A Sermon about Pentecost and Apples

I have good news for everyone here. You have the gift of the Spirit living in you. You have enough to give to others. One of your main jobs is to notice what is being given by God and others, and to receive it. Your other job is to respond to God’s gift by giving to others.

adam-and-eve-798376_960_720There is a way of life that is bad news. It is to live believing that there is something out there—and if you had it—you would be happy. The Bible speaks of this condition in its very first story. It tells a story about how Adam and Eve thought that if they had a certain piece of fruit, they would be happy. I’ve never thought about it being funny before, but there is an element of humor. If only I had that apple, that apricot, that pear, I’d be happy! But it so honestly expresses how many of us live.

We live in a world of serpents. We live in a time in which some of our most brilliant minds are figuring out how to say in more potent ways: “that apple is really delicious.” “It will make you wise. It will fulfill you. Here, let us shine it up for you. Let us place it in the most glorious light. Let us break it open so you can see how crisp it. It is the perfect hybrid of tart and sweet.”

But the serpents and hawkers of goods do not stop there. There is also the cultivation of discontent.

“You’re really hungry. You poor child. Look, everyone else has been eating tons of apples. Way better food than what you’ve been getting. You’re not only hungry, you’re not as good looking as you should be, you’re not as smart as you could be, you’re not as loved as you could be. You are lacking in so many ways!”

“So, how ‘bout that apple?”

The most convincing lies always have a big element of truth in them. There is a lack in each of us. Augustine so eloquently identified it when he wrote in his Confessions, “Our hearts our restless God, until they find their rest in you.” Each of us is yearning for complete communion with God, others, ourselves, and creation. And that lack is not likely to be completely satisfied in this lifetime.

So we can use that lack as motivation to seek communion with God, others, ourselves, and creation. Or, we can keep trying different apples.

One reason that some apples are “forbidden fruit” is that they are in someone else’s tree. Because of that, God gave the gift of the law. Basically the law said, “Don’t take apples from your neighbor.” “Don’t think you’ve got to have that apple. Your neighbor is poor and needs it to survive.” And so God, in giving the gift the law, created a people on this earth dedicated to justice and peace.

But even with the good instructions against apple taking in the law, people kept stealing apples.

In Jeremiah 31:31 it tells us:

31 “The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord.

33 “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” (NLT)

At Pentecost, God gives God’s Spirit to us. God finds a way of tattooing our hearts. Because we have God’s very breath in us, we no longer need to live a life of taking. Because we are supplied by God, we join in the self-giving of God.

StPaul_ElGrecoThink about the life of Paul. When we first meet him in Acts, he is going around taking from others. At times taking people’s very lives. But after he receives the Spirit, he gives his life, with open handed generosity, so that others can know the good news. He works as a tent maker so that he is free to give and give and give. Even when standing in front of judges and magistrates, he doesn’t seem afraid of what they might take from him. Rather, he tries to give them something—the good news of the gospel—even when they least expect to receive.

Or think about the cross. Christ pours out his blood, his life, for others.

The good news is that Christ’s Spirit is available to us though may not always feel like it.

In the 12 steps, step seven is to ask God to work in us, and take away defects of character. In working the twelve steps, I would sometimes call my sponsor after messing up and he would say, “Well, did you ask God to take away your character defects today?” The answer was always “no.” What I really wanted to say to my sponsor was, “I already asked God a couple of months ago, is God going to do it or not?”

But I’ve come to believe that God never takes away our freedom. We always have the ability to go back to apple grabbing. So it is a daily thing, sometimes an hourly thing, sometimes a “God I need you this minute” thing. It is a constant process of opening ourselves to the Spirit.

God’s Spirit is available to us. Because of that we can give up our apple addiction. Rather than thinking that if we only had “that” our lives would be fulfilled, we can give ourselves away. In each moment we can seek to contribute, to encourage, to build up, to nudge beauty along, to inspire, to embolden, to bless.

Imagine being part of such a people. It has practical consequences. The Spirit enables the first believers to speak in foreign languages thus giving away the good news away that God has sent the Messiah. Then it says that the first converts sold their apples, so that nobody had any need. They hung out basking in an economy of generosity, while God kept adding to their numbers.

I have good news for everyone here. You have the gift of the Spirit living in you. You have enough to give to others. One of your jobs is to respond to God’s gift, by giving to others. But your main job is to welcome the gift of God’s Spirit, to enjoy that communion, and know God’s generosity toward you.

Amen

 

 

 

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Wrestling with Scripture (audio file)

Jacob and the Angel by Eugène Delacroix used via Wikicommons

Jacob and the Angel by Eugène Delacroix used via Wikicommons

What do we expect when we pick up the Bible? Will it be an information download that helps us be more powerful and successful? In this sermon I suggest that we should expect a wrestling match. (Thanks to Sarah Jobe for the sermon idea!)

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Uganda, Gays, and Missionary Positions

Uganda KingThe story is told that the Kabaka, a Ugandan tribal king, asked some of the first Christian converts to have sex with him. He killed them when they refused and they became Uganda’s first Christian martyrs. Growing up as a missionary kid in Uganda, I heard the story as a lesson on how depraved primitive Ugandans were, and how important it was for brave Christians to save Ugandans from their pagan past.

As I rethink that story as an adult—and reflect on how early missionaries helped the British colonizers—I suspect the Kabaka was less a gay rapist than an outraged king who decided to screw Christians when he realized how the white man was screwing his people.

UK-Dept. for International Development

UK-Dept. for International Development

Museveni

Today I think Museveni is less a gay hater than an outraged Ugandan president who is declaring his solidarity with his people. In his speech in which he explained why he signed the anti-gay legislation into law, he spoke of “arrogant and careless Western groups” who are “recruiting young children into homosexuality and lesbianism.” He goes on to talk about the sexually exhibitionist nature of a Western culture that keeps exposing itself to Ugandans. Finally he warns about the dangers of the oral sex promoted by Western “outsiders.”

Local Chickens

Westerners might find this laughable and confusing, and here we need to heed a Ugandan proverb “Think like a local chicken.” In the thinking of most Ugandans a tribal consciousness still exists. In the village most marriages are arranged, and spouses function as social and economic partners rather than as romantic companions. Ancestral religions still exert influence, and children are still the best form of social security. The goal of marriage is to build the clan and contribute children to the family line. Gay relationships break the chain and make little sense in a tribal context.

By DVIDSHUB

By DVIDSHUB

This is not to say that there aren’t homosexuals in tribes. But in the village people are not abstract “homosexuals.” It may be well known that Uncle Musa particularly likes to drink banana beer with Moses and go for night walks among the matoke trees with him. But, on the scale of eccentric village characters, this hardly rates. Since no one speaks of Uncle Musa as being “gay,” there is rarely social or physical violence against him or “his kind.”

Gay Ugandans

Here, if we are still trying to see from the perspective of a local chicken, Ugandan homosexuals emerged as Westerners taught Ugandans their ideas of romance, autonomy, individuality, sex without children, and marriage for love. Westerners, including Christian missionaries, created gay Ugandans. Museveni is basically right.

Since Uganda is one of the largest African recipients of U.S. aid, Museveni is sometimes belittled as a kept girl of the West. Because of the monetary stakes, Museveni vacillated on whether to sign the bill. But as in the culture wars of the West, homosexuality is highly symbolic in Uganda. The vast majority of Ugandans (around 90%) oppose gay rights. Signing the bill was ultimately a high-profile way of saying that he stands with the traditions of his people against outsiders. It is not that complicated.

New Missionaries

Interestingly, a new kind of missionary—the gay activist—fails to understand this. For people like Roger Ross Williams, producer of the movie God Loves Uganda, the devil is evangelical missionaries, Ugandans are duped innocents, and LGBT Ugandans are the new souls to be saved. Armed with such a self-righteous story, Williams is likely to evangelize in as “arrogant and careless” a way as the missionaries before him.

As a gay Christian, I have empathy for the passions of both Christian and gay-activist missionaries. Christian missionaries have created hundreds of hospitals and orphanages; have fed, clothed, and paid school fees for tens of thousands of children; and have introduced millions to a loving God. On the other hand, gay-activist missionaries will protect an emerging and persecuted sexual minority in the increasingly capitalist, urban, post-tribal, Uganda.

But let’s at least get the story right. It’s not that Museveni is being a primitive pagan. Museveni, as a representative of his people, is wary of being on the receiving end of all our missionary activity. Let’s temper our outrage with an understanding of how Western influence has created a crazy complex and difficult time in Uganda. Maybe, as we face the truth, if we still want to have relations with Uganda, we can be less coercive, and more versatile and humble this time.

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Epiphany Meditation

Many of us are the intellectual great, great, grandchildren of a Greek philosopher named Anaxagoras, who in 465 BC looked at our sun and said something to the effect of, “he isn’t a god. The sun is an it. It’s just a hot stone.” And so began the disenchantment of the world. We moderns know that stars are hot, very hot. And that they tend to be big, very big. So it might seem unlikely that big, hot, star would wander off course, and come close in order to mark a small town, and a small house, and a small child.

256px-Magi_(1)The gospel of Matthew invites into a world of meaning and mystery. It invites us to be the spiritual great, great, grandchildren, of magi. People, who like most of us, were Gentiles. Men who spent their time captivated by the heavens, believing they had something to reveal and tell us.

Psalm 19 says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

And so here is a story of men from the end of the world, who hear stars speaking, who hear the voice of the heavens as they pour forth knowledge. As they make their way to Israel, the revelation they find is not a philosophy, or a science, or a religion. It’s a person.
As Rick has been reminding us in his emails, reality is personal. We can believe along with the grandchildren of Anaxagoras that stars are just so much meaningless, leftover, gaseous flatulence from the big, well, let’s call it a bang. Or, we can believe that stars in all their hotness, and bigness, and beauty, reveal the glory of God. And surprisingly enough, as the wise men learn, the greatest glory of God is this: a little, vulnerable, person named Jesus.

We are busy, stressed, urban, scientific, cynical people. I doubt that many of us get to wander out to the country much and listen for star speech. But let us not be completely deaf to them. As we celebrate Epiphany, let us pause and hear. Let us listen to how they reveal the glory of God. Let us think about the star around which we revolve, that day to day gives us warmth and light. As we feel the warmth of star light on our skin, let us know that it is a gift, and there is a giver.

Matthew says that when the star stopped, the wise men were overwhelmed with joy. Now they had the chance of a lifetime: to bow, to worship, to pay homage, to give gifts back to the one who had given them the stars.

Today marks the day that a star stopped above a small town, and a small house, and a small child. Can you hear what the star is revealing? What will you do? How will you respond?

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Don Jon gets it wrong

ImageFor better or worse, I recently went to see the movie Don Jon, a movie about a porn addict. With WRAP week coming up (white ribbons against pornography), it would have been nice if Don Jon had lured millions of porn addicts into theaters (it features dozens of carefully edited porn clips to narrowly avoid a NC-17 rating) and then given them the antidote. Unfortunately, it mostly just hawks another drug. See my full review here.

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Desire and Celibacy

DesireDesire! It is the fire in us that makes lovers, consumers, dreamers, addicts, saints. I was recently asked to give a short talk at a ReImagine gathering about desire. I chose to talk about the struggle sexual desire has been for me, and how I eventually decided to take a vow of celibacy. The talk is here.

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Dismissing Jesus

Dismissing JesusGiven that I’m a homo, you can probably imagine that I’ve had my moment of, “do I believe any of this Christian stuff anyway?” In the end though, Jesus fascinates me and keeps me trying to figure him out.

Because of that, I’m delighted by Doug Jones’s new book Dismissing Jesus: How We Evade the Way of the Cross. He writes about all the ways we’ve domesticated and dumbed down Jesus. He helps us recover the radical revolutionary that Jesus is. See my full review here.

For another perspective, an admittedly smart one, see Brad Littlejohn’s critical review. I can’t help but wonder if under all the big words it is another way of dismissing Jesus.

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