Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Tyre and Sidon—Matthew 15:21-28

Proper 15 [20] A
August 17, 2014
A Worship Service by Daniel Schlorff
Sermon: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Tyre and Sidon”—Matthew 15:21-28
For First Congregational Church of Greenwich, CT

Click here for Audio File

I usually don’t like it when preachers give disclaimers before their sermons.
Well, today I’m beginning with a disclaimer.
This disclaimer is important, though.
What you’re about to hear is Biblical:
I’ve worked out the Greek manuscript.
I’ve checked the commentaries.
And I’ve prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
What you’re about to hear will be difficult accept, I think.
Often, preachers shy away from this material.
But I think there’s a deep lesson here that can be life-changing if we let it impact us.
What you’re about to hear may surprise you, as it surprised me when I first understood what was really happening.
There are no stories, no parables, no embellishments. Just an exploration of Matthew, Chapter 15.
I ask that you suspend your judgment for 15 minutes, and go along on this journey. I think you will have a deeper faith at the end of this sermon if you do.

Won’t you pray with me?

Spirit of God, who approaches us as foreigner and becomes an intimate friend… Heal us.
As we grapple with the humanness of Jesus, this day, help us also to see “the Christ,” who risked it all // so that we might be touched by the hand of the divine. Amen.

Sometimes, we can be so task-oriented that we lose sight of mission.
Sometimes, our humanness gets in the way of being like Christ… or “Christian.”
Sometimes, the values we uphold are challenged by rules and laws and traditions designed to exclude rather that include.
Even Jesus faced these challenges.
As we open up Matthew, Chapter 15, we learn that Jesus had an itinerary, and gosh darn it, He was going to stick to it.
After meeting the needs of one Jewish community in Genneseret (on the Sea of Galilee),
He and his Disciples will skip over the Canaanites, who live in the mountains of Phonecia…
Then minister to another needy Jewish community farther away in Tyre and Sidon.
You have heard stories about the miracles accomplished on these sorts of trips:
He fed 5,000 families with just a little bit of food.
He walked on water to catch up with the disciples.
He comforted and healed the multitudes who came to hear or touch him.
Jesus had been giving and giving and giving—doing good, putting out little fires, grieving over the loss of his cousin…
// Then comes along this Canaanite woman. //
When he encounters this Canaanite woman, Jesus’ humanness takes over.
We have to remember that the Gospel of Matthew is kinda like the C.S. Lewis of the gospel writers. He’s out to prove that Jesus is without a doubt the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
Well, the first verses of this passage is anything but… In fact,
We see such a human Jesus // that we wonder how he will redeem his divinity.
Verse 22—Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
So there they are, the woman and her daughter, Jesus, and the disciples.
Verse 23—But he did not answer her at all.
Did he not see this this Canaanite woman…?
Jesus made the wrong choice. He chose the Law, not grace.
Pharisees simply did not consort with Canaanites.
After doing so much good for so many people, Jesus ignored his earth-bound duty for this woman and her daughter.
He did not act according to his highest ideals.
“The Healer” fully intended to ditch this woman.
He is like a bad Samaritan, or the inverse of almost any of his parables.

But, he had to obey the Law, didn’t he?
His actions were certainly justifiable by Judaic law.
He was supposed to walk-by.
o Doing otherwise might render him ceremonially unclean, or an abomination according to Leviticus.
Very humanly, Jesus treats the Canaanite woman with the same kind of hostility that the Teachers of the law showed Jesus.
o first by not responding,
o then by pointing out that her culture was inferior to his,
o then by likening her to a dog.
// Wow, this inclusion thing must be really hard work if Jesus struggled with it!
/ So, what is this nearly-blasphemous passage telling us today?
That Jesus was not always kind?
// Christ-like.

To tell you the truth, when I started digging into this scripture and understanding what was really happening here, I became very angry at Jesus.

Everyone knows about Jesus struggling with the will of God the Father when he prayed in Gethsemane.
We even romanticize how wonderful it is / that Jesus chose to die and offer a blood sacrifice as required by Law for the atonement of all sin.
This passage in Matthew, however… We don’t really celebrate it.
In fact, we like to pretend Jesus was really being coy—
o hoping that he was trying to entice the woman to ratchet up her commitment,
o all the time fully intending to heal her daughter.
But, no. That is not Matthew’s account of what happened.

Matthew’s account depicts a Jesus who
ignores human need,
then dishes out prejudice,
then dehumanizes her by likening her to a domesticated—and probably incontinent—dog.
o Jews, by the way, did not have dogs, so this was also a cultural and racial (if not classist) remark.
// And he meant to do these things to her.
Even before the hand washing incident,
Jesus was already harshly criticized by the Teachers of the law and Scribes for associating with such a rag-tag group of Jews.
o Among his Disciples included a tax collector, stinky fishermen, a mamma’s boy, the list goes on—
o However, associating with unclean Jews would be more acceptable // than consorting with a Canaanite.
If Jesus even dared strike up a conversation with a woman, or a Gentile, or someone of lower status alone in the streets, or someone who said they had a demon-possessed child—he would lose any remaining credibility he had with his community.
Jesus encountered all of those restrictions in this one person, and he had a choice to make.

If Jesus chose to associate with this woman,
He would upset the social order for Jews, Canaanites, Romans… everyone in the region.
It might even be a reason for the all the people of the region to demand the death of Jesus.
The will of one person was good enough reason for the beheading of John the Baptist.
The upheaval of social order would certainly be just cause in the first century / for the execution of an insurrectionist.
Jesus counted the cost before he took any heroic action.

And herein lies the Gospel:
It was indeed extremely difficult for Jesus to transgress those boundaries toward inclusion // // // but he did it.

Verse 27—She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Verse 28—Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done to you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Jesus hesitated at first, but then he broke hundreds of years of tradition by speaking to a Canaanite—a person of the race of Delilah.
And he did something else that was unacceptable: he spoke to a woman, on her own, in broad daylight.
And he did something else: he addressed her using a word reserved for the highest honored, most distinguished women.
And he did something else… that was completely and utterly impure: he, being a Rabbi, said to this non-Jew, “Great is your faith.”
o the opposite of what he told Peter when he was frightened by the waves and sank into the water.

I hate to give away the ending, but many of us already know what followed.
A week or so following this incident…
Jesus continued the social upheaval by overturning the tables in the Temple.
His disciples abandoned him.
His intimate friend Judas betrayed him.
His most fierce defender, Peter, denied even knowing Jesus.
The Roman authorities and all people of the land hand-picked Jesus as being the social problem du jure, yelling, “Crucify him.”
Jesus is made foreigner. His boundless, sacrificial love seals his fate.
Jesus, in his reluctance to serve someone different than him, demonstrates how hard it truly is for us to live out our call
Are we loving?
Do we reach out to the people right in front of us—those Canaanites of society that we’re not supposed to love.
Maybe… even religious teachers have told us not to love certain people.
Or to judge other people.
But we are an Open and Affirming refuge to lesbians, gay men, bi and trans Christians who undoubtedly bear the mark of spiritual brokenness inflicted on them by their parents for being gay, and their friends for being Christian
We are a theologically inclusive church that, since its founding, has encouraged the free and responsible search for truth and meaning—which is heresy to people who are not a part of the UCC.
And Jesus might say, “Great is your faith!”

Theology need not stand in the way of our call to live in the manner of the crucified Jesus.
I encourage us to press forward, to cast new visions, and to dream new dreams.

On the other hand: Not only was it difficult for Jesus to associate with a female of a different race, culture, and creed. We must remember that she had to make the same compromises… to seek out Jesus.
Canaanites weren’t too keen on Jews, either. In fact, they hated each other. It was a lot like the Palestinians and Israelis.
If a rivalry had continued for hundreds of years, and you’re a Canaanite, then the last place you would want to turn for help… would be among Jews—who are foreigners that might be carrying weapons.
And so the other side of the Gospel—the Good News—is this:
It was probably very difficult for the woman to lower herself enough (in her mind) to associate with this Semitic man—or stop him on the side of the road
o Especially when the other Semitic men travelling with him were criticizing her.
What an awful position that put her in.
And culturally, for her to associate with men made her appear a “loose woman.”
Yet she needed help for her daughter.
o She had heard about this Jesus.
o And somehow, this woman was moved to break her own social conventions to seek the touch of Jesus.
And she called him Lord!
And she recognized him as a descendant of King David!

This Canaanite is one of the first Gentiles to come to Jesus;
In order to do so, she had to count the cost.
She had to become an outcast in her own society by going out in broad daylight and associate with 13 foreign men—Jesus and his Disciples.
She had to put the health of her daughter above her own pride.
o But I’m left with some questions:
Did the people of her town cast her out?
Did she start following Jesus along with the Disciples?
Did she have a husband, and was he jealous that she talked with men on the street?
If her husband was jealous, was she stoned to death? //
We do not know for certain, but it is important to note that all of these are possible outcomes for this woman.
Even before the curtain was torn on Good Friday, she becomes one of the first gentiles grafted to the tree of David—because of her risk.
What faith!
What sacrifice! //

This story invites readers to place themselves in the role of the Canaanite / and ultimately see “great faith” surrounding us.

I wonder if it is difficult for lesbian, gay, bi and trans individuals to enter the doors of this church, even though we boldly profess that we are an Open and Affirming congregation. What great faith they have in entering any church!

AND WE ARE CALLED TO LOVE ALL WOUNDED and HOLY CHILDREN OF GOD—these perfect creations of the divine will.
We are called to travel from Genesseret to Tyre and Sidon and to associate with everyone we meet along the way, outside these church walls.
That is our earth-bound duty.

I hope we make it easy for people to feel welcome here, and to graft onto the branch of our church / other under-represented groups and races that seek spiritual refuge here.
Families without access to necessities, such as housing and healthcare…
Single parents
People who struggle with addictions
The elderly and others with unreliable transportation
Rehabilitated ex-cons
People who cannot climb stairs
People who cannot read, or see, or hear
People who love to garden
People who enjoy life and have no complaints.
What great faith they have to come here and stay here!
We respond in the manner of Jesus:
Notice that Jesus had to travel from place to place in order to reach the unreachable people.
That is our earth-bound duty, and I call us to renew this covenant… everyday… as a lifestyle.

It will always be difficult to choose to walk in God’s way. Difficult for us // and certainly confusing for those who are not here yet.
As it is written in Isaiah:
“Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
For soon my salvation will come,
And my deliverance be revealed.”

Friends, now we know in part, but then, we shall know in full: the grace, which God is giving to us presently.

Isaiah continues:
“Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others… to them… besides those already gathered.”

What dreams or hopes do you have for your personal ministry?
How are you following the self-sacrificing, meaning-making leadership of Jesus?
What dreams or hopes do we have for our church’s ministry?
And what are we willing to surrender to God—that God might continue this extraordinary work?

Friday, July 4, 2014

Sermon: Just Trying to Be a Blessing—Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

For First Congregational Church of Greenwich

July 27, 2014

Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Click here for audio.

John Collins preached a sermon several months ago about changing our perspective.
But I want to disagree with something he said… somewhat vehemently…
On April 27th, his main illustration was on the beauty of dandelions. 
Well, after hearing John talk about eating dandelion greens, I decided to try it for myself. After all, patches of dandelions are really just farms, he said. 
They taste really wonderful, he said.
“Stunningly beautiful, but also lunch,” he said.
So I mustered all the courage I could / and chewed on the yellow buds, sucking the juice out of the stem. 
And I have to tell you: dandelions… don’t taste very good.
Of course, I didn’t really eat dandelions because of John’s delightful sermon. But I did try it as a kid. And it stuck with me.
So I was chuckling when John was preaching his sermon. Not because of the ideas he developed but because I remembered that revolting taste. Probably not the message John had in mind.
So, I submit, sometimes weeds are just weeds. Sorry, John.
Let us pray.

Holy God, who sent his Son to talk to us in parables, may we know your presence in this hour.
As we ponder the nature of the Kingdom of God, may we be blessed by your inspiration. Holy Spirit, penetrate our hearts with your truth, and bring us to a new understanding of what it means to live the life of Christ. Amen.

Speaking of weeds, my late mother loved gardening. One of my favorite pictures depicts her standing next to a tall bloom with a big smile on her face. It’s as if she were telling the camera, “Look at what I did!”
My mother was from the Philippines and was endlessly fascinated by the different kinds of flowers that bloomed in Indiana, where I grew up.
Sometimes, she would stop along the side of the road when she saw beautiful flowering plants, and she would pick them to plant in her own flower garden.
o Yellow was her favorite color, so she was particularly fond of one plant that bloomed yellow.
o So she stopped along the side of the road and picked this flowering plant for her garden.
She said, “I’m going to plant this in the center of my garden, it’s so beautiful.” So she did.
And it bloomed for weeks and weeks, and, to her delight, it spread to every corner of her flower garden.
Meanwhile, I suffer from seasonal allergies. This particular summer was extremely difficult for me, for some reason.
I had to start seeing an immunologist to get tested for all sorts of allergies. So I got tested, and as it turned out, I was allergic to several things: mold, trees, grass, dust… and this flowering plant with yellow blooms called… ragweed.
I had to find out what ragweed looked like, so I went to the library (this was before the Internet became a juggernaut)… and that flower my mother was so fond of—that she stopped along the side of the road to place into her flower garden—was actually a weed. Ragweed.
I told my mom, and she laughed with me.
Then I was like, “So what are you going to do about it?”
And she responded, willfully, “It’s pretty.”
So she kept her pretty weed, and that’s when I started taking Benadryl. (Gotta keep the peace.)

// // Despite my affliction with seasonal allergies, I do love camping. 
When I was in college, I was part of a ministry team that would go to youth summer camps and do faith-based singing and acting. The group was called “Parable.” (I’m not joking, as I tell you this parable…)
Anyway, we would see all sorts of youth come through the camps. 
The popular kids, 
the jocks, 
the rule-followers, 
the nerds, 
the dorks, 
the Bible quizzers, 
and then there were the loners.
I also observed the talents of really skillful and heartfelt youth group advisers and camp counselors. 
There was this one camp counselor that I really admired. He was young and hip and really knew how to relate to the campers. A lot like Mark Montgomery. But the greatest quality I noticed about him was how he became a friend to all the loners at the camp.
There’s a girl sitting alone in the cafeteria; he’d pull her over to his table. 
There’s a kid out on the softball field who’s not doing too well; he goes out and makes a fool out of himself just to make the kid look good.
So, as impressed as I was with this guy, I ask him what he’s up to.
He said: “Hey, just trying to be a blessing!”
That kinda became a motto for Parable, our ministry team.
Whenever anyone did something for someone else, the member of Parable would say, “Hey, just trying to be a blessing.”
And as the members of Parable started to say it, the campers started to catch on. Soon, this quality of love washed over the campgrounds. It caught on like wildfire. You might even say it spread like my mother’s ragweed. 
Campers started doing nice things for others. 
I admit, sometimes it was for show, but in large part it was because their consciousness was raised to the point that they were aware of the feelings and needs of others. 
And let me tell you, it is so gratifying to see a 14 year old kid do something sacrificial for another person and say, “Hey, just trying to be a blessing.”

It’s not just a novel idea: being a blessing to others. Believe it or not, we are called to love whomever we see. In fact, we are commanded to do it.
We are called to have Christ fill our hearts and overflow with love for the world—especially when it is difficult. Because that is how Jesus Christ lived.
This is not just a first century thing. 
We are to be the very image of God’s Son, here on this earth—2014. 
Not for our own glory but that God might be glorified, and it is God who glorifies us.
Consider that passage of Romans:

29For those whom he foreknew (get this) he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
You are called to live like Christ lived on earth, yes, // and you are not alone. You will be the firstborn of a very large family.

Meaning, once you start being a blessing to others, it might even catch on.
Asking Jesus into our hearts and transforming our lives is not a fleeting moment – BOOM, and then it’s done.
Salvation happens daily. It happens minute by minute.
“Living like Christ lived” is a commitment. (Like working out, or saving money, or flossing our teeth.) It might even be a drag at times.
Like, boy, that person really hurt me. I want to hurt them back.
Or, that driver just cut me off. I want to teach him a lesson.
Or, wow, HR totally flubbed up my employment agreement. I want to send an angry memo.
Or, gosh, my wife really embarrassed me in public. I should return the favor.
We all want to right our own wrongs. It’s called being human. But, by God’s grace, we are called to rise above these circumstances… because you know what, YOU WIN. 
Every time you invite Jesus into the middle of these situations, you don’t have to get revenge, because you win! 
That’s what being justified means: 
o Your sin is forgiven, and you are empowered by the Holy Spirit to exude the grace of God.
And that’s not all. You are not only justified, but you are also glorified.
Who cares if some driver cut you off?!? You are glorified! Others will see the light of God in you.
Who cares if you just got burned by your coworker? You are glorified. You walk away from that situation, and others will want to know how you remained so calm, and you come across smelling like roses. Or better yet, ragweed.
No, I mean that.
Jesus shining through you is contagious. It spreads like a weed. 
People see God’s grace and mercy shining through you, and they stop in their tracks along the highway. They say, “what a beautiful bloom,” and they plant it in their own gardens, and it spreads like a weed. 
But let me tell you something: hate, and sin, and contempt also spreads quickly. And it is lethal. We have a choice.
You are planting the seed of salvation when you turn over your hardships to Jesus and give grace and mercy rather than retribution. You become the firstborn of a large family. The family of God.

So why all this talk about seeds and weeds?
Well, let’s look at the gospel for this morning:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.”

This is one of those “lost in translation” issues—not so much because of the Greek translation, but more because of the difference in time and geography.
The modern reader comes away from this and says, “Well, yes, yes… it becomes big, and the mustard seed is so tiny. I get that.”
But the “first century, Middle Eastern reader” would have understood it differently.
You see, you don’t want to plant mustard seeds on your property if you don’t have much space. Why? Well, it would be like John Collins planting dandelions in his herb garden.
It’s a mess. It’ll spread all over the place.
And that—Jesus is saying…—That is what the Kingdom of God is like!
It spreads all over the place, and when it is planted in our hearts, and we sow seeds during trying circumstances—the HR nightmare, the aggressive driver, the inconsiderate coworker, our spouse—its pollen gets all over everything. We can’t contain it. God’s love becomes an invasive species that takes over. No other plant is safe. That is the nature of the Kingdom of God.
// I’ll be bold and say this: God cares less about whether you go to church and shake hands with people and smile… if you don’t love your enemy outside the walls of the church (or inside, for that matter). 
Remember who Jesus was:
He was a learned rabbi who broke all the rules in order to love people.
He touched lepers.
He broke custom to speak to women in broad daylight.
He dined with people who had no clout. 
But, sure enough, he sowed those seeds of love. 
He was an invasive species. 
He went where he was not supposed to. 
Jesus was a weed (He was THE weed.) who didn’t care about Leviticus if it separated him from people who needed compassion. 
And we are called to be the same. That is the essence of this morning’s portion from the Letter to the Romans.

“OK, Dan, I can love people—even people that don’t treat me well. I can show God’s love, all right. I’ll try it out.”
Good. That’s a start.
“Uh oh, he’s going to say that’s not good enough, isn’t he?”
You’re a smart congregation!

We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. Actually, that’s not true. At first we did, then we didn’t. We used to take vacations all the time, then we didn’t.
See, my father’s company was bought-out, so he got laid-off from his management position.
We went through a very lean decade.
Yet, somehow, my parents always had enough money to send me to choir, orchestra, debate, Model United Nations, piano lessons… They sacrificed in order to give me every advantage as a child.
Then, one day, my parents sacrificed it all.
They started a business together.
They literally risked it ALL on this “one, last-ditch effort.”
Long story short, the business was a success. My parents were even able to help me with college tuition. (Thank you, Mom and Dad!)

The gospel also says this, adding another dimension of complexity to the Kingdom of God:

44“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
The kingdom of heaven requires that we risk it all—everything we have—in order to bring “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Like my parents / risking what little they had left… in order to take a chance on something that promised a better tomorrow. 
It means we drop everything // and love everyone we see, even in trying circumstances… especially in trying circumstances: 
the HR nightmare, 
the aggressive driver, 
the inconsiderate coworker, 
our spouse. 
The Ukraine
Those whom the church has rejected.
Sometimes, love feels impossible.
Sometimes, love looks like forgiveness. 
Sometimes it requires that we give more than we would normally be expected to give. 

That is what it means to be Christ-like, or Christian. 
Can we grasp these two images of God’s Kingdom?
Can we be that “all-or-nothing-type lover of humanity” that Jesus alludes to? 
Can we be that invasive species that loves… even when it doesn’t make sense to love?
That is what we are called to.
That is what we are commanded to do.

I want to thank Craig for selecting one of my favorite hymns, found as an insert in your bulletin.
It’s got kind of a lighthearted “um-pa-pa feel” to it, but the words are powerful.

I want to close by reading one of the verses:
2 Tell the sweet story of Christ // and His love,
Tell of His pow'r // to forgive; 
Others will trust Him // if only you prove True, 
every moment you live.

Let this be our challenge this week and every time we call ourselves a Christian.
And when people ask you why you have such love in your heart, against all rationality, you might respond with that entrancing phrase, “Hey, just trying to be a blessing.”

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Sermon: Breaking the decade of silence

For First Church of Round Hill (Greenwich, CT)
June 8, 2014 (Pentecost Sunday)


  • Acts 2:1-21
  • John 20:19-23 

Silence. That’s all I heard.
When I prayed, all I heard was silence.
For ten years… when I prayed… silence.

When I was a youth, things were much different:
I had been a precocious young member of my youth group.
I was involved in many youth group activities.
I went on all the mission trips, I sang in the choir, I went to church twice a week, I did my devotions just about every day…
I was on fire for Jesus, and I could feel the Holy Spirit every time I prayed.

I even went to a Christian college, became class chaplain, and got involved with its Spiritual Life Council. I couldn’t get enough Jesus. He was my life.

Then, one day, silence was all I heard when I prayed.

You know how it feels when you lose a relative or a close friend? It was almost like that.
I had lost my best friend, it seemed.
I don’t mean to be flippant. I’m not trying to minimize the feeling of the loss of a loved one.
It’s just that my entire identity was wrapped up in my affiliation with Jesus.
He had been my entire life—my entire existence.
Not hearing God was like a death that would take me years to understand.
o I spent hours upon hours in the prayer chapel and on my knees in my own dorm room—trying to get Jesus back into my life. Crying, pleading, tensing all my muscles—doing everything I could think of to tell Jesus I want him back in my life, to tell the Holy Spirit I wanted to feel the presence again… Silence.
o I talked to pastors and ministry students, and they formed a consensus: “Oh, you must have some sort of sin on your hands. You ought to repent.” But no amount of repentance took this away from me. I still couldn’t hear God. Silence.
o I started seeing a psychiatrist. He gave me some pills, which definitely helped my outlook on life. But I still couldn’t hear God. Silence.
o It affected my social life.
o My homework wasn’t getting done anymore, so I had to take incompletes on most of my classes until I could finish my work. Silence.

Nevertheless, I finished all my coursework and graduated from Bible College.
Even though I could not hear God, I still felt called to ministry.
I knew that the last thing I heard from God was to prepare myself for service to the Church.
And so, I enrolled in a seminary.
I tried to connect the dots on my own. Silence.
After graduating from seminary, I took a job in a church as a religious educator.
I worked with children and youth—mainly because that’s the only church I had known at the time.
That is where I last felt the tender embrace of our Lord.
Despite all my comings and goings in children’s and youth ministry, I still could not hear God. Silence.
For 10 full years, I attempted to serve God without hearing God’s voice.
I felt like I was on my own every time a parent got upset with me for making too much noise during a lock-in.
Or every time I wrote a sermon but did not have the Holy Spirit whispering to me.
Or every time it just became too difficult.
I knew that my entire being was to serve God and the church, but it seemed that God wasn’t there.
o I wondered what I was doing in ministry, but I couldn’t fathom doing anything else with my life. I had to be a minister.

Then, one day, I got a phone call.
It was my father, sobbing. “She’s gone,” he said.
Somehow, I knew that he was talking about mom. I learned that she had been involved in a car accident—not of her own fault. And she died instantly.
I could not believe it or understand what had just happened.
I had a friend drive me home from work, and I got busy trying to schedule a plane trip home to Indiana, where I grew up… where the accident took place.
It seemed I would be the family member who would be giving the eulogy, and I had absolutely no idea where to begin. I wrestled for hours, until, at one moment it was like a rush of wind filled my heart.
It was like a tongue of flame lay on my head.
It was as if the Holy Spirit breathed on me (Breathe.) and filled me again with the Holy Spirit.
I felt the warm arms of God wrap around me, and I started to hear God again—after ten long years.
I was not expecting it. It was not anything I did, but I needed God at that moment—for the family—and that is when God showed up.
I could get through this difficult time.
And, by grace, I continue to hear God speak to me.

In further studies after seminary, I learned that St. Teresa of Avila went a full 18 years without hearing the voice of God, yet continued to persevere through a silence of her own.
Despite this silence, she wrote numerous theological treatises and eventually became a Doctor of the Church—which is a fancy way of saying: she helped shape the theology of the Roman Catholic church.
When I learned that a saint—a Doctor of the Church—went through something similar to my silence (an even longer silence) my heart broke for her.
I wasn’t a freak.
I wasn’t an apostate.
I began to realize that this was not God punishing me for some sin, but rather, God’s silence was a universal that transcended time, and gender, and nationality, and denomination.
In learning about St. Teresa’s experience of silence, it was as if Jesus came to me and said, “Peace be with you.”

I wonder if any of us here today have experienced God’s silence.
I wonder if anyone here has felt spiritually abnormal, or wounded, or underdeveloped, or inadequate.
I wonder who else has experienced God come into their lives and bring a new sensation of grace… at the very hour of their need.

Let’s turn to the Word:
There, the disciples were: hiding in a house with the doors locked.
They had just seen their friend: taken away by guards, beaten, interrogated, and crucified.
They had every reason to hide; they were wanted political insurrectionists who proclaimed that Jesus was their King—above even the emperor of Rome.
So they locked themselves into hiding.
No one could enter or leave.
Their silence was unbearable.
They had been without Jesus for nearly three days, and they didn’t know what to do.
o Jesus was the one who had always called the shots.
o Now, they no longer had that voice, and they had no reason to believe they would ever have that voice back again.
So they retreated to safety.
They were no longer going to fulfill the purpose Jesus had given them over the last three years.
Instead, they locked the door.
o Safe from the Romans.
o Safe from the world.
o Safe from any threat.

And then they noticed a presence among them.
(Louder) But the door was locked! How on earth did someone manage to enter?!
(Slower) And they looked… and it was Jesus… with nail-pierced hands and feet, and a scar in his side. They rejoiced, for Jesus had come into their sanctuary from the world…
But Jesus said, “Not so fast! Get out of this locked house… NOW!”
Maybe Jesus didn’t realize that—before he came back—the disciples had no one to give them instructions anymore.
But to Jesus, it didn’t matter.
He had a plan. He always has a plan.

Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you…
As the Father sent me to this earth to do ministry among the people, so I send you.
Just as the Father sent me here—knowing that I would be risking my life in order to proclaim unconditional love—I am now sending you.
Now, get out of this locked house… you have a job to do!”

And he breathed on them… (Breathe.)… and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Now, you have everything you need.”

The disciples dined with each other and uplifted each other—with the Holy Spirit in their midst—for a week or so—just like the good old days—
But there was another disciple that was still in hiding.
Thomas joined them after that week, and the disciples said, “Buddy, you missed out. We have seen Jesus.”
Thomas said, “I don’t believe you.”
Now… if I told my colleagues something, and they didn’t believe me, I would feel offended. But that’s not the point… because Jesus enters again, and he says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Blessed are they that go through periods of silence and still follow the path of Jesus.
Blessed are they that feel spiritually abnormal, or wounded, or underdeveloped, or inadequate YET follow the path of Jesus.
And Thomas said, “My Lord, and my God!”

Friends, you who have been following the path of Jesus for years (or maybe you have been recently baptized)…
People stop hearing God for all sorts of reasons or for no reason at all.
Remember, people had many theories about why God was silent in my life: sin, depression, the list goes on.
But maybe a loved one died, and you don’t know how to cope.
Maybe you can’t get over the fact that bad things happen to good people.
Or perhaps there is no reason, and like with me, you could not comprehend the ways in which God was directing your life.
Whatever the case, God is faithful.
When we don’t believe, or when we simply can’t believe, Jesus comes close to us and says, “Put your fingers here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”
And he breathes the breath of God into our lives and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

But why does God send the Holy Spirit to us?
Just so we can feel good?
Just so we can be nice Christians?
Just so we can read the Bible better?
No, why?
The lessons we heard this morning tell the story of the birthday of the church.
Pentecost is the day when the church became a church…and started reaching outward into the world, empowered by God to do the work of God on earth.
It is not enough for you to do devotions every day.
It isn’t enough for you to say “Oh, I attend church every week.”
It is not enough to say, “Yes, I’m a Christian.”
It isn’t enough…
Because God is calling us out of our locked houses and into a mission field called the world.
In John, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And in Acts, quoting Joel, “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 laborers, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
What does this mean for First Church of Round Hill?
It might mean touching lepers.
It might mean showing love and compassion towards those in financial need;
o or ethnic and racial groups who do not have political power;
o or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities;
o or Muslims;
o or people who belong to that other political party;
o or the people in the church who want things to change;
o or the people in the church who want things to stay the same;
o or that driver that won’t let us merge.
o Or the customer service representative who barely speaks English.
o or the waitress who didn’t get our order right.
The Good News of Acts is that the Holy Spirit equips us to speak compassion in many different ways so we can reach out to all people for the glory of God.
And by “reach out,” I don’t mean converting people to Christianity. I mean showing the love of Christ to all the people whom it is difficult to show love to.
THAT is what Pentecost is all about.

Who do you have a hard time with?
Chances are, because of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, God has equipped you to love that person or those people.
Because of Pentecost, we become a people who have received the breath of God and are now equipped to show charity and compassion toward all people.
Because of Pentecost, we are no longer alone in our silence, because we have a mission to follow the path of Jesus: and that is to love everyone we see.
And this difficulty of God’s silence… It hurts.
Do you remember that poem, “Footprints in the Sand?”
It is precisely when we only see one set of footprints that we should know that God has been carrying us… this whole time.
When we can’t hear God, when we have no more intimacy with God… we must trust that God is still leading us.
o God lead me through seminary and through my first congregations—by grace.
o God led St. Teresa of Avila to write monumental theological treatises—by grace.
o And God led “doubting Thomas” to touch the hands and the side of Jesus and to have to a deeper understanding of God.
o And Jesus responds, “Peace be with you.”
The church of God is not “mighty” because it has so many members, or its political pull, or the riches in the Vatican or our church endowment, or any other worldly thing.
We are strong because our Savior was born, died, and lived so terrifically.
He made himself ceremonially unclean—he made himself an outcast among his colleagues—just so he could love people who were rejected by society.
This is why Jesus was sent to the world.
o Because life is dirty and cruel
o And wonderful and amazing
o And hurtful and lonely
o And hard.
o For this, was Jesus sent.
Thus, Jesus said: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”