Tuesday, May 17, 2016

May 15, 2016 Sermon: "The Work of the Spirit"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Acts 2.1-21
Pentecost: The Work of the Spirit 

             If I were to ask you which Christian celebrations were the holiest, what would you say?  Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Good Friday.
            What about Pentecost?  Poor Pentecost is the red-headed stepchild of the Christian tradition, and I say that will all due respect since I am a red-headed, left-handed, stepchild!  What did Pentecost ever do to deserve being left out in the cold?  It is after all the birthday of the Christian church!  The day the Holy Spirit descended like a derecho from the western sky and swept across this world in Jesus’ absence.  Because of that, some argue it should fall after only Christmas and Easter in the hierarchy of holy days.  Yet we rarely do anything special to celebrate.  Why is that? 
            It could be for the simple reason that it hasn’t been special in the past.  We tend to be pretty traditional people, and if we haven’t developed a tradition of celebrating Pentecost in a special way…then it never rises to that level of sacredness.  
            Or…maybe it’s because we’re afraid.  Now, I know…we’re West Virginians…we’re not afraid of anything!  But I think we just might be scared of the Holy Spirit.  The birth of a baby on Christmas isn’t scary; it’s reason to rejoice!  The resurrection of Jesus on Easter isn’t scary; it’s hope incarnate!  But the arrival of the Holy Ghost, here on earth; that’s scary.  Who is it?  Where is it?  What is it?  That’s the story of Pentecost we’ve just read in Acts.
            Jesus left his disciples.  He promised not to leave them orphaned.  He promised to send a helper.  But his work was done, and they were left on their own.  If you worked with a partner everyday for years, and your partner suddenly left, never to return, you’d probably feel lost as well.  Jesus’ work was done, and now it was time for the disciples to realize they were powerful enough to continue his work.
            He told them to wait for the Spirit.  Amazingly, they listened.  They waited in the locked doors of the house.  I know the details of the story get a little murky at that point.  But suffice it to say that the Spirit moved among them, allowing them to understand one another.  While they came from different cultures and spoke different languages, somehow they were able to understand one another by way of deeper truths.    
            It was such a scene that bystanders could only imagine one possible explanation.  They must be drunk!  Peter stepped forward to try and interpret for the people what was happening.  He tells them that God is at work in this world, bringing all people together.  Times have changed.  New possibilities abound.  God’s spirit unites us despite what we think divides us.
            What’s so scary about that?  Because the Spirit doesn’t blow like a gentle breeze on a hot summer day; it blows like a violent wind, upsetting our things and our thinking.  It doesn’t comfort us; it challenges us.  It doesn’t speak with the still, small voice of God; it shouts in different languages!  It’s no wonder we don’t celebrate Pentecost.  Pentecost knocks our socks off, and the Holy Spirit’s arrival is enough to scare any sensible person. 
            The real kicker, the deep down fear that’s so scary to the disciples and to us today, is not that we are supposed to continue Jesus’ work with the help of the Spirit.  The real fear is that we are capable of continuing Jesus’ work.  It’s much easier, much more comfortable, to look at the world and say, “What a mess,” and leave it at that.  It’s much harder to look at the world and say, “What can I do?”  It’s even harder to look at our own lives and say, “What can the Holy Spirit and I do to make it better?” 
I read a fascinating article this week about why people leave their jobs.  It’s usually not because of the work or the company or even the pay.  It’s usually because of the boss.  Does that sound right to you?  Sounds right to me.  One of my favorite jobs, in terms of the actual work, was at the golf course bag room when I was a teenager.  I loved the work!  Received good pay!  But I dreaded going to work everyday, because of the guy who “managed” us, and by that I mean the guy who sat in a chair and yelled at us all day.              There’s a guy in France who’s actually suing his former boss, because he bored him to bad health.  By some counts, as many as 60-70% of all employees are disengaged at work.  In other words, they’re not excited about what they do.  And it’s largely because the person who manages them does it badly. 
What in the world does that have to do with Pentecost?  The same thing that’s happening to most workers today is what’s happening to the Holy Spirit.  We’re not utilizing our helper, the Holy Spirit, to its full potential.  We’re locking it in a cubicle and leaving it there rather than allowing it full access to our lives!  That’s what’s happened to Pentecost. 
            The Holy Spirit is God’s presence in this world.  Like the wind, you may not always see it…but you can certainly hear it, feel it, and sense it.  The really hard part…is utilizing it!

            To celebrate Pentecost this week, pray about your openness to the Spirit’s presence.  Invite it in.  Then use it.  Ask for advice.  Take the challenge to do the thing you could not do on your own but need to do and can with the Spirit’s help.  Make this mess of a world a better place, not by yourself, but by the grace of God’s presence through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen!     

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

May 8, 2016 Sermon: "The Hard Thing"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Acts 16.16-40
The Hard Thing

            A husband and wife are driving down the road on vacation.  “Careful!” the wife says, “You almost hit the sign!  Speaking of which, the speed limit is 35. Slow down!  Is that a Target over there?  Turn around.  Not there, it says no left turns!  That’s a curb you’re about to hit…”
            The husband stops the car and says, “What’s is going on today?”  His wife replies, “I wanted you to know how it feels when you bust in the kitchen right before dinner and play chef. 
            Whether you’re driving or cooking, it’s dangerous to be doing too many things at once.  When your attention is drawn in a dozen different directions, you’re likely to miss a thing or two along the way. 
            The same is true of today’s passage from Acts.  So much is happening at one time that I think we need to take it slowly, verse by verse.  Let’s begin.
            Verse 16.  The “we” here is a group of early Christian leaders: Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke, who is thought to be narrating the story.  They’re fresh off the Greyhound after traveling to town on a missionary journey.  Philippi was a Roman territory, so they’re still in Roman lands.  They meet a young slave girl who is someone’s slave.  She apparently had an above-average connection to the Big Guy Upstairs and, like all the most famous televangelists, they turned that into quite the cash cow.  She told people their fortunes and they paid her owner in Roman coin. 
            Verse 17.  When she saw Paul and his rag-tag group of missionaries, she immediately knew they were different and latched onto them like kids on an ice cream truck.  She screamed out for everyone to hear, “God sends them here to save you!”  Keep in mind these locals trust the woman, so when she speaks people will listen. 
            Verse 18.  But poor ol’ Paul, even though she sees their true and decent intent, doesn’t know how to have a good time and gets annoyed with her.  He commands the spirit who gives her such a good connection to leave, and it does. 
            Verse 19.  Paul may be feeling better, but the women’s employers are not.  They’ve just lost a huge chunk of change.  Out of revenge, they drag Paul and Silas to the judges.  (Luke and Timothy must have been out playing golf.) 
            Verses 20-21.  Isn’t it funny how people change their stories?  The slave-owners don’t say why they really brought Paul and Silas to the judge.  They really came because Paul and Silas interrupted their business.  They got in their pocketbook.  But instead of just saying that, which might make them sound…greedy, they make up some story about them disturbing the Roman peace.  They say, “These foreign men have come into our country and disrespected our way of life!”  Now that will preach in any society, won’t it!  There’s a powerful sermon in their greed masked as hate, but that’s not the sermon today.  We need to keep on marching, for the story is far from over. 
            Verses 22-23.  Everybody went along with the story, so it must have been more acceptable to be a racist than a millionaire.  Paul and Silas were beaten mercilessly.  Do you know what a flogging is?  I could tell you, but you don’t want to know.  It’s brutal.  And violent.  A lot like lynching.  And they should’ve gone to a hospital, but instead they’re taken to jail, locked up, and ordered under supervision. 
            Verses 24-25.  For all they’ve been through, Paul & Silas show remarkable resilience.  In spite of their pain, they push through by praising God, singing hymns and saying prayers.  There’s another great sermon in that moment.  No matter what you’re going through, perhaps especially when times are toughest, praise God.  Count your blessings, name them one by one!  That’s a great sermon, but that’s not this one.  The story is about to take a dramatic turn.
            Verse 26.  God enters the scene, and God is clearly not happy with what has happened in this Philippian town.  After the earthquake, Paul and Silas are no longer shackled or caged.  But they don’t go anywhere.  Why not run?  Perhaps they couldn’t after their beating.  Or perhaps they had more work to do.
            Verse 27.  The poor man is ready to commit suicide.  He sees the open doors and assumes that means the prisoners, which he had been personally assigned to oversee, escaped.  If he follows through with this, it will only make a bad situation worse. 
            Verses 28-29.  Paul and Silas hadn’t left after all, and they selflessly stopped the man.  It would’ve been in their best interest to let their jailer kill himself, but they would do no such thing.  This man was a child of God, and our God has no interest in bloodthirsty revenge.  There’s a great sermon there.  The man who had just been their jailer now was their disciple.  But the story’s not through yet.
            Verses 30.  Why would he bring them outside?  The door’s already open.  The shackles are already off.  I think it’s because they couldn’t walk on their own.  They’d been beaten mercilessly by the same man who now aided them.  The same man who now wants to know how he can be saved? 
            Verses 31-34.  In the middle of the night, the jailer takes his own prisoners to his own house filled with his own family.  They tend their wounds, and the disciples invite them into the Christian life.  And they were all baptized.  Together.  At night.  After an earthquake.  In spite of legal recourse.  And then they ate. 
            Verses 35-36.  Well, that deescalated quickly, didn’t it?  This is all going to end quietly after all that fuss. Or is it? 
            Verse 37.  Paul studied the law.  He knew they’d been beaten and imprisoned without legal cause.  He wasn’t satisfied with simply being freed after being wronged; he wanted those responsible to have to publicly admit their wrong by escorting the missionaries out of town. 
            Verses 38-40.   So they did as Paul requested.  They escorted him and Silas out of town. 
            What are we to make of this story of slaves and earthquakes and violence and salvation?  As I’ve said, there are many sermons in this story, but what speaks to me most on this Mother’s Day, is what connects it all.  Each character in the story, at one point or another, does the hard thing.  The right thing.  Even if it costs them something. 
            The servant girl who tells the truth.  Paul and Silas who save the jailer.  The jailer’s family who cares for the prisoners.  The authorities who admit their mistake.  Everyone in the story faces at least one impossible situation, decides to do the hard thing, and faces the consequences even at their own expense. 

            That sticks out to me today especially, because that is what mothers do.  That is what grandmothers and aunts and church ladies do.  They do the right thing, even if it’s the hard thing.  May we be inspired by their example this day and always.  Amen.   

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

May 1, 2016 Sermon: "Peace...what's that?"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Psalm 67
NT: John 14.23-29
Peace...what's that? 

            This week I had a dream, a version of which I have all the time.  It was 10:30am on a Sunday morning.  I was here at the church doing what I normally do—teaching Sunday School, choir practice, greeting folks, setting out people’s paper copies of the sermon, the CD for recording, doing whatever last minute things always need to be done.  But there was something wrong.  We needed communion cups or offering plates, I can’t remember exactly what, so I ran to a nearby church to get some. 
            When I got there, they were moving a couch.  They needed help, so I helped.  Then I talked to a few folks and tried to find whatever had brought me there in the first place.  Someone went to get it for me, and before I knew it the clock said it was already 11:05. 
            Panic overtook me like a tsunami coming ashore.  I sprinted back towards the church in my Sunday best.  But getting back to the church wasn’t as easy as I hoped.  I just kept running, and I couldn’t make my way back.  Doors would slam in my face, cars would block the road, and something always kept me from my destination.  I was exhausted, my watch said 11:20, and I was sure that if I ever got back to the church you would rightfully fire me for not being here the most important time of the week. 
And then I woke up.  In a cold sweat.  Heart racing.  Panic-stricken. 
            If  it didn’t happen frequently, it would be funny.  I’m a worrier.  Anxiety seems to come as easily to me as biscuits do to gravy.  Those of you who are like me are now anxious on my behalf.  Thank you.  And those of you who don’t have anxieties rightfully think those of us who do are off our rocker. 
            Anxiety is an odd thing.  The Bible makes it clear that it’s about as useful to us as Judas was to Jesus, but then again…Judas did outlive Jesus.  Anxiety and worry have a way of sticking around, even when we know they’re no good for us. 
            I bring all of this up because the disciples are dealing with their own anxieties and worries in this week’s passage.  Jesus is about to leave them, and they’re filled with uncertainties.  He has promised not to orphan them.  He has promised the send the Holy Spirit to aid them.  He has promised God will not abandon them.  But still, they worry.  Life with Jesus has been stressful enough; will life after Jesus be even worse?   
            In today’s reading from John, Jesus tries to assuage their anxieties. Read John 14.23-29. 
            What is the opposite of anxiety?  Peace.  “Peace I leave with you.”  Peace is the opposite of anxiety, which is what makes it so fleeting in a society so overloaded with information it’s not hard to find something to be anxious about.  We don’t have to try hard, do we? 
            Yet for Jesus, over two thousand  years ago, it was of great importance that his disciples not be anxious.  Not be nervous.  Not be fearful of life after his death.   Why did that matter so much to Jesus?  Because he came to give us peace. 
            Let’s think for a minute about what kind of peace Jesus left us.  The passage says it’s not the peace the world gives.  Peace in the world’s sense is an absence of conflict.  Since we’re talking about dreams, that kind of peace is the stuff of beauty queen dreams.  Peace in the sense of an absence of conflict if a fairy tale.  It won’t happen in this world. 
The peace Jesus gives us different.  In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word used for “peace” means “the tranquil state of a soul, content with its earthly lot.”  That’s a totally different concept than the world’s peace.  The peace Jesus gives is not dependent on the absence of conflict.  Rather, it assumes there will be conflict.  You will have reasons to worry, reasons to be anxious, reasons to be stressed.  Sometimes even good ones.  But you don’t have to if you find a tranquil state in your soul, where you are content with your earthly lot. 
Some of you may be thinking, as we asked in Bible Study, “But how?”  The disciples could look him in the eye and hear his promise of peace yet even they didn’t get it!  How do we get that peace Jesus promises?  I need to end this sermon, for heaven’s sake, and you know that I don’t have the answer—I worry even in my dreams! 
So I did what we all do when we don’t have the answer; I searched for answers.  I read everything I could get my hands on this week about anxiety and peace.  Here are a few helpful hints I learned from a combination of theologians and psychologists and sociologists.   Perhaps one or two will help you. 
One.  When you have a big problem causing you anxiety and a lack of peace, solve it.  Rationally discern if it’s fixable and how you would go about doing it. 
Two.  Embrace chaos and conflict.  Realize that it is the way of the world.  You cannot control everything.  So why try? 
Three.  Pray.  When you get stressed, pray.  When you get anxious, pray.  Stop what you are doing and thinking, go to a private space, and tell God all about it. 
Four.  Smile.  Even if you have to fake it.  Make yourself happy even for a moment and see how that changes you.  If it helps, carry a photo of someone or something that always gives you peace, and pull it out whenever you need to. 
Five.  Be thankful.  Instead of dwelling on what is bothering you, count all the things that bless you.  By focusing on gratitude, our entire outlook on life changes.  There is literally no room for worry when we are grounded in gratitude to God. 
These are just a few examples of ways to move beyond anxieties which I found this week.  I’m going to try them, and I invite you to do the same.  I worry they won’t work very well, but…ha ha. 

One that wasn’t mentioned is what we’re about to do, and I have always found it awfully peaceful--taking communion.  During prayer time after we’ve eaten our bread and while we’re holding our cup, let’s focus on praying for Christ’s peace.  Peace he left us long ago; peace we still struggle to hang onto now; peace we still seek earnestly every day.  Amen.   

April 24, 2016 Sermon: "Happily Ever After"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: John 13.31-35
NT: Rev. 21.1-6
Happily Ever After

            I know a woman who reads books backwards.  Sort of.  Every time she starts a book, she reads the last chapter first, and then goes back to the beginning.  Do any of you do that?  She says it’s interesting to know where it ends and then try to figure out along the way how it eventually gets there. 
            We all have our own ways of doing things.  How do you eat an Oreo?  Do you eat cookie first, icing first, or the whole thing together?  How do you eat a cupcake?  Icing first?  Cake first?  Do you take cake off the bottom and make a sandwich of the icing?  What about pizza?  Crust first or tip first?  Everybody has their own way of doing it, and we all think our way is the best and only way.  What if the same is true of our faith? 
            Picking up where we left off last week, let’s think about the afterlife.  We normally think about where we go as individuals after we die.  Like heaven and hell.  You can also think about the life you leave behind after you move on.  Like the saints of our lives that have taught us how to live better.  Then you have Revelation 21, which throws a monkey wrench in the whole thing.  Sort of. 
            Presbyterians sometimes get picked on for not preaching on Revelation, so let the record show that I am a Presbyterian preaching on Revelation on April 24, 2016!  Now, Revelation is a…strange… book.  Casual Bible-readers often mistake it as a blueprint for the end of the world.  Biblical scholars see it as a hopeful vision of what God intends for the world.  So which is it? 
            If you’ve ever tried reading Revelation on your own at home to figure that out, then bless your heart.  It’s a tough book!  It’s confusing and confounding and sometimes just plain crazy!  That’s because the guy who wrote it, John, was probably imprisoned on an island serving time doing hard manual labor when he wrote it.  His writing shows the limits to which his mind and body were pushed by his captors. 
            So let’s talk about it.  We typically think of Revelation as an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world, right?  When everything is going down the drain and all hope has been lost, right?  When this place is no longer of any value and everyone who means anything to God has gone on to live with God elsewhere. 
            But then we read today’s passage, which speaks of a new heaven and a new earth where God lives with the creation.  It almost sounds…hopeful.  And pleasant.  And comforting.  You could almost insert the phrase, “Happily ever after,” and no one would give it a second thought.  Because by the end of the passage, which is almost the end of the Bible, the world is as it should be.  As it was created in Genesis.  No separation from our Creator; we live together in harmony.  No more death.  No more pain.  Happily ever after. 
            When you’re late for work or your loved one is on the way to the ER or you’re wallowing in shame for something you know you shouldn’t have done, it’s easy to lose site of the end of the story.  But the end of the story has not changed.  God will make all things right.  And this passage at the end of the Bible tells us exactly why. 
            Because God wants it that way.  God says, “It is done!  I am the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.”  When you’re a child and your parent tells you that’s the way it is because they said so, you have no choice but to accept it.  We have no choice, praise the Lord, but to accept that it is done.  God is the alpha and the omega, and God knows how the story will end.  God will make things right.  Some people call that the end of the world, some call it the afterlife; Revelation calls it a new heaven and a new earth, where we live with God in harmony once again.  Doesn’t that sound…heavenly?        
            I think knowing the end of the Bible’s story changes the way we read the rest of the book.  The way we live our life.  When we realize that God’s in charge and God intends to redeem the creation, then we have but one choice.  Join God.  Participate in the redeeming of the world.  

            Revelation is a story about perspective.  While we would all love to know every detail of the life after this one, we don’t.  We simply don’t know.  We do know how the Bible begins.  God lives with humans in the Garden of Eden.  And we know how it ends.  In exactly the same way.  God joins us.  Will you join God?  Amen.