Sermon for Pentecost 2, Year B: It’s Not You, It’s Me

[Editor’s Note: The reason I’m publishing my sermon early is that I want me to be me and Matt to be Matt. For those just joining us, Matt is my pastor at Christ Congregational Church, and I never want him to think that I’m just stealing his ideas. However, I don’t mind in the slightest if he steals mine. :P~]

There are some times when I’m reading the Lectionary and I just bust out laughing. Like, snot and tears everywhere and choking to keep it together. This week it was the conversation between Samuel and God, where Samuel is talking to God about the people rejecting him as king. God tells Samuel clearly that it’s not him they’re rejecting. It’s God. Then my sermon title came to me in a flash and I nearly fell out of my desk chair, just shaking with the hilarity of the moment.

Last week, I preached on Isaiah being called to serve God, and his emphatic “HERE AM I, SEND ME.” This week, the focus is on what to do if you stand up and the people say, “not so fast…” Or worse, the people have been happy with you for a long time and now, they just aren’t. But instead of being willing to stand in the rain and get wet, they just want the relationship to end altogether.

Does this in any way resonate with you? It should. It happens all the time. I am still reeling from it happening to me, so as you can imagine, I cannot help but take these scriptures personally and try to learn from them. The scriptures put together by the Lectionary are all designed around this theme, because it repeats over and over. Congregations get unhappy with their leaders just like they do with politicians. People also run away from their leaders because they know they’re right and hide in shame, anyway. Both of these things are equal in their power to disrupt leadership, but at either end of the spectrum. Let me give you a few examples taken straight from our scriptures today:

  • In the Samuel reading, the people get so mad that they just stomp off and follow someone else.
  • In the Genesis reading, Adam hides from the God who created him because he is so ashamed that he and Eve have done something that God expressly asked them not to do. He is not unhappy with the leadership so much as he is unhappy with himself. It reminds me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail… “is there someone else up there we could talk to?”
  • In the Mark reading, Jesus has come home to a large crowd that thinks he has lost his ever-loving MIND…. that he has Satan in him because only Satan can cast out demons. Jesus tells them in no uncertain terms that they have lost their minds, instead. No wonder Jesus said of his hometown, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” because his own people were the first to become unhappy with him. [Editor’s Note: NOTE TO SELF]
  • In the Corinthians reading, Paul is heading into such strong opposition that he fears he is failing spiritually, ecumenically, grammatically…. perhaps even physically. The context of this passage is that he can feel he is near death (some believe this is due to epilepsy), and his words have urgency. Please, people. Believe. Carry my message forward. PLEASE!
  • In one of my favorite Psalms of all time, David pleads with Israel to wait upon God… to believe that God’s leadership is right and true. He knows this to be the case as he as often walked in darkness himself, and even though his time is long before the Christ, has seen redemption through Jehovah, the God he loves.

As you can see, it’s a pattern that will repeat until the end of time. The question for pastors in these scriptures is, “NOW WHAT?” How do we deal with both the people’s feelings of unworthiness in reaching out to God for help, and at the same time, seeing the flaws in our own leadership? Because come on. Leaders aren’t always right, and are sometimes too proud to see that reality. They are reticent to see the times when God isn’t speaking through them so much as they are taking too much license with what they have been given.

If you are not religious, think of all the politicians that claim God is speaking through them, and yet their policies clearly scream ego… that if they were really listening to God and not themselves, it would clearly be a different calling to ministry- using that term because politicians all over the world are called exactly that- ministers.

Again, where is the balance? We’re all in this together, in a sense. Both the religious and the spiritual, the born again and the atheists, because it’s all the same problem. Issues in the church are just a microcosm of what happens in the electorate, and that is true for the United States as well as all other countries who have democracy, and those that have monarchy.

You might think, “no. You are totally wrong. It’s not my problem. It’s my leaders. They’re the ones with the problems. Not me.”

Are you sure about that?

If you are religious, how are you running away from your leadership? If you are not, I ask you the same question in a different context. Are you expressing your unhappiness? Are you sitting in your own unworthiness? Are you hiding from the fact that you do have power to promote change… it’s just that you’re not using it? Are you just tuning out because it’s easier? Someone has to stand up and say, “HERE AM I; SEND ME!” Will it be you?

If you need real-life examples of  this, let’s look at the Catholics. I am flabbergasted by all the changes since Pope Francis came into power. He listened to the people’s distress with all of the problems inherent in the leadership trying to live in a 21st century world with a 19th century attitude and said, “enough is enough.”

I am waiting for the Anglicans to have that sort of revelation, because they are the ones that stomped off mad. They are the AntiFrancis. They are content to sit in their own stubborn beliefs that are eventually going to lead to their demise. They are secure in their own authority, the one that says the Bible doesn’t change as we do. They have ceased to look at the Bible as a living document, and their stagnation is evident… maybe not in terms of their numbers, but in the way that their views are slowly becoming antiquated and they are coming down on the wrong side of history. I mean, come on. They have a problem with women bishops. Please. If ever there was an example of leading through ego and not leading through God, it’s them.

Pope Francis is determined  to stop that kind of death, and the people are heartened and strengthened by it. The church is showing new life as more and more parishioners see that faith does have relevance in their lives as long as it moves forward with the context surrounding them. When the people cry out for change, they’re leading from the back, and because of Pope Francis, it is working.

So again, what kind of leader are you?

Do you believe, in the one true edge… by fastening your safety belts and stepping towards the ledge? Or are you content with letting your leaders decide your direction without your input? Worse, are your leaders crying out to you because you are wrong- either in the church or in politics, and you are forcibly running away from conflict? It’s not unprecedented. People have left churches, left countries, left relationships because they didn’t have the fortitude to get down and dirty and figure it out. How do we know when we are speaking from a place of soft power, and when we are broadcasting God as ego? That is not limited to leaders. That is everyone, everywhere.

If you are not religious, how are you rejecting President Obama, or any other president that comes to power? By rejection, I do not mean that you have to like your leaders. Affecting them is not committing to liking them. Affecting them is a call to leadership whether you agree with them or not. Rejecting them is not hearing them at all. I am using President Obama as an example not because he is the politician I like, but because he is president right now. There will be others, but we are talking about right here. Right now. Are you affecting change, or rejecting it?

If you are religious, how are you rejecting God? How are you rejecting the life lessons we have to learn from Samuel, Adam, Mark, Paul, and David? How are you mistaking your own ego from the light of Christ shown through you? How are you not submitting to the higher power that runs through us all? Because in the end, in order to lead, you have to get your own ego out of the way.

Are you willing to listen when God says, “it’s not me. It’s you?”

To me, that is the very essence of the Pentecost season. Pentecost was revealed to us through fire. Our job is to learn not to throw water at it, but learn to walk in it without getting burned.

Andy Doyle, my bishop in Texas, wrote a gorgeous prayer with which I’ll close that talks about this very thing. I ask that you sit with it for a while, because it brought me the fortitude to keep walking my path; to be a leader inspired by Christ and not by myself:

Gracious Father,

We pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior.

Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost, Year B

It’s not often that a scripture hits me as hard as the Gospel did today. I actually shed a few tears as I was reading when I got to the part about “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Because he’s right. I cannot bear anything right now that means Jesus is further away. I do not want Jesus to preach from the cloud. I want him HERE. I am in the place in my life where the Mediator, Advocate and Paraclete means so much to me that there is nothing more I want to do than touch the hem of his robe and be healed. To have Jesus turn around and say, “who touched me?” To be delivered from my distress, and there is a lot of it. In the past few years, I have lost a lot of friends, most notably my precious Argo and my precious Dana. They both carried me, sometimes kicking and screaming, into a new reality, one that I knew I needed but was reticent to give hope. They are my Holy Spirit Incarnate, which is a big phrase, but apt in this case.

I don’t normally do confessional sermons; they seem self-serving instead of serving God. But at the same time, the story of this Gospel and the scriptures set forth by the Lectionary are too personal. They got under my skin, the words tattooing themselves in the deep, dark recesses of my mind. There are just so many.

Why in the world would I say that Dana and Argo are my Holy Spirit Incarnate? Hear the words of Luke in the book of Acts:

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

They were so disoriented that Peter had to stand up and tell everyone they weren’t drunk. It is in direct opposition to Jesus’ message, or at least, it is to me. Jesus is telling the Disciples that if they don’t let him go, they will never know the peace he has to offer. The peace? He is a member of the Trinity. Hearing about the Holy Spirit just does not compute.

Luke writes that the Holy Spirit is like the sound of “a violent wind.” Where could they possibly meet in th middle? They just don’t……….. unless?

Whoever said that the people didn’t NEED to be shaken out of their complacency? I once said of Jesus that he doesn’t so much comfort me in my distress, but distress me out of my comfort. Perhaps I was putting emphasis on the wrong entity? When Peter preaches, he quotes the prophet Joel:

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

I know this is old language, but there is just so much here that is relevent to progressive Christianity. The first thing is that Joel is all-inclusive. Sons, daughters, slaves. It doesn’t matter. We are all going to be taken forcibly out of our comfort zones because what is right side up will be upside down and vice versa.

In my own story, Dana and Argo were my violent wind, taking me forcibly out of my comfort zone and forcing me to accept my own upside down and right side up. Dana and I were married for seven years. We got comfortable. We created our own family dysfunction and because it seemed normal, we stayed there. Lost in our own little world. The sun turned to darkness and the moon to blood when our dysfunction showed even to us when Argo came into our lives. She became a catalyst for both of us to look at ourselves and see the patterns we’d developed over time, both positive and negative. As time progressed, Dana became a mighty wind herself, because she could see the catalyst happening within me and shook me up as well. Both of them were justified in their anger at me. I said and did things that haunt me to this day, because a month ago I took their anger and let it motivate me. I took their Holy Spirit warnings and realized that their work wasn’t done. I had to believe them, I had to submit to them, I had to internally accept what I had done, and the violent wind I’d become in my own right. I also shook them up, in a way for which they did not ask.

Whether I motivated positive change or negative, I do not know. I am not entitled to their opinion unless they want to give it. However, I can accept that getting me out of their lives might have been the best thing for them. I can accept that my blood and fire was unwelcome. It is a situation we all face at different times in our lives….. whether we can own it or not.

The question now is whether we can recover from it, and if so, how in the hell do we do it?

By reaching out. By reaching up. By accepting the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Most people think of that day as The Second Coming. I do not think that in the slightest. To me, the Lord’s great and glorious day is when we reach inside ourselves, own our sins unto other people, and ask the Paraclete to make us whole……

Do you see what I did there?
Do you see it?

There’s the meeting of one and another. The violence and the promise. The internal struggle and the need for comfort as we face it head on. Moses gave us the Caduceus, now used as the symbol for doctors the world over. It is no accident that hundreds of years later, Jesus was called The Great Physician. You go to a doctor when you need a cure. The Great Physician can heal your heart, but only if you make the commitment to ask. To keep asking. To see the violent, mighty wind coming and ask for help.

After the storm comes the rainbow. What does that rainbow look like to you? In my own life, it is prayer. It is the constant joy of speaking out loud and believing that someone is listening whether they are or not. Believing in God is not a requirement for prayer. Believing in prayer is a way to channel your own distress into prosperity. The longer you pray, the more you listen to your self, your inner being, your godspace.

When I realized that I was a person even I didn’t like, submitting to the power of Jesus’ messages of hope, redemption, relief, and comfort gave me strength inside myself to take the violent, ugly changes in my life and walk away from them so that I could forgive myself and be the person I wanted to be. I did not want to participate in violence. I did not want to add to the mess I’d already created. I wanted to be whole.

When I touched the hem of Jesus’ robe metaphysically, my mental health changed. I started to feel a peace I hadn’t felt since childhood. An ever-present rage went out of me and I started to send both Dana and Argo constant prayers of safety, comfort, relief, atonement for the things I felt they’d done and wishing for their peace as well. Wishes became reality when I realized that I did not need their forgiveness, because it had come from sending the prayers themselves.

Christ gave me an invitation to peace once the violent mighty wind had passed and the raging storm became the calm he said he would give.

I ask that wherever you are in your journey, that you are given peace as well. That you are able to reach out in distress and metaphysically touch Jesus’ hem as well. Because he preaches from the cloud, he won’t have to ask who touched him.

He’ll just know.

Amen.