Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

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Babel, Babble, Pentecost and the Power of the Holy Spirit

John 14:8-17, 25-27 (NRSV)

Philip said to [Jesus], “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say I do not speak on my own, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask for anything, I will do it.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”


Even though we hear a lot about it on Pentecost Sunday, most of us know Lutherans aren’t much for speaking in tongues. It happened for the folks in Babel, back in Genesis, and it happened for the earliest disciples that day in Jerusalem, which we heard from the book of Acts – the Spirit of God moved so dramatically that people began speaking in languages they never knew they knew. It was surprising and bizarre enough that those who heard them thought they must have been drunk.

And I get that. It sounds bizarre enough as I stand here today. I’ve grown up in the Lutheran church and have yet to see the spirit move in such a way. And, truth be told, I’m cynical enough to admit that I probably wouldn’t believe it if I did. And even though I work hard to never tell God what God can and cannot do, I don’t expect I’ll be speaking in tongues anytime soon.

But if you’ve been anywhere near social media this week – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – I imagine you’ve seen this video of a young father talking to his toddler-sized son. It even made its way to CNN one evening, it had gone so viral. But just in case you haven’t seen it – and just because it’s too impossibly cute – I think we should watch it now. For those of you who don’t know – or think you’re not understanding or hearing things correctly – you are. This kid isn’t saying anything with words you need to understand – which is the point, really.

Who among us hasn’t carried on a conversation with an infant or a toddler?

Who would believe the words and sounds a grown man or woman can produce – goo-goo-ing and ga-ga-ing with the best of them – in order to get a child to smile or laugh or sleep or stop crying? Who hasn’t pretended to understand – or actually knew exactly – what a babbling baby was trying to say through non-sensical sounds and squeals, of their own?

Well, baby talk isn’t exactly speaking in tongues, but it did get me thinking about the Holy Spirit and with the events surrounding the Tower of Babel… that first Pentecost in Jerusalem… and most importantly, with what God is calling us to as we gather to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, the birthday of the Church and this Pentecost Sunday, so many generations later.

First of all, I always like to remember that there’s more to the Tower of Babel story than what most of us learned in Sunday School. There’s more to the story than just that God punished the Israelites for building the tower; that God punished the Israelites for trying to be like God; and that God’s punishment was to confuse their language and to scatter them throughout the world, so that I would speak English and need a translator in Paris, or Prague or Port-au-Prince.

No, the key to the story isn’t just that people wanted to be like God. The key to the story isn’t just that God punished them for it by confusing their languages. And the key to the story isn’t all about God’s vengeance and anger.

The key to the story – much of the sin of the people at Babel – was their desire to set up camp, to stay put and keep to themselves. The sin of the people of Babel was that they neglected to be about multiplying and growing and newness and change. See, the people of God are called to be about sharing grace with all creation in whatever ways they can manage, and the Tower of Babel was wrong for a lot of reasons, but the major malfunction was the attempt to keep good news and blessing and the power of God all for themselves – and all in one place.

Which puts our reading from Acts into better perspective, for me. See Babel wasn’t the first or the last time that the people of God would screw things up. The Old Testament is all about the many and various ways that generation after generation after generation of God’s people kept getting it wrong. They had forgotten their call to be a blessing for creation – and they kept on forgetting it.

And then Jesus showed up.

God sent Jesus as the clearest reminder of what love, grace, forgiveness, mercy and sacrifice look and feel like. God sent Jesus to let humanity know that the cries of God’s people have been heard. But no matter how clear the message; no matter how dramatic the reminder; no matter how amazing his teaching and preaching and healing; no matter how awesome his death and resurrection were, God – and Jesus – had a pretty good hunch we still wouldn’t get it right all of the time, even after Jesus showed us how to do it.

And even if, like Phillip in this morning’s Gospel, we can’t always see it or say it or wrap our brains around just who or what the Holy Spirit is in our life or for the world, it’s clear that – in the context of these Pentecost stories – God doesn’t give up on us. God never stops speaking. Like that dad in the video, God always hears and understands the wants, the needs and the longings of God’s people.

And that, to me, is what our lesson for Pentecost and the promise and gift of the Holy Spirit are all about this morning. God will go to any length, not only to share love with us, but so that we will share God’s love with the world – in whatever way we can manage.

The gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the gift of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection and even the gift of the confused tongues and the scattering at Babel are examples of God’s willingness and ability to hear and understand the heart of God’s people, in hopes that we will, with God’s help, do the same.

And God speaks in the strangest ways still – in the promise of water at baptism and in the forgiveness of bread and wine during communion. Sometimes the message is clear in the words of a well-crafted sermon – we hope – or through a perfectly prayed prayer. Sometimes God’s message of love is just as clear through the messy presence of a loved one while we’re grieving; or through a stumbling confession and the gracious offering of forgiveness. Whatever the case, the message can seem inconceivable – that we are loved without condition; that even we are forgiven and that even they can be too; that this grace is ours as much as it is theirs; that God wants us as much as God wants them; that God so loved – and that God so loves – the whole wide world.

It’s all meant to bring joy and comfort and peace to the world – to the nations – to the Church, just the same – still fussing and fighting and screaming and pouting and trying too often to keep the good stuff to ourselves.

So let us believe that the promises of resurrection and new life are ours. Let us trust the sounds of grace among us – no matter how crazy and unbelievable or hard to explain that may be. And, let us hear the invitation from God to speak and share something new about our faith and God’s love for the sake of the world. It will bring joy and peace to the world around us. It is the promise of life lived under the influence of the Spirit. And it is the hope of God for all creation.

Amen

Bootstraps, Baptismal Waters and Being Made Well

John 5:1-9

After this, there was a festival of the Jews and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Now in Jerusalem, there is a pool by the Sheep Gate that is called, in Hebrew, Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids – blind, lame and paralyzed. One man who was there had been ill for 38 years. When Jesus saw that he was ill and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you wish to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to lower me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and when I try to make my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take up your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, he took up his mat and he began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath.


I had a new, less-than-charitable thought about Jesus when I read this Gospel this time around. Let me explain.

There’s this gaggle of sick, hurting, broken people gathered around these healing pools near the gate by the Temple entrance in Jerusalem. And they are literally waiting for a miracle. See, the lore, legend and tradition about those pools and porticoes suggested – that an angel of God was what stirred up the waters from time to time – and that to be healed by their mysterious power you had to be among the first into the mix once that happened. So there’s this guy who, for 38 years has been ill, unable to walk on his own, and who has been trying for who knows how many of those years to reach the water at just the right time to be relieved of his disease.

And when Jesus sees him there he asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” Maybe Jesus was just being polite. Maybe he was giving him some ownership over what was going to happen next. Maybe he didn’t want to be presumptuous. But what a strange, silly, cynical question, really. “Do you want to be made well?”

Surely this guy wasn’t happy being sick and unable to walk. Surely he wasn’t just enjoying the show – watching all those other sick people receive their miracle. Surely he was there because he wanted to be healed right along with the rest of them.

So I heard Jesus’ question this time around as a little insensitive… a little judgmental… a little presumptuous in all the wrong ways. And I saw myself asking that question, too.

“Do you want to be made well?” I think I ask that question in all the wrong ways myself a lot of the time. Maybe you do to.

When someone is struggling in some way, don’t we assume they would, could, should just pull themselves up by their boot straps and make things right? Don’t we assume, too often, that a person who’s homeless must have done something – or not done enough – to end up in that predicament? When someone’s in prison, don’t we assume they’re guilty or less than or that they chose and deserve the fate that’s befallen them? When someone’s addicted don’t we think they just need to make better choices? Gain some will power? Pray more or harder or better?

That’s the kind of thing I heard in Jesus’ question this time around…to the sick man lying helpless by the pool. “Do you want to be made well?”

And I feel that sick man – broken and hurting and desperate to find help wherever he can get it – trying not to roll his eyes and write off this jerk who seems just like all the rest of them. And I hear that sick man respond with as much respect as he can muster, because he’s just that desperate, as he explains himself saying something like, “Sir, I’m not well enough or fast enough or lucky enough to get into that water when it moves and no one around here will help me. All these people are just looking out for themselves… or they aren’t as sick as me… or they have someone else to help them. Of course I want to be made well. I just can’t do this on my own.”

And I wonder if this might be one of those moments in Scripture – and there are others – where Jesus learns a new thing and changes his tune; where he hears this man, fully; where he sees this man in all of his brokenness and suffering and desperate need in a way he hadn’t at first. Jesus was as human as the rest of, remember. And you and I do this all the time.

We forget or deny that bad things happen to good people – that the sun rises on the evil and on the good, and that rain falls on the righteous and on the unrighteous, just the same – as Scripture tells us. And I think we forget or deny or ignore the injustice around us in an attempt to make sense of things that don’t make sense; to justify what cannot be justified; to pretend we have more control over or power over or influence over our lives than is possible or true a lot of the time. And I think we project that kind of judgement onto others because it’s a great way to justify our lack of help; our lack of compassion; our self-righteousness; our “thoughts and prayers” as a suitable measure of response to the suffering around us, when we know there’s more to be done – and more we could do.

We forget or deny that people are arrested and convicted and sentenced to prison unfairly and for crimes they never committed – and it happens to people of color at significantly higher rates than it does to people who look like me. (“Do you want to be made well? Do you want to be better? Do you want to do better?” “Yes, but the system is stacked against me,” they might say, “and I have no one to help me into the water.”)

We forget or deny that poverty is inherited – and it’s a cycle – for so many people who didn’t do anything to “deserve” their misfortune any more than I – and most of us here – have done as much as we pretend to earn or maintain the good fortune or status or the middle-class starting block from which we began our life’s journey. (“Do you want to be made well? Do you want to be better? Do you want to do better?” “Yes, but these people keep stepping ahead of me before I can get where I’m trying to go.”)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about hard work and bootstraps. But I’m also very clear about the grace and good fortune I’ve enjoyed in my life. And today I want to learn from Jesus about what it means to break the rules and buck the system for the sake of that kind of grace in a world that doesn’t always play by the same rules everybody.

See, so much of this Gospel’s point is found in those last six words. “Now that day was a Sabbath.” It matters that that day was a Sabbath day, because work wasn’t to be done on the Sabbath – the high, holy day of rest for God’s Chosen Ones. The Sabbath was for worship, rest, reverence and nothing more. Carrying anything – like a mat, for instance – was against the rules. So it’s no small thing that Jesus tells the sick man to pick up his man. And, healing in an emergency was allowed on the Sabbath, but curing a chronic disease that could be cured before or after a Sabbath was a no-no.

So Jesus shows up in just the right place – Jerusalem, at the healing pools by the Sheep Gate; at just the right time – during the Jewish festival and on the Sabbath, and he ignores the law, he breaks the rules, he heals this man who had been sick for 38 years – crippled, ignored, overlooked and stepped over.

And I think that’s our challenge and invitation, too, as believers and followers of Christ in the world these days. To choose, to work for, and to extend grace as often as we can. To acknowledge the brokenness around us and the blessings we enjoy and to do something about the disparity between the two. To not be played for fools – but to stop pretending that others would choose or deserve their misfortune any more than we deserve the abundance we enjoy.

And when I think about Maddy Brown, who will confirm her faith this morning, I think about the waters of baptism she shares with the rest of us and about how those waters are meant to stir us up – and to be stirred up – not by some mysterious, miraculous angel like the water in those pools and porticoes back in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day; but stirred up like the waters of baptism that bring the promise of healing and hope, grace and goodness for all people.

These waters are meant to be stirred up, even if that means breaking some rules to do it; stirred up, by the likes of the baptized; stirred up, by you and me; stirred up, for the sake of those who can’t… stirred up in the name of Jesus who can, and who does…at all costs, for the sake of the world.

Amen

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.