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.”