Archive for June, 2014

I Desire Mercy Not Sacrifice

Monday, June 30th, 2014

Genesis 22:1-14
June 30, 2014
Steve Hammond

There is a Yiddish folk tale that says that when God went to the angels to get one of them to go tell Abraham that he was supposed to sacrifice Isaac, they all refused. They said if God wanted such a horrible thing done then God would have to be the one to tell Abraham. The angels wanted nothing to do with it.

This is a hard story. A couple of the commentators warned that this story should not be read in the service until after the children are dismissed. It’s one of those texts of terror. And for a long time believers have been trying to figure out what to make of this story. Here is a slide of some of the ways people have characterized this story. A. Abusive God,. B. Misguided Abraham, C. Religious violence at its worst, D. A story of faith and obedience.

Here is how one commentator started his comments about this passage. “There are a lot of directions one can run with a Scripture passage like this, but there is one prominent biblical truth that surfaces here, and is reinforced in the Genesis readings for the Sundays on either side of this date, as well as in a multitude of other passages: God will provide. Here is a one-point sermon. We can use these and other readings to provide varied illustrations of this axiom: God will provide.”

I think this passage is a little bit more complex than that simple one point about how God’s providing a ram to be sacrificed rather than Isaac is really about God providing all our needs.

What do you think about this story?

The writers of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament also thought about this story and here is what he or she came up with in that long section in chapter 11 about Abraham’s faith..”By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ Abraham considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back.”

Now there is someone thinking about how there is more to this story than God will provide. You do have to confront the whole notion that God would ask Abraham to kill his son, and then how Abraham was going to deal with that. And for the writer of Hebrews that means Abraham was thinking about resurrection long before anyone else was. God had promised Abraham that his line would continue through Isaac, but God wanted him to kill Isaac. The writer of Hebrews figures that for Abraham, the only way this thing could work was if God raised Isaac from the dead.

While reading and thinking about that I touched the wrong link and ended up coming across this really interesting article about resurrection from a progressive Christian perspective.

It was written by Rev. Bruce Epperly, a Pastor in Massachusetts, and a Process theologian. He says that progressive and mainline spiritual leaders need to reclaim words like ‘miracle’ in new and creative ways. He writes that “We need to be theologically and spiritually bold, expecting great things from God and great things from ourselves.”

He goes on to write that “The most significant historical and biblical meaning of resurrection involves Jesus’ transcending the power of death and living on as agent and subject on earth and in heaven. Process theologians have often been far too humble in reflections on the afterlife; they have made agnosticism and sometimes even unbelief in survival after death an article of faith! Given the plethora of best-selling texts of near death experiences, offering glimpses of heaven, we need to be both humble and hopeful in our preaching and speculation on the afterlife. We are rightfully worried about the temptation of being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. But, process theology’s affirmation of the interdependence of life and creaturely creativity enables us to imagine a relational, evolving, and creative afterlife, in which new energies of love and artistry, forgiveness and reconciliation, healing and transformation will be available to us beyond the grave. In claiming the complex interdependence of life and imagining continuity of personal identity in the afterlife, we can articulate an ethics of immortality, affirming that our life choices today, personally and politically, shape peoples’ experiences now and beyond the grave. Though we must recognize that we see in a mirror dimly, we can be both heavenly minded and earthly good.”

He ends his essay with some thoughts about the Disciple Thomas, who we call a doubter and he calls a hero. He says that Thomas was rightfully agnostic because he missed the resurrection excitement the others experienced. The key is, though, that Thomas remained “faithfully open to what may come. “John 20 concludes with a portrait of the heroic Thomas, who misses the excitement of Jesus’ resurrection, but stays with the disciples, faithfully opening to what may come. The faithfulness of Thomas he writes “is found in his willingness to participate in the resurrection community, despite his missing the community’s mystical encounter with the Risen Christ….But, Thomas did not sacrifice his questioning mind for the sake of going along with the crowd. His agnosticism is an openness to experience, not a closed mind. He willingly opens to resurrection when he encounters the Living Christ.”

His essay finishes with this. “[The Gospel of] John concludes with an invitation to imagine the many textures of Jesus’ life. The fullness of Christ cannot be contained by any text, including our Bible. We cannot think small about Jesus; there is more to Jesus than we imagine or contain in the written word. Resurrection expands our minds and inspires unexpected compassion. John’s gospel invites us to be part of the resurrection story and become living witnesses to new life in our worlds. We are writing the resurrection story in our time by our faithful opening to divine resuscitation and willingness to go forth with good news of life-transforming love.” (http://processandfaith.org/ resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2014-04-27/second-sunday-easter)

So I don’t know exactly what Abraham was thinking about resurrection that day. But one of the things that it is probably important to keep in mind when is the fact that child sacrifice wasn’t an unusual thing in Abraham’s day. All the gods were demanding it. In fact, the weirdness of this story, in its setting, would not have been that Abraham sacrificed Isaac, but that he didn’t. That’s what wouldn’t have made sense to people then. Here is what Brian McLaren writes, “It was commonplace in the ancient world for a man to lead his son up a mountain to be sacrificed to his deity. It was extraordinary for a man to come down the mountain with his son still alive.”

And in coming back down the mountain with Isaac still alive, some argue that is the real faith that Abraham is showing. More from Brian McLaren. “Put yourself in [Abraham’s and Sarah’s] sandals. Imagine that you and everyone you know believes that God is a severe and demanding deity who can bestow forgiveness and other blessings only after human blood has been shed. Imagine how that belief in human sacrifice will affect the way you live, the way you worship, and the way you treat others. Now imagine how hard it would be to be the first person in your society to question such a belief. Imagine how much courage it would take, especially because your blood might be the next to be sacrificed!”(Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, chapter 7).

I am going to put another slide up here that talks about this. “What we must try to see in the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham’s faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn’t do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done.”(Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled).

For many people in the history of the church, this story of Abraham and Isaac has pointed to the death of Jesus. You have Jesus carrying his cross, and Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt sacrifice he was going to become. But there is a difference in the two stories. What is it? Jesus gets killed and Isaac doesn’t.

Yet this story has become key in folks understanding of the substitutionary atonement, that Jesus had to become a human sacrifice in order to appease God’s wrath toward all humanity. It’s actually even worse in that Abraham was willing to kill Isaac himself, but God contracted out the killing of Jesus to the Roman Army. We need to think long and hard about that. Do we really believe that God demands human sacrifice? By the end of the story Abraham didn’t. And all of Israel gave it up. And there were plenty of prophets that proclaimed that God wasn’t even looking for animal sacrifices. What God wants, they cried, is mercy, not sacrifice. But we have made Jesus the exception.

One of the things that has always perplexed me is that some of the Christians who claim to take their faith more seriously than most others, don’t really talk that much about Jesus. In fact, they don’t seem to like a lot of what he said about living nonviolently or welcoming the stranger and refugee. It as if the only thing that mattered about Jesus was that God had him killed as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s like there is nothing redemptive in how he lived, just that he died, and that he died as a human sacrifice.

You know we would like to assign child sacrifice to more primitive days. But children are being sacrificed day in and day out for our sacred causes. I remember former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright being challenged on the fact that the U.S. led embargo of Iraq back in the 1990’s led to the deaths of more than 50,000 children from disease and malnutrition. She said the cause they died for was worth it. How often have we talked about the young men and women killed in battle for the sacred cause of freedom? What about the children who parish in all our conflicts, who are abducted by terrorists, forced into becoming child soldiers, or sexual or economic slaves? Why are we sacrificing our children’s future for the gain we get in poisoning the environment and destroying the climate? Children are being sacrificed for somebody’s sacred cause at this very moment, so we shouldn’t be too tough on Abraham.

That’s why we need to change our ideas about God. And that is what happened with Abraham. I don’t know exactly what he was thinking when he walked up that mountain with Isaac. But when he came down with him it was because he was starting to see God in a whole new way.

When Phyllis Trible writes about texts of terror, she says we have to deal with them like Jacob did with the angel that night. We wrestle with these texts until they bless us. And at the end, stories like this might leave us limping. But this story helps us to take the chance to see God in new ways. It helps us to understand that there is much more to being faithful than we have often been told. If stories like this can help us understand that things like mercy are more important to God than our ritual sacrifices, if we can walk back down the mountain with Isaac thriving, then we are going to make some angels very happy.
For many people in the history of the church, this story of Abraham and Isaac has pointed to the death of Jesus. You have Jesus carrying his cross, and Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt sacrifice he was going to become. But there is a difference in the two stories. What is it? Jesus gets killed and Isaac doesn’t.

Yet this story has become key in folks understanding of the substitutionary atonement, that Jesus had to become a human sacrifice in order to appease God’s wrath toward all humanity. It’s actually even worse in that Abraham was willing to kill Isaac himself, but God contracted out the killing of Jesus to the Roman Army. We need to think long and hard about that. Do we really believe that God demands human sacrifice? By the end of the story Abraham didn’t. And all of Israel gave it up. And there were plenty of prophets that proclaimed that God wasn’t even looking for animal sacrifices. What God wants, they cried, is mercy, not sacrifice. But we have made Jesus the exception.

One of the things that has always perplexed me is that some of the Christians who claim to take their faith more seriously than most others, don’t really talk that much about Jesus. In fact, they don’t seem to like a lot of what he said about living nonviolently or welcoming the stranger and refugee. It as if the only thing that mattered about Jesus was that God had him killed as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s like there is nothing redemptive in how he lived, just that he died, and that he died as a human sacrifice.

You know we would like to assign child sacrifice to more primitive days. But children are being sacrificed day in and day out for our sacred causes. I remember former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright being challenged on the fact that the U.S. led embargo of Iraq back in the 1990’s led to the deaths of more than 50,000 children from disease and malnutrition. She said the cause they died for was worth it. How often have we talked about the young men and women killed in battle for the sacred cause of freedom? What about the children who parish in all our conflicts, who are abducted by terrorists, forced into becoming child soldiers, or sexual or economic slaves? Why are we sacrificing our children’s future for the gain we get in poisoning the environment and destroying the climate? Children are being sacrificed for somebody’s sacred cause at this very moment, so we shouldn’t be too tough on Abraham.

That’s why we need to change our ideas about God. And that is what happened with Abraham. I don’t know exactly what he was thinking when he walked up that mountain with Isaac. But when he came down with him it was because he was starting to see God in a whole new way.

When Phyllis Trible writes about texts of terror, she says we have to deal with them like Jacob did with the angel that night. We wrestle with these texts until they bless us. And at the end, stories like this might leave us limping. But this story helps us to take the chance to see God in new ways. It helps us to understand that there is much more to being faithful than we have often been told. If stories like this can help us understand that things like mercy are more important to God than our ritual sacrifices, if we can walk back down the mountain with Isaac thriving, then we are going to make some angels very happy.

Pentecostal Soil

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

Matthew 13:1-9
June 22, 2014
Mary Hammond

I have to confess that I am not a gardener, nor have I ever been a farmer. I do believe our Gospel Parable today would be richer in meaning for me, were I either one of these. And yet, the story is not devoid of meaning for me. The beauty and lessons of nature are everywhere for all of us to observe—in the lost bug wandering the house; in the stunning cloud formations that change moment by moment; in the glorious sunrises and sunsets that often begin and end our days.

Sometimes we share here at church stories of when we feel closest to God. The gardeners among us often relate the connections they experience with the Divine while working in the soil. Many of the rest of us also recount adventures walking in the woods, sitting by a waterfall, or gazing at a field of wildflowers. There is a holiness to the earth and our interactions with it. There is a primal nature to this relationship.

Throughout the spring, Anita Peebles invited us to ask new questions about the Parables of Jesus, questions that help us face and address our “anthropocentrism,” or “human-centered” bias in exploring these stories. Our habit, as human beings, is to proceed the way the disciples do in this Gospel story. They scratch their heads in confusion, eventually asking Jesus what in the heck he means. Why, they want to know, does he often teach in parables? Jesus offers a rarely invoked interpretation—just of this particular story–which is recorded later in the chapter. Unfortunately, as twenty-first century readers, we too often then choose the easy path. We read that explanation, which is really all about us, and cease pondering the story. What if, instead, we stayed with the seed and soil for awhile?

Our text today is an Earth Parable meant to open our eyes to the lessons of the Spirit which the earth yields. It is a musical trio between a farmer, a seed, and the soil. We could spend a whole second sermon on the duet between nature and the human being.

Jesus invites us to simply pay attention to the music, like he does. He listens to and observes the ways of nature as she interacts with the farmer’s action of throwing out the seed. Jesus processes this deeply. He uses seeds, soil, rocks, and weeds to teach his disciples about growth and flourishing, about stunting growth and choking it completely.

The question we want to ask is not, “What does human life teach us about the seed?” Instead, we want to hear the original question this parable poses, “What does the seed teach us?” We then turn anthropocentrism on its head, and let nature be our teacher, ourselves the students.

Steve and I just returned from Niagara Falls where we experienced the sheer power and grandeur of a lot of earth, water, and air. We saw trees growing on rocks that we never thought could sustain such growth. Utter tenacity overcame the difficult environment the seeds found themselves in. Both trees and plants burrowed through the rock, finding nourishment wherever they could.

This is also a lesson about soil. Sometimes plants aren’t given the best soil to grow in, yet they persevere anyhow. What is beneath them may be hard and unforgiving, and yet they search for the cracks in the rocks and make their homes there. In other contexts, weeds may flourish all around, and yet a beautiful plant will pop up, seemingly out of nowhere—that one blooming wildflower that stands alone amidst the overgrowth.

Steve and I were astounded by what we witnessed. From a bridge, we saw a marsh teeming with life. Elsewhere, we walked through well-manicured gardens replete with growth, nurtured in rich, fertile soil and tended by a host of gardeners who were working there at the time.

The sky is itself, and stands alone in its fierce and gentle beauty. The sky can also serve as a metaphor, or parable. So, too, with the seed. It also can be a teacher. Its story can inform us about our story. We, too, resemble the seed (isn’t that different than saying “the seed resembles us?!”).

Like the seed, we sometimes have to burrow beneath nearly impossible obstacles in order to grow. Some are blessed with the richest of soil for flourishing and the most skilled of gardeners for tending their lives. Others feel thrown out into the roadway, forced to find their own way to survive and thrive.

Sooner or later, we long to plant ourselves in fertile soil where we can truly blossom. Seeds find these places, and so do we. For us, they can be close-knit communities and cherished family relationships of origin or choice. That nourishing soil may be discovered in the wonder of the outdoors or the silence of a chapel. Fertile ground may include play, work, recreation, contemplation, and a host of other activities and non-activities. For some, work feels like being thrown on the rocks! I so frequently talk to people who confess this to be the case.

The seed also reminds us that gestation–not endless activity–is essential to growth. Do we heed that lived lesson of the seed?

Just like the seed when it becomes full-grown and mature, we too eventually scatter our little seeds into the world. We seek to become for others rich, good soil and caring, attentive gardeners. We watch and wait, praying and yearning for a remarkable yield.

Today, as we bless the soil of the earth from the gardens among us, we are reminded of the blessings of nature which nourish, enrich, and surround us. Everyday, we are granted countless opportunities to listen and learn from the Earth’s wisdom.

The Spirit comes to the early disciples like a “mighty wind,” as “tongues of fire.” But She also comes as “fertile, Pentecostal Soil,” as living streams of Water, as radiant beams of Light.

“Are you listening, really listening?” Jesus asks his disciples as he recounts the dance of the seed in the farmer’s hands, as she falls and interacts with the earth. He asks us as well. Amen.

Hands (sort of) Held High

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Matthew 28:16-20
June 15, 2014
Steve Hammond

I grew up in a church that would host revival preachers. The preacher would preach several nights in a row and would end each service with an altar call. Now the altar call was what each evening was about. The whole purpose of the revival preacher was to have people “make a decision” for Christ. Now I don’t know if we were a particularly righteous group at Big Walnut Baptist Church, or just a hard sell, but those preachers would have to work hard to get people to walk down the aisle. So what would eventually happen with just about every preacher and just about at the end of each night’s altar call is that the preacher would ask us all to bow our heads and close our eyes. And then he (and it was always a he) would say something like “with every head bowed and every eye shut I am going to ask you to raise your hand if you want to accept Jesus into your heart.” On occasion that must have worked because the preacher would make some acknowledgement of a hand or two being raised. All of this was, of course, to fulfil what has been come to be called the Great Commission that Jesus charges his followers with at the end of Matthew’s gospel.

Somehow, though, when Jesus called his followers to make disciples I think he had something more in mind than getting people to raise their hands while everyone else but the preacher had their eyes shut. That’s hardly the kind of thing that could get you dragged off to the Coliseum to face the lions. But there have been plenty of hand raisers who left many a revival meeting assured of their place in heaven even if nobody else there, save than the preacher and a kid or two taking a peek, knew anything about it.

Most of those people never actually got baptized, which Jesus does happen to make specific reference to in this passage. It was enough for them and the preacher, evidently, that the hand had been raised, though I am sure the preacher would have loved to have them go all the way to the waters of Jordan. But there is a real contrast between what Jesus had in mind and what those preachers had in mind. And that contrast is still there in many cases when people go beyond hand raising and do get baptized.

That’s because in many places what happens at the revival meeting or in the baptistery is built around this idea that it is all a personal transaction between God and the person who has raised their hand or stepped into the waters. You see baptism is not about me getting saved because I have made a decision to follow Jesus and fulfilled, at least, the minimal requirement. Rather it is about me joining all those other folk who are being saved because we are learning together what it means to be the disciples of Jesus.

And I think you can make a good case that when Jesus is talking about baptism he is talking more about those who are doing the baptizing than those who are being baptized. Jesus says to go to every nation and teach people what he showed us. That’s one of those things you can read right past until you stop to think about the implications of what Jesus is saying.

For Jesus, baptism is another of his messages of inclusion. None of the religions that Jesus was familiar with at his time would have ever thought that they should have any dealings with folk other than themselves, much less the whole world. After all, they were the saved ones. Everyone else was the infidels. To go into the whole world is not only to invite people in, to acknowledge they belong as much as you and your own kind do, that God loves them as much as you, but to, also, welcome what they bring. Taking the message to the whole world is not simply telling others you want them to be followers of Jesus, but you want them to help you follow Jesus. Baptism is this invitation we all get to build a new world with Jesus.

Now, of course, if you are going to all nations and calling folk to join you in following Jesus, being his disciples together, you are going to have to deal with the fact that you encounter other religions in those nations. That plunges you right into the reality of this multifaith world we have always lived in, but are finally acknowledging. What tends to happen with Christians in those multifaith encounters is that we either can’t stop talking about Jesus, or we don’t say anything about him at all.

I came across this article written by Harvey Cox back in 1998 where he laments the sad state of dialogue among the world religions at the time. I don’t know if he would think they are better, or maybe even worse, now. But one of his concerns among others expressed back in 1998 is that one of the reasons that interfaith dialogue and engagement had “begun to sputter and stammer, and in many instances come to stop is that faith communities are increasingly divided within themselves, and the rifts are often exacerbated by political tensions.” He points to divisions within Islam and Judaism, and writes about how “Christians who work for interfaith understanding have been shocked and perplexed by the attacks of fundamentalists who condemn them as traitors to the gospel but who themselves seem willing to cooperate with non-Christians if their politics are acceptable.”

He feels like that dialogue fundamentalist and progressive Christians needs to have with each other, or the dialogue that Shia and Sunni Muslims need to have each other are crucial if we are going to have satisfying dialogue between religions. But, he realizes interfaith dialogue can’t wait for the various faith communities to get it together. So he writes about sitting in “gatherings of urbane representatives of different faith traditions, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches or the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard where my mind has strayed from the conference room out to those jagged corners of the world where other confessors of these same faiths are killing or proselytizing—or just frigidly—ignoring one another.”

One of the ways that he sees the dialogue going wrong is where Christian participation has ended-up “soft peddling the figure of Jesus himself….I have noticed that when reference to Jesus is postponed or downplayed, conversations between Christians and people of other traditions tend to become arid, but when the figure of Jesus is brought to the fore, either by Christians or—as sometimes happens—by the others, the dialogue comes alive.”

“For the vast majority of Christians, including the most energetically engaged in dialogue, Jesus in not merely a background figure. He is central to Christian faith. Not only do Christian dialoguers realize this, but so do their partners from other faiths. Wherever one starts, whether with creation, with the omnipresent enlivening Spirit, with the faith experience as such or with something else, any honest dialogue between Christians and others will sooner or later…have to deal with the figure of Jesus.”

Here is how Cox suggests we enter into dialogue with those of other faiths as we go into all the nations and make disciples. “To be a disciple of Jesus means not to emulate or mimic him but to follow his ‘way,’ to live in our era the same way he lived in his—as a sign and servant of the reign of God. To follow Jesus requires us not to choose 12 disciples or turn water into wine but to take his life project—making the coming of God’s reign of Shalom real and immediate—our own. Friendship among the peoples of the world faiths and the nurturing of a sense of ‘species consciousness’ are an indispensable facet of the coming of God’s Shalom.’

Harvey Cox closes his article with this. “From Jesus I have learned both that he is the way and that in God’s house there are many mansions. I do not believe that these two sayings are contradictory. In fact, I have come to see that only by understanding one can we come to understand the other.”

As always, I am struck by the fact that Jesus puts his mission, his hope for the Reign of God to be realized in our world, in the hands of folk like us. Do you remember that part of the story where it says some of them worshipped and some of them doubted? It turns out that sentence could also be translated “some of the time they worshipped, some of the time they doubted.” That seems to say it well. Kind of sounds like people like us. But it’s not that it depends on each one of us to get it right. In fact, it’s not about each one of us, at all, but about all of us, people who have been invited together to be the community of disciples of Jesus who learn from and teach each other. We don’t simply make disciples, we are made disciples with each other.

Mary has been scouring the web to find some resources on how to do evangelism from a progressive Christianity perspective, but hasn’t found much. I did come across this in some reading I did this week from the pastor of a church called House of Mercy. “We do not do outreach, we do not try to convince or persuade—we try to proclaim and point, then let folks and the Spirit of God work it out.”

Maybe the reason those revival preachers had to settle for raised hands rather than wet bodies was because the people were waiting for something compelling enough not simply to propel them down the aisle, but into a new way of living. This baptistery hasn’t gotten much use lately, so I don’t think we can sit in too much judgment of all those revival preachers out there. They can do a better job, and we can do a better job of making disciples, of helping people understand what it means to follow Jesus. But with every eye open, and every head held high, I want you to take a look around this room and see who it is that we have been invited to follow Jesus with. And we have this great commission from Jesus to invite others to help us join with them in making disciples, starting with us.

Spirit-time, Oberlin Summer

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Kathryn Ray
Acts 2:1-21
June 8, 2014 {Pentecost)

As you probably do not know, the University of Chicago, where I attend graduate school, is on a quarter system.One feature of the quarter system is that we have finals week in mid-June. Next week.One learns new lessons about the Holy Spirit during finals week.

Finals week, when you are called to make good showing of the knowledge that is in you. To show that you have paid attention to the lessons you have received,whether you paid attention or not.

Time shifts around me during finals week. Into this weird, funky Kathryn-time. All the words that I could possibly write or say,lose the space in between that kept them ordered, suddenly everything that needs to be done, needs to be done right now.Everything that needs to be said, needs to be said right now. This is Kathryn-time.

Kathryn-time moves a lot faster than normal time. It doesn’t just happen during school exams. I spent enough time out of school to know this. It turns out life has its own kinds of exams, relationship trials, work trials.

When suddenly there is everything to do, and no time to do it.
And I move into Kathryn-time, which has this terrible, paralyzing, anxiety.

The story of my past week. It was not a week to agree to cook for a woman in my church who just had a baby and came home from the hospital. But I had already agreed to do this, because I knew that now I’m a grown up and if I start making excuses, I will never stop. There will always be a reason.

As I was cooking lentils and grading cheese, chopping carrots, there was this moment, when a new kind of time interrupted. All of the words that had lost the spaces in between, all of the ideas that had just congealed together like leftover oatmeal, It all opened up.

There was just this moment. Suddenly it was just me and the carrots, and there was all the time in the world. That, I think, was the working of the Spirit, that Holy carver of time and space. This is Spirit-time.

That is my prayer for worship this morning, for our time together. That God may open up the space of a moment in our hearts and speak in the language known only to us.

I am going to add an additional Scripture this morning, from the book of Acts, chapter one.To understand our Pentecost text for today, the coming of the Holy Spirit, which takes place in the second chapter of Acts,we have to go back in time to the first chapter of Acts.

The disciples have spent a good forty days chilling with the resurrected Jesus, in which he teaches them. It is a sort of advanced seminar on the kingdom of God. And just before that seminar ends, with Jesus ascending into heaven before their eyes, He gives them their charge.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and you will be my witnesses. Here in Jerusalem. In the whole nation, Judea. In Samaria, that nation over there. And to the ends of the earth that you do not even know.

Make good showing of the knowledge that is in you. Show that you have paid attention to the lessons that I have given you. It is the disciples’ final exam, only it’s the kind that lasts a lifetime.

In this past week, I read those words through the disciples’ eyes. And they were anxious eyes. I don’t know if it was my own anxiety or sympathetic anxiety on behalf of the disciples. Maybe it’s the same thing.

I felt myself standing there, looking upon Jesus, and feeling everything coming together into one moment. All that the disciples have learned in the past three or four years, coming together. Where do you start? What do you do? How do you witness to someone whose deeds and sayings could fill more books that this world can contain, as the gospel of John says? There is not enough time in the world to fulfill the task that Jesus has given them.

If I were the disciple, I would not have wanted to wait around for the Holy Spirit to show up. I would have already booked my ticket for the ends of the earth. This is Kathryn-time moving here. Kathryn-time says better not waste any moment. But the disciples don’t do anything right then.

For once in the New Testament, they do the right thing. They follow Spirit-time. Because the first part of the charge Jesus gave them was to wait. Wait for the Holy Spirit. Then, you will do the work that I have given you. Not yet.

If God were working according to Kathryn-time, that is to say if God worked efficiently to maximize output, it would have made more sense for the Holy Spirit to descend then and there. Jesus goes up, and Holy Spirit comes down in a dramatic display of power. But Jesus goes up, and the disciples are just left there, waiting.

What was the Spirit waiting for? They were wasting time. There’s sicknesses to heal. There’s good news to be preached. There’s bonds of oppression to break. Spirit-time, it would seem, is not terribly efficient. Spirit-time is not maximally-productive.

The Spirit, in her infinitely wise schedule, has shoehorned a span of time between Jesus’ charge and the disciples’ going forth. A time in which they gathered as a community, and took stock of where they were. A time in which they prayed together and presumably broke bread together.They prepared themselves, making changes in the community. They spoke of their lost member, Judas. I ask myself if they took the time to grieve for him then. I wonder if they took this time to forgive.

The Holy Spirit opened up this space in time between the Ascension and the Pentecost for the community to just be together and attend to themselves before they all plunged into their ministry and witness.A time for them to turn inward, before turning outward. A time in-between what was before and what was to come

In doing so, the Spirit proclaimed to the disciples “everything that you will do and everything that you will be, does not need to come to pass right now.” The Spirit’s answer to Kathryn-time.

This was something I did not understand when I was a student here at Oberlin. I remember graduating and wondering with panic what kind of impact I was leaving on the community.I wondered if I had accomplished anything worthwhile.I have since come to redefine “worthwhile accomplishment.”

But more importantly, I have realized that preparation is something important. I had expected myself to transform my world without understanding that transforming myself was a mighty enough deed. In Kathryn-time, there was not enough time to stop, and gather up. There was only time to act.

In Spirit time, there is room enough for acting, and for being. In Spirit time, there are moments that can capture an eternity.
Spirit time invaded Kathryn-time this week, when I was cooking for that member of my church. A moment that was not the mission.

The mission, when you are approaching finals, is writing, synthesizing, and analyzing, But that moment, that moment was just Holy Spirit and mincing garlic and cooking lentils.

I suspect Spirit-time at work, when I watch the overnight transition of Oberlin from a hive of graduation activity to a quiet summer town. The Holy Spirit has chased the students from the city, wrapped it in a blanket of calm. Oberlin takes a breath, as Mary Hammond said in a Facebook post once.

Come late August, the town moves, and the Spirit moves with it. This church knows how to speak in a variety of tongues to young people from a variety of backgrounds.You don’t need to go to the ends of the earth. The ends of the earth will come to you. Young people seeking to define themselves as adults in ways as yet unknown to them.

You will add their languages, as you always do, to the ones you already know. Languages of comfort for the grieving neighbor, the language of anger and justice in halls of power, the language of repentance for pain we have inflicted, knowingly or unknowingly.

You speak of God in a thousand tongues, proclaiming in each of them messages of hope, and love, and justice. So many messages to preach in so many languages.

But just as the Spirit gives us words, the Spirit gives us the space between the words. The Spirit gives us Oberlin-summers between the frenzies of May and August.

The Spirit gives us time. Spirit Time. A space for the community to turn inward, as the disciples did so long ago, to tend to itself, to grieve the losses of the past year and celebrate the growths.Oberlin-summer is a sacred space in time guarded by the Holy Spirit

Who banishes the anxiety of the need to do? The need to accomplish everything you can imagine that needs accomplishing?
There is time for all of it. There is time enough. For this moment, we gather as community, to be together, and simply to be.

Within That Luminous Time…

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

Acts 1:1-11
June 1, 2014
Mary Hammond

I want to take you back, back, back. Let’s dispense with the theological words we now use for what has been happening in Jerusalem and thereabouts. Terms like “resurrection” and “ascension” quickly turn cataclysmic events into theological concepts or beliefs carefully explained or quickly debated. Today, let’s just live with the story, walk inside of it, and imagine ourselves among the people experiencing it.

A little background is in order. The Jewish people have been longing for a leader to overthrow Roman domination and re-establish the glorious kingdom of Israel. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, many hope this might be that moment. Instead, Jesus is arrested, tortured, and crucified alongside common criminals. These dreams are shattered. Many male disciples go into hiding, afraid that they could be the next targets of the ruling authorities. Some of the women get up early on Sunday morning and go to Jesus’ tomb, intending to properly prepare his dead body.

When they arrive, however, the tomb is empty. These women become the first witnesses to this next shocking turn of events. Jesus was dead; now he is alive? The divergence in the Gospel stories at this point reminds us what a mind-bending time of tumultuous anxiety, loss, wonder, amazement, doubt, and confusion this week has been. What might you be thinking? (Congregational response).

There is a luminous time in the weeks after the death of a loved one. In his book, “After Death Communications: Final Farewells,” Louis LaGrand concludes after years of worldwide research that at least 50% of people–regardless of nation, religion, no religion, class or other distinction–report some form of after-death communication. LaGrand names nine most common ways this occurs, including apparitions or appearances, dreams, linking objects, nature, an inner voice, and several others.

For forty days, Jesus appears to his followers on a walk, in the breaking of bread, in the casting of a net to catch fish, and many other ways as he continues to instruct his disciples. The most common of places becomes a location to encounter Jesus.

While the women are the first witnesses to the appearance of Jesus after his death, the male disciples, whom Luke calls “apostles,” head to the Mount of Olives with Jesus after those 40 days end. Arriving at their destination, they ask Jesus, “Is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

These disciples seem stuck in one place, on one question, with only one vision of the future. They still yearn for a political and/or military solution to the Roman Empire’s oppressive reach. They still think Jesus is the guy to make this happen. The reigns of political power are in the hands of men; it makes sense that their minds would be more focused this direction than those of the women. This reminds me a bit of our own patterns as human beings, regardless of gender. We so often ask the same old questions over and over when the situation at hand demands both fresh questions and radically different answers.

Jesus lets these disciples know that even he is not in charge of timing, that it is left to the one he names “Father.” Instead of offering a handy time-line (which we seem to prefer as human beings), Jesus provides a stunning commission. It is stunning precisely because of the state of these followers. They are anxious and disbelieving, unmoored and confused. They doggedly cling to grossly mistaken understandings of what is to come.

Still, Jesus lets loose with the simple statement, ”You shall be my witnesses.” Contemporary evangelicalism frequently employs the verb “witnessing,” rather than the noun, “witnesses.” Jesus is talking about “being” here, about who they are, the light they shine, the lives they live. Jesus is making a monumental leap of faith. Thankfully, he doesn’t leave his followers to their own devices, because he tells them that he will send the Holy Spirit, and that this Spirit will empower them for the journey. What a huge relief! Little can they anticipate what alone imagine the transformation they will experience when this power comes upon them!

Jesus sends his disciples out, first to Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, then the ends of the earth. Jerusalem is the seat of Israel’s faith, and it is also a place where Empire has seeped into temple leadership and developed cozy collaborations that oppress the common folk. To start being witnesses in Jerusalem is dangerous—it is the place where Jesus was arrested, tortured, and murdered. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem.” Big stuff.

Start in Jerusalem and Judea, Jesus implores, but don’t stay there. Samaria is filled with Jews and Gentiles who have intermarried over generations. Samaritans are considered “less than” and “unclean” by the Jews. Usually, faithful Jews walk around rather than through Samaria. Jesus calls his disciples to be witnesses there and to the ends of the earth.

Blogger Danielle Shroyer thinks this day should be named “The Day of Honesty” (thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yeara/easter7nt/). Jesus is leaving, and guess who is going to be his hands and feet in the world from now on? Bumbling, confused, imperfect, empowered human beings. Those early disciples. You and me.

After this shocking commissioning, Jesus disappears. Again two men appear, as happens in Luke’s rendition of the encounter of the women at the empty tomb. They ask the male disciples a question, “Why do you keep looking up to heaven?” They then tell them that Jesus will return the way he came.

Now, I sort of wish the two men had just ended with “Why are you looking up to heaven?” and re-focused the disciples’ attention back to this earth. In the western contemporary church this final statement has oftentimes become more important than Jesus’ startling commission. It has evoked centuries of end-times speculation and sheer calendarizing. Countless groups have gravitated to specific time tables, sold their possessions, and waited for the dazzling return of Jesus, being disappointed and left with their dashed hopes or new calendars. End times theology has become its own industry, selling billions of dollars worth of books and Christian paraphernalia. Jesus resisted all of this when his disciples asking him about time-tables. Why do humans gravitate toward them so?

The men are instructed to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the promised Spirit. They follow these instructions and return to the upper room where the others are gathered. Luke names each of the remaining eleven men by first name. He follows with a general statement about the presence of “the women,” making special mention of Mary, the mother of Jesus. He also notes the presence of Jesus’ brothers, who previously taunted him and once considered him crazy.

The way Luke speaks of these encounters, it seems to me that it was only the eleven men who were privy to this experience on the Mount of Olives. I could be wrong, but it is interesting to consider. Whereas women were witnesses to the empty tomb, men seem to have been witnesses to the Last Goodbye. Both groups are tasked by two men in white, according to Luke’s Gospel and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, to go back and share with the others what they have seen and heard.

The upper room in Jerusalem is full of people whose lives have zig-zagged back and forth over a several weeks since the parade into Jerusalem. The disciples are scared, confused, hopeful, wondering, and doubting. They gather up their courage, and waiting. They are waiting for the Spirit to come in as strange a way as everything else that has been happening.

Yet, amid all this, the men and women gathered in that room agree that they are “in this thing for good.” They are committed. They are ready to be part of whatever happens next.

They are poised and waiting, waiting, waiting…waiting for the promised Spirit.

That’s next week. Amen.