go to the office or work from home? Can we make summer plans or not?

We too, want a Jesus button—a button that would give us Jesus’s answers to these questions, and so many other questions that eat away at our souls. Jesus has left us and with him, any chance of having an at-the-ready button to get clear and satisfying answers.

But even though he did say he would leave physically, Jesus did promise that he would not leave us orphaned. Jesus did promise that because he lives, we will live also. Jesus did promise that he was coming to us and that he would send another—an Advocate—the Holy Spirit to be with us forever. Jesus did promise that this Spirit of Truth would abide with us and will be in us always. Jesus did promise that this Spirit, the “Paraclete”, the one “called alongside us,” would be with us always and forever, so that the power of Jesus will always be beside us and inside us.

Jesus did not promise us a button; instead he gives us a relationship. We experience this amazing gift of the Paraclete in so many profound ways: The Holy Spirit lives beside us and inside us as Comforter, Guide, Intercessor, Helper, Companion, Aid, Advocate—whatever we need, the Holy Spirit is it!

• When you are grieving, sad or despondent, the Holy Spirit comforts you;
• When you are lost or in need of discernment, the Holy Spirit guides you;
• When you are lonely and in despair, the Holy Spirit draws close and accompanies you;
• When you are struggling and in need of assistance, the Holy Spirit helps you;
• When you are at your wits end and cannot do or think another thing, the Holy Spirit comes to your aid;
• When you are so exhausted you cannot even pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes for you with sighs too deep for words;
• When you are down and out, the Holy Spirit is advocates for you;
• When you have given all you’ve got, the Holy Spirit abides with you as you rest in the Lord.

Jesus promises, “I will not leave you orphaned.” The Paraclete is Jesus Spirit, right alongside us as a constant, never failing presence to provide us with whatever we need in this world so that we can fulfill Jesus call to love the world as he does.

Jesus promises that as the Spirit dwells in us, we are in Jesus and he is in God, so God is in us and we are in God. We are in the middle of a God sandwich—we can’t be torn apart from God even if we tried because we are in God through Christ and Christ is in God—for in him we live and move and have our being!

We do not need to be despondent that we have no button to push because Jesus has given us an ongoing, ever-present relationship that sustains us, renews us, and restores us. Every day we feel the presence of the living Christ as the Paraclete is beside and within us, giving us all that we need! That is way better than a button!

Every day we can join the Trinitarian party that’s going on inside and around us, sharing in fellowship as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit whirl in their eternal dance with us and through us! When we want to stay on the faithful side of following Jesus with humility and love, with regular corrections to our pride and self-righteousness, we ask the Holy Spirit directly for what we need—whatever that is—Comfort, Guidance, Help, Aid, Wisdom, Companionship, Intercession, Rest.

God does not give us a button because the answer to our problems, to our questions, to our struggles, is not “out there.” Instead God has made each of us the Temple of the Holy Spirit so that God in Jesus can have a living, breathing, loving relationship with you, a beloved son and daughter of the most high that is rooted in here.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God which dwells richly within each one of us. When we ask for help, guidance, wisdom, direction, prayers, rest, hope—whatever we need—the paraclete, who abides beside us and within us, is ready and waiting to love and guide us through whatever we face.

And the gifts of the Spirit come—not in a mechanical sense, but in the blessed assurance, the deep peace, and the hopeful clarity that comes when we trust the agency of the living God above our own.

The Spirit of Truth abides with you and in you. I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. In God we live and move and have our being. Join the Trinitarian dance that is in and around you—there’s no button to enter, for the party is always on and you are already in the middle!

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Monsters and Doors, Shepherds and Gates

Monsters IncMessage for Easter 4 on John 10:1-10 and Psalm 23 given on May 3, 2020 for St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas and can be viewed here.


In the movie Monsters, Inc. doors offered the passageway for monsters to travel from their world into the human world to scare children in their beds at night. Without the right door, there was no getting into specific child’s bedroom and racking up their monster scream score. There are about 36 million doors in the whole movie.

This provides an apt metaphor for today, when it feels like a monster is out there in the world and we do not know when, where or how it will strike. Like a child fearing a monster behind the closet door or under the bed, it scares the bejeezus out of us. The most difficult part is not having an end date to this crisis, knowing full well that what we used to define as “normal life” will not be that way anymore. It seems like there are 36 million ways to get this virus and until there is a vaccine, masks, gloves, distancing, and disinfecting are our new normal. We do not know exactly what the future will look like once we ease into some of our regular activities, how long it will take, nor what future impacts will be. Some days, staying under the covers hoping this will stave off the monsters feels like the best we can do.

“I am the gate of the sheep” says Jesus. It should really be translated, “I am the door of the sheep” but that sounds strange to our ears since, as outdoor animals, sheep do not go in and out of doors—they go in and out of gates. So consistent with the metaphor of sheep, the translation refers to Jesus as the “gate” rather than the “door.” But the point is the same. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who brings us into God’s fold, who seeks us out, claims us, loves us, and provides for us.

Jesus is not giving an abstract speech to the disciples, but rather, he is describing what he has just done from the man born blind described in the previous chapter. This man, blind from birth, was consigned to a life of begging—crying by the side of the road to get what little he could. He was at the mercy of those who walked by—sometimes monsters he could not see, but only hear as they rejected and derided him for his sin, yelling at him to stop bothering them, shoving him aside as they went on with their busy lives. But the Good Shepherd heard is cries for healing—spit in the dirt, made mud and put it on his eyes and told him to wash in the poop of Siloam. As he did, the man’s sight was restored. You would think this miraculous healing would give him a joyous life—a new normal that restored him to the community. But the powers-that-be rejected his testimony about Jesus and threw him out again—monsters indeed. Now he could see, but he was still alone and rejected, cast aside with the door of hope and community slammed in his face again.

But this was unacceptable to Jesus, so he went in search of the man and found him. The Good Shepherd sought out the man so he could enter into relationship and community with the living God and not be left outside the fold ever again. Jesus explains his actions to the disciples by saying, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

There were plenty of monsters, thieves or bandits ready and willing to steal this man’s life and peace and joy, and lead him astray---but this newly sighted man knew Jesus’ voice, he knew his healing and life abundant lay with Good Shepherd, so he entered the door that Jesus opened and followed him.

There are so many monsters ready to steal our peace and bandits ready to disrupt our life right now—so many conflicting voices telling us what to do and what to think and what is right and what is not. There are so many things we think we should be accomplishing at the same time that so many doors that are being shut in our faces. Who do we listen to and what do we do?

Jesus comes to us today as the Good Shepherd and says, I am the only voice you need to listen to and the only door you need to open. I am the gate. So listen to my voice—

“In me you shall not be in want. You can lie down in green pastures; and rest beside still waters; and I will restore your soul. I will lead down the right path as you listen to my Word and my voice. When you walk through this valley of shadows, you need not fear any evil, for I am with you, I will protect you and comfort you. I will prepare a table for you in the presence of your enemies. I will anoint your head with oil so that your cup overflows. Surely, my goodness and mercy shall follow you all the days of your life and you will dwell in my house forever.”

When we are nourished by the Good Shepherd in body and soul, then we are equipped to discern which voices in the culture, news and medical reports are Christ-like voices and lead us to behavior that follows Jesus in how we live in the world—values that heal and preserve well-being for all, that love and care for our neighbor, that share our resources, that care for the vulnerable, that seek justice for the poor, that honor creation, and that reflect Jesus who came that we all might have life and have it abundantly.
We do so as a community who is called to join the Good Shepherd in loving others into the fold because they too, want a relationship with life-giving abundant shepherd of our life. In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, wrote “the goal is not to create joy for ourselves but, ‘to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to those around you.’ ” That is what it is to enter the door of the Good Shepherd and to confidently, dwell in Jesus’ fold—to allow Christ’s presence in us to create a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity—that cannot help but be a cup overflowing and drawing others into the fold of the Shepherd.

We have this overflowing abundance because the Jesus the Good Shepherd stands at the gate of the monster of death victorious. When at the last God looks at the whole of our life, marred by sin and brokenness and the door should be slammed in our face, Jesus will stand in our place, crucified and risen, proclaiming, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me is saved. Enter into the joy of heaven for the free gift of grace is life eternal with God.”

Trust the Good Shepherd, for there are no monsters that can defeat the power Christ, or shut the gates of heaven!

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The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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