Friday, May 27, 2016

Can I Get a Witness

Sermon preached May 8, 2016

Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53

            Every confirmation class is unique, and each class is special.  It is special because of the unique individuals that comprise the class.  Those individuals develop and community and a chemistry.  I continue to enjoy working with confirmation because of these uniquenesses, because of the opportunities I have to get to know these youth.
            Among the unique things each class has are my connections with them.  I have had my own three children in confirmation, so the connections with those classes was always interesting.  One of the unique aspects of this confirmation class was some of the long-standing connections I have had with some of these students and their families.
            Andrew will be a first for me, the first time I have confirmed both a father and a son, a parent and a child.  Andrew’s dad Corey was in one of the first confirmation classes I ever taught.  I officiated at his parents’ wedding.  I knew Rowan’s grandfather, Loren Nelson for many years.  He was my clergy mentor when I was going through the ordination candidacy process.  He and I were district superintendents together when Rowan was born, and I got to see him become a proud grandpa.  I went to Junior High School with Noelle’s dad Mike.  Then he went off to Duluth Central where his dad was the band director.  From my time as district superintendent, I knew some of the members of Kiah’s extended family in Hewitt, Minnesota.
            There are other connections.  Riley Rowan, and Rebecca were pre-schoolers when I started my pastoral ministry here.  Wow – hard to believe.  I remember when they were not much taller than the bell tables.  One of Grant’s parents is our choir director, Mike, and I had heard really good things about Mike before he ever became our choir director.
            Will and Mullen, I have not had as long a period of time to make those connections with you, but I am delighted that we have made our connections particularly through confirmation.
            I am delighted that we are all connected, and will always share this together.  It is my joy, and delight, and honor, to have worked with you these past two years, getting to know you, even if you were kind of quiet at 8:45 Sunday mornings.  We have laughed and learned and played together and prayed together.  Thank you, and I know Julie thanks you, too.  You would not be the group you are without what each of you has brought to this class.
            Not surprisingly, I use a bit of music when I teach confirmation.  Sometime I might just have to play that Garth Brooks video, “We Shall Be Free” during worship.  Anyway, this is the last time you confirmation students will have to listen to my music before you become church members.  Of course, there will be plenty of opportunities after you become church members!
Marvin Gaye, “Can I Get a Witness”
            Can I get a witness?  Jesus, toward the end of the Gospel of Luke says to his disciples, “You are witnesses of these things.”  The author of the Gospel of Luke is also the author of “The Acts of the Apostles.”  There Jesus tells his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.”  Can I get a witness?
            In a little bit, one of the vows you will take, following an affirmation of your faith, is a membership vow to uphold the ministries of this church by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness.  But what does that mean?
            Witness has some different shades of meaning.  It can be a noun or a verb.  Each shade of meaning has something to say to us about what it might mean for us to be the witnesses Jesus invites us to be, all of us, not just you being confirmed today, even if I address myself to you.
            Witness can be a verb meaning to testify to religious beliefs or faith.  This week I head to Portland for The United Methodist General Conference.  It is the place where broad policy decisions are made for the denomination.  I was at the General Conference when someone added the language of “witness” to the membership vows, and I kind of think they had in mind this meaning of “witness” – a verb meaning to testify to religious beliefs or faith.  Some Christians talk about going witnessing.
            I remember a time when that is just how I used the word.  I was about confirmation age when I was part of a Jesus movement organization and one of the things we did was go witnessing.  It meant standing on the corner of Second Ave. W. and Superior Street offering religious literature and inviting conversation.  There was very little conversation.  I went with this group to Minneapolis for a week one summer and did some street witnessing on Hennepin Avenue, a rather eye-opening experience for a young man from Lester Park.
            Is this what it means to say that you will be a witness, that you will be religious in that way?  That’s the kind of being religious that often gives being religious a bad name.  But that’s not the heart of Christian faith or Christian witness.  The writer David Dark, in his intriguing new book Life’s Too Short To Pretend You’re Not Religious, says that “religion happens when we get pulled in, moved, called out or compelled by something outside ourselves.” To witness is simply to be willing to tell the story of how Jesus seems to pull us, move us, call us to live more lovingly, more compassionately, more caringly.  Confirmation is about us hearing the story of Jesus.  It is about giving us some additional language so we can tell our story with Jesus.  It is about giving us tools to continue to grow in our faith and in our witness.
            Witness can also be a noun.  A witness is someone who saw or can give a first-hand account of something.  That “first-hand” thing is important for confirmation.  When you were baptized, others made promises on your behalf to have you be a part of a community that would tell you the stories of Jesus, and of the God of Jesus.  Confirmation is where it becomes your turn to say “yes” to Jesus, “yes” to the God of Jesus, “yes” to the Jesus community, “yes’ to this Jesus community.  You are making some promises of loyalty to Jesus and his way in the world, and you are making them for yourself.  You are not making them by yourself, however.  We promise to keep hanging with you.  We promise to continue to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness.
            Witness can be a verb in another sense.  To witness is to be present at or see something personally.  “I witnessed Paul McCartney this week in Minneapolis.”  To witness is to be present.  Today, you are saying that you will be present to God, the God we know in Jesus.  You will be present to others.  You will be present to this world in which we live.  Here is a good description of it, offered by Darcey Steinke.  Life is brutal, full of horror and violence.  Life is beautiful, full of passion and joy.  Both things are true at the same time. (Easter Everywhere, 219)  You are pledging today to be present to the God who wants to mitigate the brutality and maximize the beauty.  You are pledging to be present to people caught in brutal situations, who yearn for beauty, and may look to you for some help, for some witness of something better.
            Jesus calls you, calls us all to be witnesses – to have something to say about what moves us most deeply, to have a personal connection to God in Jesus and to the Jesus community, to be present to God, to each other, to others and to the world in ways that are healing and hopeful.
            David Dark sums this up well.  My witness is the sum of everything I do and leave undone.  The words are there, but the actions speak louder….  Your religion is your witness in the shape your love takes. (22-23)  The shape of our love is Jesus.

            It is really a life-long journey, this witnessing.  At baptism, we proclaim that God loves us wonderfully and wildly.  The church community keeps telling us that, at least when we are the community of love and forgiveness we strive to be.  At confirmation we say “yes” to the God and community that has been saying “yes” to us.  All together we continue trying to be better witnesses that God continue to be up to something wildly adventurous and loving in Jesus.  Grant, Riley, Andrew, Mullen, Rebecca, Rowan, Will, Noelle, and Kiah – welcome to the next chapter in the witnessing journey. Amen.

Friday, May 6, 2016

When Doves Cry

Sermon Preached May 1, 2016

Texts: Acts 16:9-15; John 14:23-29

            Prince, “When Doves Cry”
Since his death on April 21, I have been asked if I was going to do something with Prince in worship.  So there it is, the first part of Prince’s hit song, “When Doves Cry.”  If you know Prince, it is one of his recognizable songs.  If you were unfamiliar with Prince, now you have heard his music.  Some of you may still be wondering what all the fuss is about.
There has been, and continues to be a lot of conversation about Prince even ten days since his death.  The cover of the most recent issue of The New Yorker is purple, with rain drops falling – “purple rain” after the Prince song and movie.  Just a few days ago, on KDAL morning radio, Pat Cadigan and Pat Kelly were still talking about Prince.  Yes, Pat Cadigan.  Those of us long-time Duluthians know the voice of Pat Cadigan. He has been on KDAL radio since the 1960s.  I think he had a show called “I’ve Got Your Number” – am I remembering that correctly.  While his voice carries his age, you can still recognize it.  So Pat Cadigan, who also does a Saturday morning polka music show on KDAL was talking about Prince with Pat Kelly.  You can imagine Pat Kelly talking about Prince, but Pat Cadigan?  Anyway, Pat Kelly was telling Pat Cadigan that some school teacher had corrected Prince’s song.  Doves don’t cry.
Voices, cries.  Will God’s voice ever be as familiar as those voices from the radio that some of us still carry around in our heads?  What might it mean to even think about God speaking?
Our Scripture readings for this morning are about God “speaking.”  Paul is traveling.  The Spirit of Jesus is leading them.  During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
In John, Jesus is speaking final words to his disciples, and in John, these words take up over three chapters.  He makes a promise to the disciples.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and will remind you of all that I have said to you.  He continues with some tender, touching and beautiful words.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.
These texts seem to say to us that God speaks, that the Spirit moves, and that we can “hear” and “sense” this “voice” of God and respond.  I am not sure about your experience, but while I do trust that God speaks and that the Spirit moves, it is a bit like listening for the cry of doves – a little difficult, a little mysterious.  When I feel as if God is speaking, it is not a lion’s roar or a fog horn or a train whistle, but a winsome whisper.  It is not a loud voice, but a gentle touch.
Yet I think more can be said about listening for the voice of God in our lives, about what that can mean, and about what it means to try and follow that voice, that movement of the Spirit in our lives.  I think a great deal more could be said, but I will say only a little.
When we look again at the passage in Acts, there are a couple of wonderful ideas about what it may mean to listen for the voice of God and respond.  The story goes on after Paul and his companions get to Macedonia.  They go to Philipi, a city name named after Alexander the Great’s father Philip who was king of Macedonia, where they remained for a few days.  On the Sabbath day they go to the river, supposing there will be a prayer gathering there.  They found a gathering of women and shared with them.  One, in particular, responded to their message, Lydia.
Isn’t it wonderfully ironic that the person who appeared in a dream to Paul was a man, but when they got to Macedonia, women were who they met, and it is a woman who is singled out for special mention?  If we are to follow the leading of the Spirit in our lives, and in our life together, sometimes we need to just take the next step forward, and then be open to surprise.
The story ends with Paul and his companions staying with Lydia.  When she and her household were baptized she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.”  And she prevailed upon us.  Here it is as if the voice of Lydia becomes something of the voice of the Spirit.  We should not presume that God’s Spirit speaks to us only in the inner sense of our heart.  Sometimes the voice of God comes to us in the voice of others.  John Wesley believed that Christian conversation, Christian conferencing, could be a means of grace, that is, a way in which we might know God more deeply.  In reflecting on conversation as a means of grace, Wesley offered these reflections and questions: Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?  The United Methodist General Conference meeting in Portland in a little over a week will be spending some time reflecting on how our gathering can be this kind of Christian conferencing.  I trust that as we converse with each other we can sometimes be the grace of God for another, the voice of God in each other’s lives.
However we think we hear or sense the voice of God, the movement of the Spirit, it is important that we remember that not every feeling or inkling or “sense” is necessarily the Spirit.  The voice of God, the Spirit of God always leads in certain directions.  Jesus said it well in John, the Spirit reminds us.  The Spirit points us in the direction of deeper relationship with Jesus, and deeper living into Jesus’ values – love (Jesus links loving with his way in John), inclusion (again, it is women who were important in Paul’s ministry in Philippi), healing (peace Jesus gives), reconciliation, repair.
I want to wrap up this morning with a poem, not everyone’s favorite way to wrap up a sermon, but this poem speaks so well about trying to tune into the voice of God.  It is called “Flickering Mind” and the poet is Denise Levertov.
Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
At first
belief was a joy I kept in secret,
stealing alone
into sacred places:
a quick glance, and away—and back,
I have long since uttered your name
but now
I elude your presence.
I stop
to think about you, and my mind
at once
like a minnow darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
unceasing over
the river's purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
everywhere it can turn. Not you,
it is I who am absent.
You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow,
you the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain's heart
the sapphire I know is there?

            Our minds flicker, but we keep listening and hearing and praying for the courage to follow Jesus’ way of love, inclusion, healing, reconciliation and repair.  May we genuinely hear the dove cry of the Spirit and courageously take flight in the Jesus way.  Amen.