Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sermon for May 24, 2015 / Pentecost

Pentecost Doxology

All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For the Spirit that God has given you does not enslave you in fear; instead, through the Spirit, God has adopted you as children and by that Spirit we cry out, “Abba!” God’s Spirit joins with our spirit to declare that we are God’s children. And if we are God’s children, we are heirs as well and coheirs with Christ sharing in Christ’s suffering and sharing in Christ’s glory. Romans 8:14-17(Inclusive)
The Granby Gorge was one of the most dangerous places in town where I grew up. We all knew the stories about kids who dove into the gorge, broke their necks and never walked again. We heard the legends of heedless swimmers who jumped off the cliffs and were pulled into underground caves by the currents of the waterfall. I remembered the words of my father, who told me what he’d do to me if he ever caught me swimming at the Granby Gorge. Let’s just say that, it involved his foot connecting to my rear end, followed by weeks of hard labor on our family woodpile.

So, , there I stood, at the tender age of 16, toes curled over the edge of the rocks atop the Granby gorge, hands in the air, ready to perform a record-breaking cannonball to the cheers of my high school friends. One well-placed leap could put me in the fabled pantheon of gorge jumpers. I was about to have fame, respect, and girls who liked to go out with risk-taking daredevils like me. Yes, I was about to have it all in one 30-foot jump. No more feelings of abandonment. No more snubs. No more bullies. I would be unique and special, and people would finally appreciate the real me.

I took a deep breath and looked to the left. I loosened my neck as the underlings on the rocks below started to chant. “Jump! Jump! Jump!”  Then I took another breathe, looked to the right, and did a quick double take. There, watching the spectacle from the street, was my father in his Chevy Silverado half ton pickup. Let’s just say, I never jumped the Granby Gorge that day, but I learned a lot about splitting and piling wood.

I didn’t really want to jump the gorge. I really wanted to be popular, and liked, and accepted. I really wanted people to see something heroic, intense, and mysterious about me. I wanted to be like The Most Interesting Man in the World, like in those Dos Equis commercials: “He once won a staring contest with his own reflection. His business card simply says 'I'll Call You.’ Once he ran a marathon because it was ‘on the way.’ When he orders a salad, he gets the dressing right there on top of the salad, where it belongs . . . where there is no turning back. Dicing onions doesn’t make him cry . . . it only makes him stronger. He’s against cruelty to animals, but isn’t afraid to issue a stern warning. Who is this man of mystery? Matt Braddock!”

Much later I realized that those cheering at the base of the gorge were not cheering for me. They did not care about me. They just wanted to see me jump. My need to belong provided their entertainment. This happens a lot in my life. I misinterpret some people’s support for care. I forget that some people have veiled motives behind their behavior, just like I do sometimes. In the end I feel embarrassed. Used. Hurt. Betrayed. It is a kind of suffering -- a craving to be unique; a need to be needed; a desire to be desired. But life doesn’t always work that way.

Desire can be compared to fire. If we grasp at fire, what happens? Does it lead to happiness? If I say, “Look at this beautiful fire! Look at the stunning colors! I love red and orange, and the silvery greenish-blue in the flames; those are my favorite colors,” and then grab it, I would find a certain amount of suffering entering my body, right? If I thought about the cause of my pain, I would discover it was the result of having clutched that fire.

Now imagine that we don’t want to get burned, but we keep reaching for the fire. I know it will hurt. I know I will suffer. But I keep doing it anyway. It sounds crazy, but we do it all the time. Buddhists have a word for this kind of suffering. They call it attachment, or craving. Craving is like a fire that burns everything with which it comes into contact.

In the South of India, people used to catch monkeys in a very special way. Actually they let monkeys catch themselves. A hunter cut a small hole in a coconut, just large enough for a monkey to put its hand in. Next, the hunter tied the coconut to a tree and filled it with something sweet. The monkey smelled the sweetness, squeezed its hand into the coconut, grab the contents, and found that its clenched fist did not fit back through the hole. Here’s the trick. The last thing the monkey will think of is to let go of the sweet. The monkey holds itself prisoner. Desires . . . attachments . . . cravings . . . they catch us again and again. Trying to fulfill our desires is like reaching for an alluring treat and getting caught rather than letting go. It’s like reaching for the fire again. You get burned. This is life: full of suffering from self-made pain. We tend to long for what we do not have, or we wish for our lives to be different than they are; we often fail to fully appreciate how wonderful life actually is.

I think this is what’s happening in the Upper Room on Pentecost. Here cower the fearful followers of Jesus: afraid they will be found and persecuted, ridiculed, exposed, tortured, and killed; afraid they’ll be given the same treatment that the empire gave to Jesus. They are confused. They are powerless. They are attached to old behaviors and worn-out understandings. They are obsessed by the presence of Christ’s absence. They never really understood what Jesus was teaching them about a new kingdom. So they tremble in secret. Trapped, they live only for their safety, longing for the comfort of their old lives. And they suffer. They long for what they do not have: peace, harmony, safety, comfort, trust, belief, security.

In the reading from Romans, Paul writes about two ways to live. The difference between these two ways means everything. Earlier in the book of Romans, he talks about living, “according to the flesh.” To live according to the flesh is to live with ego at the center. My desire to be loved as an original man of mystery is a self-centered way of life. My impatient anger in the traffic jam is a self-centered thing. It is MY schedule that is supreme and MY destination that is most important. MY ego that needs attention. Everyone else should yield to MY needs. Paul thinks that this ego-driven way of living, this attachment to our obsessions, leads to suffering.

Paul says there is another way to live -- a way to overcome suffering. He calls it “living in the Spirit.” He means, simply, allowing the Spirit of God to lead us. We put God’s interests at the center of our lives. Instead of reaching into flames and getting burned again and again, we allow the fire of the Spirit to come upon us and control our lives. 

When we are captive to the suffering of the past, we turn inward, tempted to wallow in self-absorption. Injustice becomes the only measure of our attention. But the flame of God, the gift of the Spirit, turns us outward to the world, no longer alone. The Spirit is upon those who realize that craving does not make life better. They have a purpose beyond self-protection. They appreciate the world around them because it’s God’s world. They enjoy it without trying to cage it, control it, or own it. They seem to enjoy what many of us long for: peace, harmony, safety, comfort, trust, belief, and security.

I once read a story about a church deacon who decided she would serve God by taking the youth group to visit a retirement home. Once a month the youth group went to the retirement home and put on a little worship service for the people who lived there. One day, as the young people led worship, a resident rolled his chair over to where this deacon was standing, took hold of her hand and held it all during the service. The man did the same thing the next month, and the next month, and the next month, and the next month. Then they went one Sunday afternoon and the man wasn’t there. The deacon asked the nurse in charge, “What happened to that man?”

“Oh,” she said, “He’s near death. He’s just down the hall, the third room. Maybe you should go in and visit him. He’s unconscious, though.”

The deacon walked down the hall and entered the third room. She saw the gentleman in bed, close to death. She did not know what to do. Those moments can feel so awkward. Then, instinctively, led by the Spirit, she held his hand and said a prayer. And when she said “Amen,” the man squeezed her hand. The deacon was so moved by that squeeze, she began to weep. She needed to get out of the room.

As she was leaving, she bumped into a woman who was coming into the room. The visitor said, “He’s been waiting for you. He said he did not want to die until Jesus came and held his hand. I tried to tell him that after death he would have a chance to meet Jesus and talk to Jesus and hold Jesus’ hand. But he said, ‘No. Once a month Jesus comes and holds my hand and I don’t want to leave until I have a chance to hold the hand of Jesus once more.’”

There is something very important that God wants to do in you and through you. It might be just as simple as this: to go some place and to hold a hand and be Jesus for somebody. Our communities are waiting for us to be aware of our cravings, to learn how to stop living for ourselves and to be led by the Spirit of God. They are waiting for us to awaken them to the holiness and giftedness around us. In the Spirit we move away from the attachments that trap us. We move from isolation to unity. We go from oppression to liberation. We recognize failure and accept grace. We have shared in the suffering. Now it is time to live in the Spirit and allow God to transform the world by transforming us.

May the breath of God stream within you.
May the wind of renew you.
May the flame of God invigorate you.
May the Spirit of God embolden you to confidence into this day.
Let us go out in the power of that Spirit
to live lives like Jesus,
to cheer and restore  those are broken and forsaken.
The spirit is blowing. The future is waiting. Amen.

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