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May 26, 2012
A week or so ago, I received an email from the publishers of an upcoming book about this congregation, asking me to write an epilogue. Now, you may not know that there is a book coming out about this Germantown Mennonite and our 325 year old history. But, it’s true—a former pastor, Richard Lichty wrote the story of this congregation, beginning with the first Mennonites in 1683, and ending shortly after our removal from the conference and denomination.
The publisher was asking me to write the ending, because they asked a few folks who were involved on a conference level to write the forward—it only seemed fair.
But as I’ve been contemplating what should be said and written—the ending of the story, the concluding remarks—it has felt less and less possible for me to write an ending. Because what is taking place in this congregation right now is far from an end. In fact, it feels very much like a beginning of something. And, I mean that in two ways—first, in the grand scheme of things, 325 years isn’t that long. It’s long in human terms—for those of us who can expect to live 80 years or so. And, relative to other congregations in our city, it may be on the older side, but big picture, 325 years is just an historic prelude. It doesn't determine where the story will go—our 325 year prelude sets a tone, creates an historic ethos, but does not give away the ending.
Also, writing an epilogue assumes that something has died, and must be grieved. And perhaps, depending on one’s perspective, this could be the case. But, what we know from taking the long view is that life is seasonal—what was full of life has to die, has to lay fallow for a season, in order for something new to come up. And during that fallow time, new seeds are planted—sometimes intentionally, and sometimes by chance or by a strong wind—and we never know what will come up when the spring sun greets the thawing soil again.
In our story from Acts today, we hear the account of Pentecost—when the Holy Spirit made her official debut (though she’d been doing a lot of behind the scenes work throughout history). Like many of our other Christian celebrations, Pentecost is a celebration that coincides with a Jewish observance. The “Pent” in Pentecost represents 50—50 days following Easter. The Jewish holiday that Pentecost coincides with is Shavuot, a celebration commemorating when God brought the Torah to the people of Israel, when they were assembled at Mt. Sinai.
That fact that it is Shavuot is important. It should not be lost in the excitement of the tongues of fire that descended on the followers of Jesus. The fact that the Holy Spirit makes her diva like entrance on Shavuot is important for a couple of reasons. First, it says something about the disciples. For the previous 50 days, they learned that Jesus was alive—resurrected in fact—and they spend a little over a month with him. They shared meals with Jesus, walked with him, learned from him again. And they heard Jesus’ words and instructions in a different way. Because, when he was alive, it was easy to take his life for granted. But, in resurrected form, they cherished his words, his life and his example in a new way.
After 40 days with this resurrected Jesus, the disciples met with him again, and asked him, “Abba, are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel now?” Jesus, are you going to bring your people back together again?
And in classic Jesus-speak, he says, “It’s not for you to know right now. But know this—you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes up on you. And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And then, Jesus ascends into heaven, before the disciples have a chance to ask any follow up questions.
So, for 10 days the disciples hung out in Jerusalem—waiting. Waiting for something they could not explain or for which they had no clarity from Jesus.
But while they were waiting, they were celebrating Shavuot. On this day they remembered when God sent the people of Israel the Torah, their most sacred scriptures, and the story of the birth of their people and faith. That day they celebrated their historic and spiritual prelude.
We don’t know what the disciples were expecting that day, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t expecting a rush of violent wind, or tongues of fire to rest on them. And I’m positive they were not expecting to be able to speak another language.
The fact that Pentecost took place on Shavuot is also important because it continues the Torah story, but puts spins it off in a new direction.
Luke, the author of the book of Acts, does something tricky with this story deserves mention and reflection. It says in the Pentecost account that there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living there in Jerusalem. And each one heard a disciple speaking in their native tongue. There are 12 places mentioned in this text where these Jews were from—and, of course, we know 12 is important because that is representative of the 12 tribes of Israel, which the disciples longed to have gathered again. But if you look at the names of these places, none of them are the tradition tribes of Isreal. People are hearing in their native tongues from north, south east and west of Jerusalem. Those Jews from those far flung places certainly would not have been considered “real” Jews, or “good Jews” because they lived so far away from the center.
And it’s not just the Jewish people that are hearing in their own language. Romans and Gentiles heard the good news in their native languages. And, the people of Egypt—the nation that had enslaved the Jewish people—they heard the news too. In their own language. Some of the places listed—like Mede and Elam—had Jewish refugees several hundred years before, but the diaspora died out, and was enfolded into the larger population. They would not have been considered “true Jews”, the true people of God.
But yet, these are the people that hear the good news, that are amazed and confused by what they are seeing and hearing. These are the people that will become the future Church.
Building on the prelude of Shavuot, the people of God begin another chapter in the story of God’s mighty work with an unexpected group of people.
The story of Pentecost has come along in the church calendar as I’ve been sketching out this “epilogue” for the book that will be published about this congregation. These two stories connect. The Pentecost story speaks to us as a congregation, as a denomination, and frankly at an important time that is being called “Post-Christendom”. We have urges to write epilogues, to mourn the end of something, to grieve the passing of our greatness, but God’s spirit is stirring. We have anxiety about decline, fear about change, worries about how we can preserve the present, and prevent things from changing (yes, even in a progressive context we worry about this), but God’s spirit is winding up outside the walls of this church, building up into a rush of violent wind, that will tear down some of our structures. The church is worried about staying on message, but God’s spirit is coming with fire to dance on our heads and all around us, and that spirit will most likely give a new word, speaking it in a way that we and others around us can understand, if we choose to listen.
Pentecost was the first chapter of the church’s story, But the 21st century is not the epilogue. In fact, in the arc of history, we’ve only just begun. But, Pentecost sets a tone for us—one of grand scale and vision. It is beyond our own tribe and culture. It is beyond our own language. It’s beyond what we can even imagine. It goes beyond the walls we’ve guarded an preserved, and it goes beyond our own story. The Holy Spirit’s Pentecost comes again and again, surprising and exciting us.
Come Holy Spirit, come. AMEN.
You all might know that I have a love for yoga—a love which borders on obsession. A couple of times a week I head up to a yoga studio in Mt. Airy for an hour of breathing, stretching and posing in various pretzel-like positions. Perhaps it seems like a strange way to spend my time, but it is a lifeline for me—a way to get through my busy week.
Unlike the other parts of my day, that hour is my most focused. I am not thinking about the sermon I’m working on, or the tasks on my “to do” list. I’m not distracted by the sound my phone or computer makes when I get an email or text message. The only think I’m thinking is “breathe.”
It’s when I’m not breathing properly that I get distracted. Breathing in yoga practice is different than regular breathing. In our daily life, our breath is usually shallow, using only a part of our lungs. Yoga breathing fills the belly, the lungs the shoulders—the entire chest cavity. The breath in is slow and full, and the breath out is as slow as the breath in. And with every breath, there is another movement—another yoga pose—connected with it.
This breathing and moving together creates a focus, a unity between the breath and the action, the body and the mind. And, somehow, it creates a space where distraction is a little less possible.
I used to joke that my hour of yoga was the only time in my day that I willingly obeyed anyone. I don’t joke about it anymore—It is a truth for me. I internally fight every instruction I’m given, every demand, every responsibility thrust on me—I think that is the curse of human nature. I whine and complain to myself about what I know I must do. But, in yoga, there’s no conflict, no back and forth. If you can’t do something that’s asked of you, you just get down on the mat and rest. And that rest is obedience to your body. It’s listening to your body’s demand to stop.
But that rest doesn't mean that you are interrupting your yoga practice. That resting on the mat is active. There on the mat you regain your breath, you breathe deeply, staying present, remaining—abiding—in focus and in breath.
This morning’s text from the gospel of John is all about abiding—in love. This section of the gospel of John is part of Jesus’ farewell passages, his final words to the disciples before he leaves them bodily.
There are three key concepts in this passage we must address—love, obedience and sacrifice. And these are themes that keep coming up in the gospel of John.
Let’s start with what seems like the easiest one—love. Jesus says, “God has loved you, I love you. Remain, abide in my love. And this is how you’ll do that. Live on in my love by following my commandment. Just as I have lived on in God’s love and followed God’s commandment. And this is my commandment—and notice here that there is just one (unlike the 10 commandments, or the hundreds of laws in Leviticus)—love each other, in the same way I have loved you.”
Love and obedience are intertwined here. To love is to obey—to follow the commandment of Jesus. To obey is to love each other. These two things go hand in hand.
Jesus goes on to spell out what it means to love each other. Love is laying down your life for a friend. This is a new and subtle turn in Jesus’ theology in the gospel of John. In John 10, Jesus says this: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd would die for the sheep. The hired hand, who is neither shepherd or owner of the sheep, catches sight of the wolf coming and runs away…..I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and for these sheep I will lay down my life.
Now, as Jesus prepared to leave to leave his disciples in John 15, he made the incarnation—the God with us and in us—the disciples’ responsibility too. “You are my friends, if you do what I command you. I no longer speak of you as subordinates (or sheep) because I have made known to you everything I have learned from Abba God.” You already know what I know. “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.” Jesus moves from talking about the disciples as sheep in chapter 10 (small, fluffly, mindless creatures), to talking about the disciples as dear friends and companions on the journey in chapter 15.
I have to admit—It’s kind of a disappointment to break down this text. Remain in my love, Abide in my love. It sounds so beautiful—romantic even—doesn’t it? So peaceful and tranquil. We don’t have to do anything except remain in love.
Except that when we break it down, love is active. Love is a verb. And more than being a verb, it is a commandment—our only one from Jesus in this passage from John. It requires that we give something of ourselves. It requires a sacrifice on our part. This sacrificial love is not unlike the love that goes into bearing children and raising them. It’s a love that comes with physical and emotional pain. There’s the pain of childbirth, the pain of the unknown as you wait for your child in the adoption process, the pain of having your kids mad at you, watching them suffer, knowing that sometimes they have to experience life’s hard lessons without your guidance. And this is something we parents do willingly. Moms willingly allow their bodies to be distorted through pregnancy. Parents forego sleep in favor of feeding or comforting their child in the middle of the night. Parents sacrifice nice things, jobs with better pay, opportunities, and relationships because of this being they are raising up.
That is the same kind of sacrificial love God has for us. That’s the love of the good shepherd who would willingly give up her life for us. That’s the love of Jesus who allowed himself to be silenced in death by state execution. That’s the love Jesus is instructing us to have for each other.
Abide, remain, be fully present in a love that asks for everything, but brings us to a fuller, deeper understanding of God that—according to Jesus, is joy in its fullness. There is substance to this love. And it requires all of us. It requires us to follow, to live into the one thing Jesus asked us to do, the one thing on which Jesus was singularly focused—love.
But how do we get to this abiding in love state? How do we get to the place where we are following the command of Jesus to love, where we are being fully present in the love of God? It seems like an impossible state to obtain.
In my yoga practice, when I think at the beginning of class about getting myself into a half wheel position, I am sure I can’t do it. (Half wheel is a difficult position. It is where you are laying on your back with your knees bent, and you put your hands beside your ears, and push up into a rainbow shape.) In fact, if I was to try the position at the beginning of class, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I have to work myself into it. I have to practice breathing for an hour, I have to warm up my muscles, and I have to get into the rhythm of breathing deeply, of filling my lungs fully, then releasing the air slowly. I have to practice. But when, at the very end of class I get the chance to do a half wheel, I am focused and stretched, and it is pure joy to push my body into the air, and allow it to do the thing I never thought was possible for this out of shape body, that’s been distorted by childbirth.
So it is with abiding in God’s love—we have to keep practicing it. We have to practice loving God and loving each other. We have to breathe in the love of God fully into our spirit, and breathe out the love for our neighbors. These things must be a constant in our lives. And with practice, we can do together what we never thought was possible.
Looking across the room, we see our brothers and sisters in Christ. Some of you have worshipped with each other for a long time, some for not so long. Some people in this congregation may be easy for you to love, some take a little more practice, a few extra deep breaths, to help make that love possible.
Every Sunday we gather together for an hour or so of worship. We sing, we pray, we share our joys and sorrows, we eat. We practice abiding in love. This is our yoga studio, or our love studio. This is our chance to practice abiding in love, being fully present in love. But we don’t just sit and revel in it—this is an active love. It requires continued practice. So we take it with us when we walk out the doors of the church, and we practice this abiding in love with our neighbors. Even though they are too loud, or leave trash on their sidewalk, or their kids pick our flowers. We abide in the love of God and love each other. And when we can’t love any more, we rest on the mat, still breathing in God, regaining our focus, and we try again.
We are Easter people. We are resurrection people. This makes the commandment to love a little less terrifying because we have already begun to abide in love. We’ve read the stories of the witnesses to the resurrection. We've shared our own stories of hope and resurrection. We are abiding in love. We are working towards being fully present to the love of God as we love each other. As impossible as it might seem. We keep on breathing, we keep on loving…
What can I do?