Monday, May 21, 2007

In-Between Sunday

SJF • Easter 7c • Tobias Haller BSG

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit.
As you know, many Sundays of the year have nicknames: Stir-Up Sunday (because the collect for the day begins, “Stir up, O Lord”), or Mothering Sunday (because on that day we remember, as the hymn says, “Jerusalem our mother dear”). Today is a Sunday without an official nickname, so I would like to suggest an appropriate one: In-Between Sunday. And I do that because, as our collect for the day suggests, this is the Sunday that falls in between our observance of the Ascension of our Lord this past Thursday, and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, which we celebrate next Sunday. So this Sunday is a commemoration of that in-between time of long-ago: between the Ascension of Jesus, when he was taken away from the Apostles, and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them.

This was a difficult time for the Apostles, a week and a half without a sensible presence of God, a presence they could feel and know: Jesus was gone, and the Holy Spirit had not yet come. Waiting can be a difficult experience, especially when what you’re waiting for is something you desire with all your heart and soul. I can remember as a child learning the strange relativity of time — how some time could pass so quickly, and other time could seem to go so slowly. Am I the only one here who as a child experienced the night before Christmas as the longest night in the year? — and not just because it was literally dark longer than most nights, but because of the anticipation of Christmas morning, when I knew that the red wagon I wanted so much would be there waiting for me — waiting for me much more patiently than I waited for it! Oh, for a child, the night before Christmas can be a long dark night of the soul!

And part of what makes this kind of expectant waiting so powerful, for a child waiting for Christmas morning or for the Apostles waiting for the Holy Spirit, is the heightened awareness and sensitivity — the alertness that makes you feel every second ticking by. There is a heightened awareness of the passage of time because we know something is coming, and we want it very badly. We are not simply waiting; we are waiting for.

Let me give you an example of this from the world of music. All of us here are familiar with the major scale — made perhaps more famous through that song from The Sound of Music. “Do re mi fa so la ti do.” It is a series of notes elegant in its predictability. “Do re mi fa so la ti do.” But what if I don’t follow through on the prediction; at least not immediately? What kind of tension does this produce? “Do re mi fa so la ti...” Do you feel it? You want that final note to resolve the tension that the series has created. You know how the scale is supposed to end and you want to round it out, to balance it off with that final note.

There is a story about a famous composer who lived downstairs from a family whose young son was taking piano lessons. One day the child was practicing scales as the composer was sitting in his study reading. The child was playing the scale over and over again. Then, for whatever reason, the child was interrupted before completing the scale — just as I did before. The composer, sitting downstairs, jerked his head, listening for that note. It didn’t come. He started fretting, not so much wondering what happened to the child, but what had happened to the note! As minutes passed, he became more and more irritated by this missing note. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, he jumped up, went out into the hall, ran up the stairs, pounded on the door of the apartment, and when he was finally let in by the startled mother, rushed over to the piano and without a word played the final note!

Is that something like how the apostles felt? Earnestly desiring the coming of the Holy Spirit? Certainly so, though more so as the Spirit is so much more important than the simple resolution of the musical scale. And so our collect today says, “You have exalted your only son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: do not leave us comfortless but send us your Holy Spirit.”

But wait a minute. Hasn’t the Holy Spirit already been sent? Didn’t the Holy Spirit come on Pentecost some 1,970 years ago? Have the authors of this collect gotten so caught up with our annual re-enactment of the events of Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost that they are suggesting we pray for something that has already happened?

For we believe that the Holy Spirit is with us to strengthen us — even if we have not yet been exalted to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. But the Spirit has come to us, and blessed us, and revealed signs of his presence among us: in the preaching of the Gospel, in the joy of the knowledge of the love of God, and the powerful comfort that we feel in our hearts as we gather here to worship our Lord and our God and in our work in service to the world beyond these doors.

Sometimes the Church forgets this, forgets the presence of the Holy Spirit — when it begins to doubt and becomes obsessed with the busyness of life. We look at the divisions in the church — and between the churches — and wonder if we ever will be one as Jesus prayed that we would be. We look at conflicts and disagreements among Christians and wonder what has become of the spirit of unity, and the unity of spirit that should bind us all up in one.

At times, it seems, we are a bit like the jailer in the reading from Acts. He’s got the apostles in jail, securely locked up in the pokey after probably the strangest example of exorcism in all of Scripture: when Paul drove a spirit out of a young woman who kept following the apostles around shouting that they were servants of God proclaiming salvation. Sounds like free advertising to me! But as I said last week, these pagans could get on Saint Paul’s nerves! As the Scripture today says, “he was much annoyed”! So he drove out the spirit, and the slave girl lost her skill as a fortune teller, much to her owners’ distress; and Paul and Silas got thrown in jail.

Suddenly, there was an earthquake, and all the chains fell from the prisoners, and the jail doors flew open. And the poor jailer, thinking the prisoners must have all run off, was ready to kill himself when Paul called out, “We’re still here.” And he believed and was saved, and was baptized, along with his whole household.

Is the church forgetful like that sometimes — startled by the earthquakes of life, thinking our world has fallen apart — but forgetting that the apostles and their successors are still there; that the Spirit is still there; that Christ himself has promised to be with us wherever two or three are gathered together, and comes to us to be with us as our guest, in bread and wine each week?

We will celebrate Pentecost next Sunday. But this is a celebration of a remembrance — a commemoration of something that has happened. God’s Holy Spirit has come down, and is with us still. If we are at all living in the in-between, is not in between Christ’s departure and the Spirit’s arrival; but in between the Spirit’s coming and Christ’s return. And return he will, in power and great glory. We are not the only ones waiting, we the Bride of Christ awaiting the bridegroom at the altar rail, the Spirit standing close at hand and ready to give us away to our spouse when he comes.

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears it say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”+


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Miracles Great and Small

SJF • Easter 6c • Tobias Haller BSG
When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!”
There is no doubt about it; it was some miracle! This man in the town of Lystra could not only not use his feet, but he had never walked. From his birth on he had been carried here and there, and when he got old enough to do so, he had dragged or hobbled himself from place to place. And it just so happened that one day he managed to be in the right place at the right time, and he heard the preaching of the apostles Paul and Barnabas — and he would never be the same again. Paul would look him in the eyes and see something — some earnest hope, some as-yet-unrealized faith — something that convinced him that this man could be healed.

So Paul shouted out, “Stand upright on your feet!” And not only did the man stand up, but he sprang up and began to walk — this man who had never taken a step in his life. So as I say, no doubt about it: this was some miracle. It was a miracle not unlike the one that Jesus performed when he healed the man who had been blind from birth. This was not just about someone being restored to health, but rather someone being given health who had never possessed it, never in his life. Born blind or unable to walk, these two men experienced the power of God to do something completely new in their lives. It was some miracle.

This no doubt explains the wild reaction on the part of the people in that town. Paul and Barnabas were more than good physicians — more even than your average miracle worker. They must, these pagan folks believed, be the gods Zeus and Hermes themselves come down to earth — an event no less likely than if their planetary namesakes Mercury and Jupiter (to use the Latin names) were to start from the sky and pay us a call in the northwest Bronx. The pagans were sure this was the work of their gods, and were all set to worship the apostles then and there.

Now, I don’t have to tell you how irritable Saint Paul could get with pagans! It was bad enough just being in a town with a big pagan temple and idols on every street corner — and, apparently, no synagogue. Lystra was not a big important place, but it was one of those places in the midst of things, and so had been controlled by Persians, Greeks and Romans over the years — and you can be sure it had accumulated its share of street-corner shrines to supplement the big temple of Zeus just outside the city — definitely not the kind of place Saint Paul would have found to his liking! We’ll see some more of this next week when Paul gets to Ephesus. And when he got to Athens we would see Saint Paul in is his most irritable form, and he would be as tough on Athenian idols as Simon Cowell is on would-be American idols! And believe me, you don’t want to get Saint Paul irritable.

But in Lystra we have insult added to the proverbial injury. Bad enough to have to put up with idols on every street corner — but to be treated as if he were himself one of the pagan gods — that must have just pulled Saint Paul’s last nerve. I suspect that the historian Luke may have played down Saint Paul’s reaction when the townsfolk and the pagan priest approached to offer a sacrifice to the apostles!

Fortunately, as outraged as he no doubt was (he tore his clothes, after all!) Saint Paul was also smart enough to realize that this was what they call “a teaching moment” — an opportunity to make use of a misunderstanding to teach an important lesson. And the lesson was not just that they — Paul and Barnabas — were mortals like the citizens of that town, but that the miracle they had performed had to be understood in the context of the great work of the one true God — the one who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them; the one who reveals goodness not just in spectacular miracles such as healing palsied limbs and making the broken whole, but in those daily miracles — the gift of rain from heaven, and of fruit from the trees, the gifts of nourishment and joy that illuminate our daily life and make it livable.

In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song, the main character sings a song about the hundred million miracles happening every day. And the examples of miracles she gives in the song are rather like those that Paul and Barnabas described: the beauty of the sky, the wonder of the rain and the flowers that bloom; and in one verse something more relevant to our reading from the Acts of the Apostles: “A little girl... just thirty inches tall, decides that she will try to walk and nearly doesn't fall! A hundred million miracles!”

What Paul and Barnabas told the people in Lystra in their preaching, what Oscar Hammerstein was telling Broadway audiences in his lyric, and what I’m telling you today in this sermon, is that while it may not be as spectacular as a man walking who has never walked, there is something miraculous in a child taking her first steps — I mean, she’s never walked before either! And the same God is at work in that child as the God who made heaven and earth, the seas and all that are in them, and who was at work in Paul and Barnabas, and in the man they healed that day so long ago.

And that same God is at work today — in you, in me, and in the trees that grow, and in the winds that blow, and the rains that fall and water the earth and bring forth life abundantly. A hundred million miracles are happening every day; and as the song goes on to say, “And those who say they don’t agree Are those who do not hear or see.”

And that brings me to one last thing I want to note about this incident from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s just a phrase, so it can pass by almost unnoticed — though I did mention it at the beginning of this sermon. Saint Paul looked at that man who had never walked, and saw someone“who had the faith to be healed.” Paul didn’t just pass him by the way the people of that town must have passed him by day after day, a man who may have lived his whole life out on that particular corner, maybe even leaning against the pedestal of some idol; probably begging for coins — although the Scripture doesn’t say that. But in any case he was someone upon whom the people of that town looked as a hopeless case; like the blind man in the Gospel this was someone who had been that way all his life and he just wasn’t going to change. The people looked at him and all they saw was his disability.

But Paul saw more: he saw, first of all, not a problem but an opportunity; not a disability, but a possibility, not an illness, but a child of God. He saw the possibility for the miracle before it happened: and that is the substance of faith — the man’s faith, and Paul’s faith. It was faith built on the knowledge that even to be is a miracle; to be born, an even greater one. Paul and Barnabas knew that God is the giver of every gift, the beginning of our life and, as even the pagans in Athens would agree, the One in whom we live and move and have our being. And the apostles saw something in that man that day, perhaps his perseverance in being there at all, rather than just having given up years before, perhaps the way he turned his head as he heard the gospel proclaimed for the first time. He was there, with a spark in his eyes and a hope in his heart, his faith kindled into life as he listened to Paul preaching the gospel — and Paul, looking at him intently, saw that faith, and in a flash that miracle happened.

What does the song say? “And those who say they don’t agree Are those who do not hear or see.” Those who do not hear the voice of God speaking through the Gospel; those who do not see the power of God at work in the world, and in the hearts of those who believe — it’s true they will not agree that a hundred million miracles are happening every day: miracles great and small — but they are happening, my friends, they are happening: all of them gifts from the hand of a loving God, who made heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them, and to whom we now ascribe as is most justly due, all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forever more. +