Sunday, May 27, 2012

Led by the Spirit

“Led by the Spirit”
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Richmond, Virginia
Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2012


Through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, we are led into ever newer, constantly expanding understandings of God’s character and nature and empowered to proclaim these truths to others.

We’re very curious about people’s last words before death.  We think that in those words, we will hear some great word of wisdom that sums up what a person thought life was about, or we may get some glimpse into the next world as a person departs this one.  Some people’s reported last words are mundane.    Bing Crosby supposedly said, “That was a great game of golf, fellers.”  Some are humorous, “I never should have switched from scotch to martinis,” Humphrey Bogart reportedly said.  Some are defiant.   “A King should die standing,” said Louis XVIII of France.  Some are humble.   “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have,” Leonardo Da Vinci reportedly said.  And Thomas Edison gave hope to those around him, “It’s very beautiful over there.”

 More than anything, the living desire words to give them peace as a loved one departs this world.  We’re certainly concerned about our loved one at the hour of death, but deep down, we want a word that assures us we will be all right in their absence. 

Jesus’ Departure

 The gospel reading today takes place in an extended account by John of Jesus’ farewell discourse.  It runs from chapter 13 through chapter 17.     Jesus is gathered in the Upper Room in Jerusalem with his disciples to eat the Passover meal.  Jesus teaches them about servanthood not by lecturing them but by washing their dirty feet.  He then goes on to tell them that he is leaving.   He is departing. He is going away, and he is telling them what he thinks they need to know to carry on.  And the disciples are trying to find some glimmer of comfort in his disturbing words.

The disciples don’t really understand.  Though we may anticipate someone’s imminent death, we’re never prepared for it.  We really don’t know how we’ll respond until that moment arrives.    They don’t understand why he has to go away.  Or maybe they’re in denial.  They’re afraid that  the movement they’ve helped him start will just wither on the vine.

 You can hear the whispers around the table, “He’s just getting started.  He’s young, energetic, and charismatic.   He’s built a large following.  Sure there’s some push back from some pretty powerful people—the government and the religious authorities—but isn’t that a sign that his message has power?  If he’d stay and see this through, who knows what good could come of this?   Our whole religious tradition could be transformed from a narrowly focused sect focused only on proper worship in the temple where religious leaders get rich, into a universally available path to salvation.  He could even change the government—with all his power and charisma, he could get enough followers to help us finally overthrow Rome!”

 But they were afraid for other reasons.  They did not think that they could carry on his work without him.  They didn’t know what he knew.  They didn’t have the courage he had.  “You’ve got to bear witness to me, tell others what I told you,” he’d told them.  “And oh, yes, some of you might get killed for that.” 

 But more than anything--and this was the scariest thing of all--they had really believed that God had come to them in Jesus.  Incarnation we call it now—the divine in human flesh.  When they were with Jesus they felt close to God.  They felt loved, accepted, and forgiven.  They had the courage to go out and tell others what they had seen and learned about God from Jesus.  They knew that as long as Jesus was with them, they would be all right.  But he said he was leaving.  How would they know what to do?  How would they know what to say?  How would they have enough courage to speak up when confronted and challenged by the authorities?  And more than anything, how would they know and experience God’s presence with them, guiding them, and protecting them if Jesus left them?

 Searching for God’s Presence

 Many people in our world, perhaps more than a few of us here today, wonder where Jesus is, how he could be found, contacted, experienced.  And without a physical incarnation of God to touch and talk to, we wonder if God hasn’t abandoned us and our world.  We, like the first disciples, are struckdumb when pressed to give an account of our faith in a God we cannot see or touch.

 It’s hard for us to discern how a God of love, justice, and power is at work in a world where terrorists try to advance their cause through indiscriminate killing, and where, unfortunately, the rest of us are moved to respond to those attacks with more attacks where, unfortunately, more innocent people also die.  It is hard for us to recognize the imprint of the divine purpose in a world where a significant percentage of our population is obese, and yet scores can’t find enough food to eat.   It is hard for us to discover truth in a world where our most potent form of political rhetoric is not dispassionate discussion of real facts, but pointed personal attack.  It is hard to see how God could be at work in a political process where the main value is neither fairness nor truth, but money.  Someone recently said, “Washington D. C. is no longer a city of Republicans and Democrats.  It’s now just a city of rich people.”

 Is God with us, or has God abandoned us, left us here all alone to try to figure things out?

 We feel this in our personal lives.  How many times have we been in a relationship that unraveled because we could no longer talk without arguing?  How many times have we just run out of energy because we could not juggle all the demands of life—a job, children who need discipline, guidance, and love, parents who require attention and care, a church that asks us to give our time and gifts?   How many times have you wondered how to juggle it all?  How many times have you felt that understanding and handling life’s challenges was all up to you—you alone? 

 Some of you are here on Fridays when lunch is served to our guests who need a meal—and much more.  Some of you have gotten to know a number of them.  Many Fridays, after the meals have been served and the cleanup has begun, I think to myself, “Who are these people, really?  What are their stories?  How is it that life has become so hard for so many people?  Where is God in their lives?  What can we as God’s people do to really make a difference?”

 We do get to know many of the people who come and some of our members have a gift for knowing our guests by name and knowing something of their stories.  And yes, even many of the people who are here on Fridays can be heard thanking not only those who prepare the meal, but God for God’s goodness.  Isn’t that humbling? 

 I heard not long ago that Tony Borst, one of the guests who’d also worked here on Fridays, had died.  Not long after I came to Centenary, I met Tony.  He came to the office to talk one day.  He brought his girlfriend.  They’d found an apartment to rent and were going to get married.  They were happy.  They just needed help with making a phone call to their prospective landlord to verify that they had the deposit in order.  We helped them with that.  But I heard that Tony had passed away.  If you google Tony’s name, you’ll find an article dated November 3, 2008 in the Richmond Times Dispatch.  It tells of Tony living on  Devil’s Kitchen Island and being beaten one night by some guys with a baseball bat.  He endured the pain through the night after some friends had found him and brought him to warmth around their fire.  The next morning, a friend called 911 and rescuers came.  They had to figure out how to get Tony off the island to medical treatment.  Should they get a boat and get him across the river, or try a helicopter landing on the small island?   They decided to hoist him up on to a railroad bridge in the James River and carry him from there to be transported to VCU Medical Center.  Where was God in Tony’s life?  Where is God in our lives as we try to figure out how to relate to and care for people like Tony?

What do we do when we can’t easily discern God’s presence or what God wants of us—when it seems that Jesus is nowhere to be found?

Why Jesus Had to Leave

 The hard thing for the disciples as they listened to Jesus’ last words, telling them that he had to leave, was that they couldn’t begin to comprehend that something good was going to come from those words.    There was an important reason Jesus had to leave.    He didn’t put it quite this explicitly, but in his human body, he like us, was limited by time and space.  He could only be with one group of people at one time.  When he left, he said, he was going to send his Spirit, and his Spirit would be with all people, in all places at all times.  He’d only had a short time on this earth.  He hadn’t been able to tell the disciples everything he wanted them to know, but that was all right, because his Spirit would be with them, guiding them, giving them strength and power. 

Jesus calls His spirit the Advocate.  Yes, it’s a legal term and suggests that his Spirit would  be like a lawyer arguing the case of Jesus’ followers in a court of law—certainly something they’d need as they would have to give an account to the Jewish and Roman authorities of their deepest beliefs and convictions, often under the threat of some kind of sanction or punishment.

 Jesus’ promise is remarkable, really.  “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

“When you don’t know what to say, don’t worry, I will be with you to help you.  When you don’t understand how I am present in the world, that’s all right.   My Spirit will give you insight and knowledge.  When you don’t know how to carry out the great mission I’m entrusting to you, that’s all right.  I will show you the next steps to take.  When you face persecution and are afraid, I will give you the strength to be true and faithful.  I will be with you.  I am  not forsaking you or abandoning you like some weak-kneed, unreliable, unfit parent.  I am leaving so that you can experience more of me, and so that all those who come after you in the future, will know that I am with them.” 

Jesus is promising, “The God you’ve witnessed in me is more vast and amazing than you can begin to fathom.  You will face trials and challenges and problems and questions in the future as you try to be faithful.  If I told you about all those things now you’d be overwhelmed.    But be sure of this, my Spirit will unfold to you ever new understandings of the one who sent me, and who sends you.  You will never be alone.”

 The Spirit Still Leads

 And isn’t that the promise we need to hear on this Pentecost Sunday?  And isn’t that really the miracle of Pentecost, not just that a group of Jesus’ followers gathered in Jerusalem had an ecstatic experience of God and were enabled to communicate across language barriers, but that God’s presence is universally available as a gift to all of humanity?  And that this Spirit will lead us into truth when we are confused, and will remind us of the love of God revealed in Jesus when we are afraid, or lonely, or discouraged?

 The Holy Spirit is always leading us forward.

 Can’t you see that?  Haven’t you seen that in your life?  How did you get to this point today?  If someone had sat you down when you were a teenager and said, “You know you’re going to have struggles understanding your vocation and your identity.   You’re going to have some tough times getting through school, and finding a job.  You’ll work for awhile in places you’re not all that happy, or feel that you just don’t fit.   You’re going to have this illness, or this reversal.  Your children will face these problems.  You’re going to have dark nights when the faith you received as a child just doesn’t seem adequate any longer, but it will be all right.  I will be with you.  My Spirit is with you, guiding you into the truth, reminding you of my gracious and loving presence with you.”

 Haven’t we seen that as a church? Two hundred years ago, if someone had said, “Your church is going to be located in a capital city, but that city will experience devastation because of a great war.  You will endure financial ups and downs great depressions and recessions in the economy.  You will live through a time when people are not welcomed because of their race or sexual orientation.  You will see your fortunes rise and fall as people leave downtown and the business district declines.  But do not worry, I will be with you.  I will not abandon you.  I will guide you.  I will show you the way.  I will reveal to you new truths, new understanding about God, about other people.  I will be with you.”

 And so, when I think of people like Tony whose lives have been touched by the ministry of this church, I think back to those stories I’ve heard about meetings where people discussed how they were going to respond to the hungry and homeless, and yes, sometimes hopeless here in downtown Richmond.  And through prayer and discussion and probably some disagreement, this church decided that though it did not have all the answers to all the ills of society, and though it did not know always how to make it easier for people for whom life is quite difficult because of mental illness, homelessness, histories of abuse, abandonment, and addiction, the doors would be open.  We would do what we could.  We would try to allow the presence of Jesus Christ to be made real in a world where people often feel as if God has abandoned us.

 Wasn’t that the work of the Holy Spirit, leading and guiding people as they faced difficult challenges, as they struggled to discern God’s will, as they sought to carry out the mission of Jesus? 

 Yes, we’ve lived through two centuries as a church, and have begun to look toward our third.  And we do that in confidence, not because we are all that smart, or righteous, or virtuous, but because we believe—no, we know—that  it is not all up to us.  We don’t know how we’ll make it another 100 years.  We’ll encounter challenges and problems we can’t begin to anticipate just like the first disciples faced. 

 We’ll be handed questions on morality, theology, and practice that seem daunting and difficult.  Those questions about how to be faithful disciples and a faithful church won’t be resolved automatically by some quick consensus or show of hands vote.  But we will not be stopped by our fear of the unknown.  We will not be undone over the prospect that what we think about God or other people at this moment may yet need to be stretched, changed, or altered.  We won’t worry that we don’t have all the answers, strategies, and plans in hand at this moment for the third century of ministry in the city.  We won’t be overly anxious, because like the disciples, we know that it’s not all up to us.  The Spirit of Jesus, that same Spirit they experienced in the one who loved them enough to wash their feet, to forgive them of their sins, to die on the cross—that spirit, the same spirit that was infused with God’s power to conquer death, and evil, and selfishness, that Spirit is at work in each us.  That spirit will constantly lead us, push us, and stretch us to see God and other people in new ways.  That Spirit will remind us that a power greater than ourselves is responsible for our well-being.  And that Spirit will remind us that though our cooperation, work, and prayer are required—God is leading us, taking us into the future with courage!

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