Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Acts 1: 1-11
John 15: 26-27, 16: 4b. 15

Ascension. We don’t really know what to do with that. Today is the day that we mark the event of Jesus ascending into heaven, as it was described in the Acts text I read for you. The Bible dictionary I used says that Ascension is “widespread and diffuse” category of literature across the cultures of the ancient world that include visions by prophets, journeys into heaven by seers, souls rising to heaven and actual bodily liftings without the intervention of death.

When Roman Emperors died, it was believed that they ascended to heaven, and they became Gods when they got there. Jews and Christians didn’t really buy the becoming a God part, but we’ve got our own characters who have ascended to heaven in our Scripture. Elijah is the most famous one, being carried to heaven in a chariot of fire. Yes, that’s where the movie title comes from.

There are New Testament ascensions other than the one of Jesus. Paul describes one in Second Corinthians. The concept of ascension is used in Revelation and 1Thessalonians.

But most of it is about Jesus.

Luke talks about it twice, at the end of Luke and at the passage of Acts we’ve just read, and one of those additions you find at the end of Mark talk about it. In our Apostles’ Creed, we speak about Jesus ascending into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God.

So we’re talking about an event that is rarely mentioned with regard to Jesus, from one Gospel reliably and from only one other, which could have easily been written after someone had read Luke.

I guess what I am trying to outline here for you is that what we mention today, a major event in the life of the Christian Church, historically, is not one we as Protestants tend to overly honor. Ascension art, as I was looking for a Bulletin cover, is pretty limited. As the Bible dictionary entry said, “generally speaking, the New Testament writers are more concerned with Jesus’ present exalted status in heaven than with the question of how he came to be there.”

But you have to explain how a man is resurrected from the dead, and as one of the three persons of the Trinity, didn’t die again. You have to explain how Jesus is different from Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus, but did die again at a later date. Jesus sits at the right hand of God. Jesus is in heaven now, we believe. But he didn’t die to get there. He tells the Disciples that he has to leave so that they may receive what he is to give them. That gift will turn out to be the Holy Spirit.

There is a reason why Jesus had to leave. For his people to grow in faith, they had to learn how to walk for themselves. Jesus could not be everywhere, he was a flesh and blood man, and even with his being able to appear and disappear at the blink of an eye, like with the disciples at dinner in the Emmaus story, the time was coming that flesh and blood were going to be too limiting. The believers of Christ, the believers in Christ, were soon going to number too many. It’s easy to see everyone when they are all gathered in one place, not so much when you have people in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and Antioch, and Corinth, and Rome, and all the rest of the places that are the ends of the earth. So Jesus has to leave. But he has to leave in such a way that folks know he will be coming back. We don’t read in scripture that he will be raised from a grave. He has to come from another place. So we read, twice by Luke’s hand, that Jesus rises bodily into heaven.

When Luke wrote this, Heaven was understood to be a physical place above and behind the sky, and that was where God lived. We’ve now been there; poor Shuttle Atlantis can’t get home from there because of rain in Florida. And what we see isn’t a throne room, or angels floating around in clouds. What we see is the final frontier.

It’s easy to understand how people who put great trust in their intellect will have problems with the basic claims of Christianity. They can buy that Jesus existed, they can buy that Jesus taught wisely, they can even buy that Jesus is the son of God in some way that is unique and hard for us to understand. But resurrection? Ascension? Here is where they step off the train.

I understand that. The claims of the church defy understanding, and in a world where understanding is paramount, where Science is the new way of explaining the world and religion is the old way, where even Time Magazine has replaced their religion column with one on health and medicine, something that has defied explanation, understanding and repetition in a lab for two thousand years can begin to seem irrelevant.

But we still have this Biblical witness. We still have these disciples who saw what they saw, and passed it on to others, and when they started getting old and passing away, it was written down so as not to be lost. These stories are what we have inherited.

We have inherited stories that are hard to explain, but can’t be explained away either.

So, with regard to the whole Easter experience, from Resurrection to Ascension, what can we say? Do we stand with the scientists, and say that it is a whole bunch of hysterical rigamarole, unexplainable and therefore impossible? Or do we stand with the people who believe that it must have happened exactly in the way it was described, and anyone who questions the account of Luke, or asks any questions at all, betrays Christ and puts him back up on the cross all over again?

Or do we stand where we are this morning? Somewhere in the middle, unsure about what’s right, curious, but unwilling to fully accept either side?

As for me, I stand in that middle place. These stories are true. We just don’t know what the truth of them looks like. We know, though, that when it all comes clear, (and we have faith that someday it will all come clear), the stories will be true, and they will fit in exactly with the physical observable world we have learned about.

We have faith in the future, that it will all become clear. That the glass we see through now darkly will fall away. And until then, our job is not to worry about that, but to worry about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and seeking God’s will through the Holy Spirit, our other inheritance from those ancient disciples.

We have inherited two things—the witness of Scripture, which tells us our story, and the Holy Spirit, which helps us tell that story, and make our own stories, in God’s name.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Go, Atlanta Crackers!

So, I am a sports fan. I primarily follow pro football and baseball, but I know what a hat trick is, and I know what "Rainbow 24" means. My primary teams are (in football) the San Francisco 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles, (and in baseball) the San Francisco Giants, the Texas Rangers, and the Philadelphia Phillies.

All of that is to say that I really do not have a dog in the hunt that is the controversy about use of Native American mascots. I am neither Native American, nor am I a fan of any team that uses one. I do agree, however, that if we do accept that all people are human beings, children of God, then we need to accept that groups get to choose what they call themselves, and we, acting out of our privilege, do not get to assume use of their images.

That's why I find this article by Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports to be so interesting and well-spoken. It really is different for a team to be named after a Native American tribe (Seminoles, Illini) or an aspect of native American Culture (Braves, Indians) than it is to name a team the Celtics or the Yankees. It's a borrowing without permission. I think that's also defined as stealing. Stanford University, that bastion of radicality and liberal thinking (yes, sarcasm is being used here) did this a long time ago, I think in the 80's, when they stopped using "Indians" and began to use "Cardinal". No one died in Palo Alto, either, when they made that change.

When majority culture officials say "it's really a tribute", I'm reminded about Ben Franklin's saying about taxation without representation; "it's like a steer that still gets called a bull. He's appreciative of the honor, but he'd much rather have returned what he lost."

Towns and schools like Atlanta, Cleveland, the University of Illinois, and especially Washington exist within such strong cultures, all of them. Something could surely be chosen that is a little less an exercise in maintaining white privilege. I'm sure Drew Carey wouldn't mind if they decided on the Cleveland Rocks. And what better homage to history can you make than to change the name of the Atlanta Braves to the Atlanta Crackers! It's no different to use that than for Boston to use the Celtics.

As for Washington DC-- avoiding any silly references to pork or windbags or whatever, a metro area of 2 million people or so can surely muster an adequate amount of creativity. You could even keep the Burgundy and Gold! Look just up I-95. The naming of a sports team doesn't get much better creatively or astute historically than calling the team the Baltimore Ravens. Hey, Washington; you want that Baltimore could do something better than you?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

It Fell Upon All

Acts 10:44-48
Joel 2: 28-29

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

This phrase comes in the middle of a scene, a vision, or death and destruction, of desperate times for the people of Israel. The most important bit for us to read, however, isn’t the predictions of blood and fire and columns of smoke. Because of pre-millennial theology (the Left Behind system of thought), even those of us who are not believers in such things are conditioned these days to read such things into it. No, the most important bit is that there will come a day, in the future from Joel’s day, when God’s Spirit will descend on all flesh without regard to any separation.

In the future from where Joel sat as he wrote. We as Christians have scriptures that fill out that future. It happens In the book of Acts. In the second chapter, in the event we celebrate at Pentecost, it happens first, to Peter and the disciples and all the followers who have been meeting in the temple, sharing their goods as any had need. But it also happens here, chronologically later, in the 10th chapter of Acts, in an event some call the Gentile Pentecost.

This event took a little more work for God, because what was about to happen had not happened before. The Holy Spirit coming as fire to people who were not Jews was brand new. The person to bring the good news to the gentiles was chosen to be Peter. He’s in the town of Joppa one day, out on the coast.

He’s out on the roof of a house, waiting for lunch, enjoying the sea breeze, when he falls into a trance and sees this vision of a large sheet descending from the sky. And on this sheet is all manner of food (remember he’s hungry!). The thing is, this sheet has all kinds of food. Good kosher foods like beef and chicken and sweets and vegetables and grains, but also things he’s not supposed to eat, like pork and reptiles, and things where meat and cheese are mixed together. In the vision, a voice says to Peter “kill and eat”. Well, of course, Peter refuses, saying “I have never eaten anything that is profane and unclean!” and the voice says back “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And to emphasize the point, the vision repeats three times. After it ends, he’s still up on the roof, thinking about what has just happened. The Spirit whispers in his ear, "OK, there are these three guys in town. They are looking for you, go with them.”

These three guys are servants of a Roman Centurion, an Army officer of some rank, who has sent them all the way from Caesarea, some 40 miles away up the coast. He’s also had a vision. An angel has come to him and said "send some men to Joppa, and find a guy named Simon, who is also called Peter, who is staying with another Simon, who works with leather. Find him and bring him back to your place.”

I need to mention that Cornelius was a strange guy. He was this Roman officer, commander of hundreds of soldiers, the apex of Roman respectability, but he was what the Bible called a “God-Fearer;” he prayed to God and helped the poor in God’s name. The Jews all knew him to be a good man.

So, these men of Cornelius’ find Peter, and tell him that they have been sent to find him because of a vision Cornelius has had. You’ve got to think Peter says “oh, that’s what the vision was about!”

The next morning, they all head out from Joppa back up the coast to Caesarea, with some of the Joppa Christians along, as well. They get to Cornelius’ house the next day (40 miles, remember—at best they are on horseback or in carriages), and Cornelius has a house full.

Peter tells them: You know, I am not usually supposed to be in a gentiles’ house, but I have recently had this vision that tells me that I’m OK. Can you tell me why you sent for me?”

Cornelius says “I had a vision, too, and the angel in it told me to find you and bring you here. All of us are now gathered to see what God has sent you to us for.”

And Peter says, "OK. Then. You know about Jesus Christ, the man who died recently. Well, he preached peace, and that he was the Lord of everyone. He taught and healed all over the countryside, and we saw it all, and we even helped sometimes. He was put to death, but God raised him from the dead after three days, and we saw him again. He even ate and drank in our presence! He has sent us out to do what he did before he died, in his name, and to tell people that he is the judge of all, living or dead. This is who the prophets spoke about.”

And at that point, Peter was interrupted. Those blue flames of fire appeared again, and that roaring wind came back. And the Gentiles began to speak in tongues! The people who had gone with Peter (they're called "the circumcised believers in the Bible) were surprised to witness that what they had experienced at Pentecost in the Temple was now happening here among Gentiles, in a house in Caesarea. But they couldn’t dispute what was happening before them. Peter, now understanding that the vision was so that he could be flexible enough to serve God in this moment, asks for water and baptizes the whole crowd assembled in Cornelius’ house, and they stay together several more days.

The Holy Spirit fell on Gentiles, just as it fell on Jews. The arc of the next four chapters of Acts are the adjustment that the Jews make to accept that God is going to claim Gentiles as well, and that they need to be included. If the Holy Spirit can fall on all flesh, they had better get used to accepting everyone.

It took some adjustment, and the destruction of prejudice, but they did it. Peter and Cornelius both were flexible and open to the spirit’s leading, even when it led outside their culture, their society, everything they’d been taught since childhood.

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

The Holy Spirit works on all, it is God’s plan. The question is not whether God loves all people; it is how well we listen in our time, we the inheritors of the message that Peter gave. Can we be as flexible as Peter was? Can we accept those who we consider unclean without judgment? Cornelius, we think didn’t stop being a Roman centurion. God loves people as they are who they are, and as he created them.

How are we doing with that?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pruning for Better Quality Vintages

John 15: 1-8

Once upon a time, before I was a minister, before I moved to PA, before I went to seminary, before I even was a Christian, really, I worked in the Napa Valley as a winery cellar worker and tour guide. I attended school at Napa Valley College, and majored in enology. Enology is the biological and chemical science of fermentation, and as part of that program, there was a class in viticulture, the agricultural science of the growing of grapes. I still have many of the books I used for those classes, as well as gifts of books that friends have given me.

So it was with great interest that when I saw this particular scripture this week, al about the pruning of vines, I went and pulled out my old copy of the book General Viticulture, published by the University of California, 1974. Page 287 begins the chapter on pruning. Yes, the chapter. For 47 pages, plus two pages of notes at the end, you can read about how to prune fines if they stand independent of each other in the old world style, or whether they are tied to a stick and spaced out in regular even rows.

There is a lot of scientific proof that support the concept that the grapes you get depend a lot on the way you prune. If you go through a vineyard and cut too severely, you won’t get much fruit, but what you get will be very rich, because all of the grapes’ vigor will be concentrated into a few “units’ of growth. Conversely, if you don’t prune at all, the vine will send all of it’s energy into leaves, growing just enough blooms to propagate itself, which turn into grape berries, which then fall to the ground or get eaten by birds, and who will drop the seeds to grow where they are planted. This assures that the whole vine will continue to survive.

For the vine grower interested in a harvest of good fruit, a balance is needed. You want enough leaf cover to generate photosynthesis, and to protect the berries from birds, but you also want a reliable amount of grapes grown so you can make wine.

While this is a modern science, taught at the highest levels at schools around the world, the particulars debated over and over again, the general concept was known to ancient Greek philosophers, and it was known to Jesus. In verse two, when he says “every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make bear more fruit”, he’s showing basic sound viticultural theory. And anyone who grows grapes outside their houses for jelly or to make homemade wine, this is not news to them either.

A good shoot produces good grapes because it has been trained, and because it receives good energy and growth from the leaves and the trunk of the vine, the roots of which can sometimes grow down 20-30 feet, if the soil bed is deep enough.

The image is pretty clear—you’ll know a good follower of Jesus by the fruit they produce. If they yield a good harvest year after year, they will be pruned and trained so as to continue to produce good fruit, year after year after year. They will prune away all of the deadwood, all of last years’ growth, and burn it, so that what is left will be set for success.

To abide in God, as Jesus says, is to be closely connected to the system of leaves and trunk that produce the sugar that allow the whole vine to exist and produce fruit. When one abides in God (Jesus refers to “me”, most of the time, but in John the sense of Jesus as God is the most strongly claimed), one receives all one needs to produce good fruit.

Now this is just a metaphor, of course, but it is a good one—the closer are with God, the more we will naturally resemble Jesus. The more we read the Bible, the more we pray, the more we are here with each other, it is like sugar that is generated by the leaves of a grapevine through photosynthesis. It is how fruit is produced.

Where the metaphor falls apart is that a vine cannot prune itself. A vine grower must come through and prune the vine for the vine to be good and healthy and to last over time. We do have the ability to improve ourselves, to choose how we will follow Christ, to discern where it is we are being led by God.

We also have the choice available to us whether we will even take the “sugar” that is made available. We choose whether we will make time for Bible study, for prayer, for time together as the people of God.

We live in a busy time. There are demands placed on us that we never placed on those of earlier ages. Specifically, those among us who are in the midst of the ministry of raising children, we are pulled so many different ways. There are so many more opportunities for kids today than there were when we were kids, but to take advantage of those opportunities, one has to decide between them and time with God.

No one is saying that the only way to follow God is to quit all extracurricular activities and only come to church. Remember, a good vine grower prunes for balance between leaf growth and fruit production, with an eye toward the longevity of the vine. And the environment in which we are planted is different than it was a generation ago. So a new balance must be struck, one in which our children can take advantage of all that is laid before them in this great and wonderful world, but God and the things that bring us close to God are still also at the center of our lives.

As parents, our primary job is to provide for the physical and emotional needs of our children. Proverbs says it this way “train them up in the way that they will go, so that when they are old, they will not depart from it”. We are doing no less than giving God; not to our children, but to our great grandkids through our children. And sports and music can be great tools with which we can do so, but it must always be done with an eye toward how they are being trained and pruned and fed, the goal always being what fruit they are producing.

It is often said that the best vintages of wine are those that started with superior fruit. You can make a bad wine from good grapes. You can’t make a good wine from bad grapes. It’s all in the fruit.

How good is your fruit? How well are you pruned?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Lord is My Cowboy, I Shall Not Want

John 10:11-18

I am not very familiar with shepherds. The image of a shepherd doesn’t work for me. Born where I was born (Napa, CA), to parents who were where they were from (New Mexico), living where I have lived (Texas), reading the books that I have read, and living in a country that has idealized the cowboy, the image of livestock that primarily pop into my head are pictures of cattle. I’ve read my share of Louis L’Amour, and one of my favorite books of all time is Lonesome Dove. I think it’s probably the same for many of you. Sheep don’t enter into the picture much. I have only eaten Lamb a couple of times, and half of them I didn’t like. I don’t even wear much wool.

Cowboys got their image, the undying American icon, during a 30 year stretch in the late 1800’s when the railroads were growing, but had not yet spread into every nook and cranny of America. Cattle had to be sent to market, usually in Chicago, and driving the cows to Chicago seemed a little excessive. But you could drive them to Wichita, or to Topeka, and they could be loaded onto railcars and sent to Chicago. So the cattle drive was born. And the guys who were hired to help with the cattle became known as cowboys. You needed quite a few people to run cows, because you needed to surround the herd. Cows are an independent proposition—you needed a guy to lead, and set the path, guys who would line down the sides of the herd, and one poor guy to ride in the back, called riding “drag”, the dustiest and messiest place to ride in the whole drive. The guy back there may have been the youngest, or the one who was in trouble, or sometimes they rotated the position.

What seems to be the same between cowboys on cattle drives and shepherds is that the people who did the job were not seen as moral upstanding characters. In movies and books, cowboys would come to a town and shoot up the place, go into saloons and conduct business in them, and then move on to the next town. Shepherds spent most of their time away from towns, too, but not in the same way. They didn’t move around as wide a space as cowboys. It’s true that, as one commentator writes about this passage, “shepherds were rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society.” The same is true of cowboys.

Cowboys were generally not guys who had an education, or if they did, they hid it. The American West was not yet populated, and that meant it also had very few laws, very few people to enforce the laws, very few schools, very few churches, very few women, frankly. It was a perfect situation for a guy to disappear into. They then became cowboys because that was the job that was at hand.

Cowboys were among the first migrant workers, and just as we have societal issues and prejudices about migrant workers now, so did they then.

For Jesus to say “I am the Good Shepherd” doesn’t mean much to me. Oh, I know from reading that shepherds are in every bit the same amount of danger as cowboys, they have the same social status, and the good ones take care of their livestock the same way as good cowboys. It’s just that my culture doesn’t do shepherds. Here it is, the 21st century, and for most of us, the image shepherd still conjures up some guy with a cloth on his head, a robe and a stick, sitting on the hillside as sheep graze around him. An image that’s probably 2000 years old or older. It’s old, and it’s foreign to our experience. They still have shepherds in Europe, they even have a few in the US, but there is not a lot we know about modern American shepherding.

When Jesus talks about being the good shepherd, it’s pretty clear that we are the sheep. Even me. But for me, it works just as well to say that we are the cattle.

If Jesus were to have said “I am the good cowboy”, OK, now I can hear that in my own language. That means he won’t bail when the weather gets too hot, or too cold, or rainy, or snowy. He does what the trail boss says, even rides drag. He goes looking for the cattle that get sidetracked down gullies and ravines, and brings them back to the herd. He finds the best ford to cross the river, and when it’s flooded, he waits until it’s reasonably safe. He protects the cattle against coyotes and other critters. When it’s time to go into town, he’s the guy who brings all the other cowboys home to sleep it off. He knows more than he lets on. In a crowd of knuckleheads, he’s the competent one.

So lets read through John’s passage again, substituting as we need to:

‘I am the good cowboy. The good cowboy lays down his life for the cattle. The hired hand, who is not the cowboy and does not own the cattle, sees the coyote coming and leaves the cattle and runs away—and the coyote snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the cattle. I am the good cowboy. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the cattle. I have other cattle that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

The livestock changes, but the message is the same. We are being taken care of, and our safety is assured by a protector, a capable, knowledgeable, and trustworthy protector. Jesus is with us in all of our travels, and we cannot go wrong when we follow him.