Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pentecost Sermon ... At Last

Many of you have toiled and prayed with me through this month, when I was asked to preach at St. Matthew's. Many of you have offered solid advice about methods and sources, for which I am grateful. And many of you kept me in your prayers when I was paralyzed by fear and perfectionism. And you've been kind to me , especially over the last few days, when I was freakin' out on my FaceBook postings, ignoring too many e-mails and phone calls, and just generally being a PITA. Thank you for your kindness.

I promised to post the sermon, and here it is.

And here's the altar of the very lovely church where I preached today.

Obviously, I didn't provide hyperlinks in my sermon, but I've added them here for your reference.

You may recall that the vicar specifically asked me to "weave in" to the texts some focus on our diocesan relationship with Lui (in Sudan).

But here's the very best thing: For all my angst and drama about the prep work, I had an absolute blast in the pulpit today. I enjoyed preaching. I was animated and relaxed. God help me! I'm almost tempted to volunteer to preach again sometime ... somewhere. But I hope the lessons of the past month will spare me some of the drama.

Thanks, friends, for hanging with me over this crazy month!

Perhaps I'll make another blogpost where I reflect on sermon prep, learning the difference between Bible study/exegesis and preaching, having a printer die at the most unfortunate time, staying up 'til 5 a.m. writing a sermon, and very nearly oversleeping for the hour drive to this parish. But for now, just the sermon.

I'll appreciate your feedback.

Pentecost Sunday (Year B, 2009)
Lisa Fox
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Mexico MO

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104: 25-35,37
Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Good morning.

I am a parishioner at Grace/Jefferson City. I spent about 12 days in the Diocese of Lui in 2006, and my life has not been the same since. I am also, now, the chair of the committee that coordinates the covenant relationship between the Dioceses of Missouri and Lui.

It is an honor and a pleasure to be here with you today. I am grateful to Christina for this invitation. And I know that you have some of that “Pentecost zeal” by the way you welcomed the Waters of Hope riders this week and by the in-gathering you will have today.

Today’s readings tell me about how we should and could be living our lives in line with the Holy Spirit. But I know I fall short. Do you ever wonder what it would mean if the Spirit really got a-hold of your life? I sure do!

In all today’s readings, we witness the unexpected. And we have the promise of God’s presence with us.

What shall we make of the prophet Ezekiel? With the Israelites scattered and beaten down, “the hand of God” takes Ezekiel into a valley full of dry bones. God asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And Ezekiel answers. But did Ezekiel answer with vigor: “O Lord GOD, you know!” Or did he answer with skepticism and resignation, “O Lord GOD, you know …”? In either case, God did the unthinkable, the unimaginable: He knit the bones together, put sinew and flesh on them, and breathed life into them.

Some scholars have written that Ezekiel had looked on the valley of dry bones with his own eyes, but came to see with God’s eyes. He came to see that, indeed, these dry bones could live – despite all expectation.

I tell you. I have been to the “valley of dry bones.” When I went to our companion Diocese of Lui in 2006, I looked with my eyes, and I doubted that those dry bones could live. The shallow wells were running dry, the crops were failing, and the people were starving. I wondered whether those dry bones could live. I wondered if the people of Lui could be “resurrected.” But I came to see with God’s eyes -- the eyes of faith and Gospel hope and hard work. The Diocese of Lui is coming alive again. Thanks to parishes like yours, there is clean drinking water in several archdeaconries. More children are now going to school. There is the beginning of hope. Together we are helping those dry bones knit themselves together.

I remember the day I left Lui. Very many people said some version of this: “Please remember us. Do not forget us.” I was struck by how important it is to be remembered. More to the point: to be re-membered – to be bound together in one body, one in Christ. As we are re-membered, we in the Church grow stronger as we knit ourselves together like the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision.

But, to do that, we have to see with God’s eyes. We have to embrace the marvelous hope that God and Christ and the Holy Spirit give us – the hope, the belief that these dry bones can live again.

Luke brings us back to the Pentecost day. After skulking back to their homes or inns on the night we call Good Friday, the disciples woke early on a Sunday morning to learn Jesus was alive again! They spent the next 40 days with Jesus – eating with him, visiting with him, continuing to learn from him. Imagine the joy those disciples must have felt!

Then – as suddenly as he came back to them after the resurrection – he left them again, in the Feast of the Ascension we marked 10 days ago. The early verses of the book of Acts tells us that in the midst of a conversation, Jesus ordered them to stay in Jerusalem and “wait there for the promise of the Father.” Then he said:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. [Acts 1:8-11]
What do you suppose the disciples did for the ten days between the Ascension and the Pentecost? They must have longed for Jesus, whom they had lost not just once – but (now) twice. They must have grieved the loss of their friend, their rabbi, the Messiah. They must have wondered: “If I didn’t “get it” about the crucifixion and resurrection … if I didn’t even recognize Jesus when I met him on the road to Emmaus and he walked with us …. If I could not recognize him then, how will I recognize this “Holy Spirit” he promises us?” [Thanks to blogger friend Fran for sparking this insight.]

More daunting still, Jesus left them with One Very Tall Order: To be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This to a bunch of guys who had never traveled more than a few days’ walk from their homes. Surely they wondered: How can we possibly carry this gospel – this good news – to “the ends of the earth??

So they hung out in Jerusalem and assembled on the day of Pentecost. Now, Pentecost was not invented by us Christians. It was a Jewish festival that occurred 50 days after Passover. It was one of three annual pilgrimage feasts when the entire household of Israel gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the goodness of God toward the nation. Every Jew was supposed to get to Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival!

And so the disciples were there. Still hanging around, awaiting further instructions, waiting for this “spirit of power” that Jesus had promised them.

Listen again to Luke’s account of what happened then:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

There was no mistaking that a mighty power had come amongst them. This isn’t some sweet image of a gentle dove speaking softly. Here we have rushing winds, tongues of fire, and a bunch of guys suddenly able to speak in languages they didn’t even know! God wasn’t going to risk subtlety on them! ;-)

It was such a crazy scene that all the Jews came rushing in, to see what was going on. The Scripture tells us that “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” came to hear and see. And every one of them – regardless of nationality – heard the disciples speaking in their very own language.

Implausible? I think not. For this is very much like my experience among the Moru people in Lui. We spoke different languages. Sometimes, we had translators available; sometimes we did not. But the Christians in Lui greeted the Christians from Missouri with a warmth that I still find amazing. We were able to find community despite the language difference. To me, this felt like the “Kingdom of God among us.” … OK. It wasn’t “cloven tongues of fire.” But it was a bridge built between very different people.

You’ve read the Book of Acts. You know that, indeed, the apostles fanned out across the known world, preaching the Gospel to everyone – male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free.

What empowered them to do that? The Pentecost event. They experienced the presence of the risen Christ that day, and it transformed them.

The apostles who had been grieving and hiding … suddenly found a boldness that turned the world upside down.

A few moments ago, we heard the Gospel of John, with a part of the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper – before he was crucified. You know how it is: When you know you are seeing someone for the last time – if you have the nerve – you try to tell them all the important things. You try to distill all your insights and hopes into a few words. I think that’s what Jesus was doing.

The disciples didn’t know that Jesus was about to be arrested and killed.

But here is Jesus, assuring them that he and the Father are going to send the Paraclete – the Advocate, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit – to be with them after Jesus is gone from the earth. He promises the Holy Spirit will come, and will be as real and present to them as Jesus was.

During my time in Lui, we visited all their convocations to listen to their concerns and hopes for our companion relationship. I vividly recall one man in Lui who said: “Many have come, and they said they would return, but they did not. But you have not forgotten us. You have come and returned again.”

The Evangelist John makes it clear that the Holy Spirit will be every bit as real and active in our world as Jesus was in the three decades of his life on earth.

Do we believe it?

Here are the things I wrestle with:

If we believe Scripture is true – and I do! – then God has given us much more power than most of us dare to claim or exercise in our day-to-day lives.

If we can see with the eyes of God – and not only our own jaded eyes – then (like Ezekiel) we can work alongside God to help bring a people “as good as dead” back to life. We can do it in Lui. We can do it in Mexico. We can do it in Jefferson City.

Can we do as the apostles did on that Pentecost day? Can we give ourselves wholly to God to testify – in whatever avenues we have – to the power and presence of Jesus Christ still present and alive to us? Do we dare give our whole selves to God’s use in proclaiming the Good News?

Can we take Jesus at his word – that he has sent the Holy Spirit to be his presence in our world, in our church, and in our individual lives? And can we dare to let that mighty, transforming rushing wind into our lives, our churches, and our world?

The whole arc of the Scriptures tells me that we have tremendous power, through Jesus Christ, if only we will claim it and live into it.



Blogger susan s. said...

Amen! Thanks for putting it up.

5/31/2009 7:02 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

Thanks --- 120 the Bible says - a few men and many women - Mary, mother of Jesus.

5/31/2009 7:16 PM  
Blogger Suzer said...

Wonderful! Thank you for sharing it.

5/31/2009 7:24 PM  
Blogger Catherine + said... I knew you had it all in you...and it found its way out...and you enjoyed it...see? Excellent!

5/31/2009 7:52 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

Good show ... I knew you'd do fine!

5/31/2009 7:57 PM  
Blogger CC Alto said...

And the best part is you enjoyed it. Yea.

5/31/2009 8:03 PM  
Blogger Roberta Grey said...

Amazing Lisa! You nailed it! I know that you got blood, sweat and tears in those words, but honey - you got a gift! Not only did you make the scripture come to life, you made it personal - something that has been missing for me for awhile now. Thank you for sharing this.

5/31/2009 8:36 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

I know, Ann. But when I had to whack my first draft (2500 words) down to 1500 words, very much got left on the cutting room floor. :(

Thanks for the kind words, y'all. I am grateful. But I know it could have been better. If there is a "next time," I now have a little better idea of how to do this without driving myself into paroxysms of panic.

Yes, Catherine, I really enjoyed the delivery. I wish you could see/hear the sermon with my inflections, facial expressions, and the hand gestures. [One would think I'm Italian, the way I "talk" with my hands.] ... I've spent enough time at conference podiums that I am pretty comfortable being relatively theatrical. I totally had a blast in the pulpit.

Let me say again: I know it's not a brilliant sermon. I am kicking myself for letting time get away from me. Next time ... If there is a next time .....

5/31/2009 9:19 PM  
Blogger Joanna Depue said...

Well done, good and faithful servant! There's no doubt you will be asked to preach elsewhere, even - though prophets are oft tskd in their own land - at Grace in the not too distant future. The WOH ride provided much needed resources in Lui and I suspect your sermon provided refreshment and nourishment to its listeners. Blessings all around!

5/31/2009 9:31 PM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

Brava! Home run first time in the batter's box!

5/31/2009 11:25 PM  
Blogger Göran Koch-Swahne said...


6/01/2009 3:55 AM  
Blogger Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Very good, Lisa!

6/01/2009 4:05 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well done, my friend. Well done indeed. I only wish my first time up at bat had been as good.

Your observations that sermon writing is one part theology, one part dramatic presentation is spot on. I'm sure this sermon will linger on the ears and live long in the hearts of the original hearers not so much because of your words, but because of how you said them.

If what you say from the words on paper don't come from a place of truth in you, everyone will know it and they won't listen to you.

That was clearly not so, from what I read.

So, I'm wishing we had had a video cam of this. Even so, the written word is not exactly 'chopped liver'.

Well done. Brava.

6/01/2009 7:44 AM  
Blogger --Susan said...

Ms. Fox,
Well done.
Thanks for sharing.

6/01/2009 11:35 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thanks for your kind comments.

Yes, Elizabeth, this came from a true part of mu soul. No doubt about it.

6/01/2009 11:45 PM  
Blogger StLouisJohn said...


I'm with Roberta! This is EXCELLENT! You DO have a gift!

To me, the best sermons are those that take the ancient texts of the Bible and show The Story to be relevant to the current day.

Dry bones, Lui, your own Pentecost that you refer to as more the Kingdom of God than tongues of fire...

Well done indeed! I wish I could have heard it in person!

6/02/2009 4:33 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thanks, John.

Personally, I am glad that my 1st-ever sermon was spoken to folks I didn't know. Maybe someday I'll have the opportunity and nerve to preach where I know people. We shall see.

6/05/2009 10:37 PM  
Blogger Thomas B. Woodward said...

One of my frustrations with my computer dying was waiting to read this sermon. Now that I have read it I am overwhelmed by its power and truth.

Way to go, Lisa! I'm sure there was electricity in the air between the preacher and those who heard - it is still available in the reading.

6/09/2009 9:56 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Awwwww ... Thanks for your kind comment, Tom.

Alas, no, I didn't feel any electricity with the congregation. They were remarkably non-responsive. They didn't even chuckle at my chuckle lines. However, I did get good feedback afterwards.

It ain't for nuthin' that they call us God's Frozen Chosen. ;-)

6/09/2009 10:32 PM  

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