The Unrepentant Face of Evil


The following is a Pentecost themed message, delivered at Asbury Church.

If there is a judgment that could be laid at the feet of the contemporary church, it would be that too often we lose the passion and the intensity of our faith, by embracing too tightly the traditional ways of doing church.   For me personally, my grandfather’s idea of church has never been that appealing to me.  Instead, I choose to be a part of that church which celebrates the fact that God isn’t put into a one size fits all box.  

I want to be a part of church that truly believes that radical new life changing faith should radically change all aspects of your life; including how you approach yourself, one another, and your faith.  The truth of it is that I get turned off when we – as a church or as a believer – seem so strongly intent on embracing the way we have always done it.  For me, I see the church too frequently content on choosing to live in the shadow of generation worth of failure.

Some time ago, I read a quote from a Franciscan priest who said.  “When you see people going to church becoming smaller instead of larger, you have every reason to question whether the practices or sermons or sacraments or liturgies are opening them to an authentic God experience, because God is always bigger than you imagined or expected or even hoped.  .”   I too often see a church that is content on having a small God.   

We seem to want a God that answers prayers for parking spaces but doesn’t change the world.

At the same time, there are those among us, who – in the belief that new equals better – are more than eager to cast aside absolutely everything.  There are those that are willing to throw away our heritage and 2000 years of discernment in order that the church can find its place among all the competing interests of today.   For many, those sounds and symbols that we have come to understand as part of the faith experience are to be relegated as things of the past.

So as a church, we so often find ourselves hovering between the past and the future.   We find ourselves continually at crossroads asking ourselves how are to view x, y, or z.   How do we view not only ourselves but the stories and history of our faith, with a modern eye?   How do we escape the naivety of the past, without throwing it all away?   How do we attack the desire to be literal with the need to be metaphorical?   It’s a slippery slope that sometimes leads us to question a great deal about our faith and what we believe.    I believe that as followers of Jesus, we HAVE to find ourselves at these cross roads from time to time.

Pentecost is one of those moments in the life of the church.  

If we read Luke’s account of the Pentecost in the  book of Acts, the Church came into being on this day.   As close to 120 worshipers, including the Disciples, were fasting and praying in an upper room in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit is said to have descended upon them in a violent rushing wind that was heard throughout the city.

As it did, small flames of fire rested upon their heads, and they began to speak in other languages.   As crowds came to investigate the commotion, the Apostle Peter spoke to them about Jesus and exhorted them to repent. From the crowd of Jews and converts, 3,000 realized the truth of his words and became followers of Jesus.

Today, some two thousand years later, the church has a whole slew of traditions that remember that singular, miraculous, long ago moment. In most services, we surround ourselves with the color red, and sanctuaries are decorated with banners depicting flames, wind, and doves; all signs of the Holy Spirit. Churches in Italy disperse rose petals from the ceiling to symbolize the tongues of fire described in the book of Acts. French churches blow trumpets throughout the service to suggest the Holy Spirit coming with a violent rushing wind.   In the USA it is not unheard of for churches to celebrate with balloons and birthday cake, like we do at Asbury.

During this year’s Pentecost service we all paused as a cardinal landed on the window sill of the church as we were in the middle of the pastoral prayer.  The cardinal is oftentimes used as yet another symbol of the Holy Spirit.  Although I have been unable to confirm it positively, the cardinal is the logo for the Red Bird Missionary Conference for that reason.

Yet amidst all the respect we give to this day, it’s a hard story to digest from our modern day perspective.

 We hear this story of the powerful and very visible presence of God, and we can’t help but wonder.     We don’t see flames of fire resting upon the heads of people today, do we?   When we hear people speaking in tongues its usually a safe bet to run.    The story of Pentecost is hard to wrap your arms around, without considering –at least for a moment – if what we are hearing is myth or metaphor.

As a matter of fact, there are two schools of thought as to how people of faith should approach this day.   At the center of this debate is the uncertain dating of the book of Acts;.  Some experts will argue that it was written within just a few years of the event and as such if the story wasn’t 100% accurate then witnesses would have risen, raised their hands and said “wait a minute”.   They believe that this is a story that is 100% historically and 100% theologically accurate.

Another school of experts will argue that the book’s birth was close to 100 years later;  well enough for a whole slew of symbols and metaphors to develop. They argue that we have a story meant to relay theological truth rather than a historical one.  Where the first group points to this moment as history, the second sees a story full of powerful symbols and images meant to relay the theological truth of a radically, life altering moment.  

Enter the uncertainty.  Enter the confusion.  Enter the slippery slope.

I approach the Pentecost in the same manner I attempt to approach all other moments in the Bible.  I come to the table preaching that with God all things are possible.   If it was God’s desire to send a flame to the early church, there would be flame.   I will forever acknowledge that the only limitation of God is the ones will instill on the divine.

At the same time, I would be lying if I said I knew beyond doubt how to approach or what to believe about these passages.   There are many convincing arguments on both sides, and I wasn’t there.  With a nod to both methods of interpreting these powerful biblical stories, instead of searching for absolute fact and historical certainty,  I make it about searching for the theological truth and God insights found within the Bible’s pages. 

In the end, if you search for God rather than certainty, there is no arguing that this is a profound moment for the church

As we dive into the story in the attempt to find that truth of the moment, we need to ask some questions of the text. What is this Holy Spirit?   What does it arrival mean?  What is the Holy Spirit in our own faith journey?  What are we supposed to take from this story and apply to our own “here and nows”?  How do we recognize the Holy Spirit in our midst?

These are just some of the great many questions that rise to the surface in the Pentecost moment.  Yet, in our attempt to understand the insight of God from within the Pentecost moment, we gain a deeper and profound understanding of our faith.  If we are faithful, the blind will see.

When I read this story, there are many things that I take from it.   Preaching on it is extremely difficult.  I wracked my brain for a week plus trying to find the colorful and “A-Ha!” type story to make all those “things” gel into a singular takeaway.   As is usual for my week, I tend to stew back and forth for days.  As my message gelled, I admittedly search for an alternative.

As the words took form, I wanted a new story because part of me says the one that was circulating in my noggin missing a certain level of reverence.   If this is truly one of the highest points of the year, I kept telling myself that I needed somberness and seriousness.     The story stuck with me though.   Eventually I decided if it has sat in my head for so long, I need to run with it, and see where it develops.   

Even as I worked through the final edits of this message, I keep asking is this the best way?  Is someone going to look at what is written here, and complain that I am tarnishing the Glory and the “shine” of the original miracle moment?   I receive emails from this blog quite frequently, and I am sure that this one will certainly get someone angry.   If not for the questions of literalism mentioned above, then certainly as a result of choosing to share the source of some great personal illumination.

 See, I think that this past week, I caught a hint or a glimpse of what that Pentecost moment was for those early followers of Jesus, and it came in the most unlikely of places.   Is it possible to discover the truth of Pentecost from your dog? 

Allow me to explain my story, and as I do, I must begin with some back story.

For approximately 4 or 5 years before we moved into our home in Keene, the house stood empty and on the market.   Before that, one family lived in that home from the time it was constructed in the mid 1980’s.    In that house they raised teenagers, sent them off to school, and even built the in-law’s apartment for one son,  that initially drew our attention to our house.   Although the house was and is perfect for us, that in-law apartment leads to a spike in property taxes.   It has two kitchens and that triggers the city to levy more of a bill.

As a result the house stood empty waiting for the Masters’ to find it.   When we discovered the home, it was clear that the family that grew up in that place loved the home.  I have been told that they were both master gardeners and landscapers in their own right.   Sadly, over the 4 empty years, the lawn went south, and the gardens became overgrown, and by the time we moved in, we were facing a losing battle.

Although each time we step outside we are met with a surprise flower, or new bloom, I have yet to control the sprawl of wildness that took over the flowerbeds and gardens.    Late last season after having professionals look at the beds, I decided enough was enough.   Just before the first frost of fall, I took a weed whacker to much of the overgrowth throughout the gardens in the back.    It was my attempt at declaring what plant would stay and what wouldn’t.

Now as spring is upon us, I laid out that fabric weed block, killed some sprouting plants and have finally reach the cusp of controlling – for the first time ever – the little shop of horrors gardens that have for so long become the bain of my existence.    I am ready to final stake my claim, and to climb that throne as King of my domain inside and out.  After five years, it’s almost mine.

At least I thought I was; for Sammy has other plans.   Meet Sammy:

For those of you who know Sammy, you know that this picture captures the essence of most of Sammy’s days.  He is the king of lazy dogs, and he lives an incredibly pampered life in the Masters’ household.  We honestly don’t think that he knows he is a dog.   He rarely expends much energy and we are all surprised that he doesn’t way two hundred pounds.

Yet…every now and then something happens for Sammy.

For this morning’s story it was the arrival of a simply evil force in my domain.   For us, a monstrofic, demonic, entirely evil force entered our kind and gentle kingdom, and as it did it has wreaked havoc on all that is good, peaceful and kind at the Masters’ compound.

Please remain steady as I show you the face of evil as we know it.  This is the face of evil:

  

Yes, the face of evil is that of Chip of Chip and Dale fame.     Chip this most evil of villains has taken up residence in the now freshly weed blocked garden.

Why is he so evil?

He is evil because he has triggered some deep down response in the soul of Sammy that has awakened him from his slumber.    The dog is no longer content to waste away his days in the joy of a comfy couch.    He has made it his mission to find and capture that chipmunk.

Of course, Sammy is thirty times the size of Chip, and as such the cowardly beast appears only long enough to gain the attention of Sammy and then proceeds to squirrel away down his chipmunk hole of the day.   That would be well enough, if all of Sammy’s deeply regressed canine breeding and instincts were not now awakened. 

For the last week, all Sammy wants to do is investigate the lair of the beast.   He has chosen digging as his mode of investigation.  Sammy is not digging small little holes; he is digging giant platoon fox holes in the garden, some of them going four or five feet deep. 

As he digs,  he obtains a singularity of focus, and no treat, no promise, and no threat will get him to stop digging after the evil Chip.  I have spent the last week, fill holes, covering with weed block, and all around cursing that evil, little rodent.  Truth be told, the evil, little rodent has been a label that I have applied to both parties over the past week.

Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.    That’s me.   The dog, the chipmunk, and the digging has driven me close to insane.    I fill. He digs.  I yell.   I fill.  He digs.   I have racked my brain looking for a solution.  I have searched for an answer.    Yet, I compose this message as a man broken.  I have no solution, and it looks like this will be the pattern of my spring.  

I stand before you with no insight on my silly chipmunk meets Sammy situation.

But in those moments of dirt and desperation, my eyes opened.   I found my Pentecost story.

For the followers of Jesus, Pentecost was that moment, when something happened.   A Spirit arrived among the people, and everything changed.   Something was sparked in them that could not be contained.   People in the city thought the believers to be drunk or pure crazy.   A spark – a flame – had been lit deep down inside of them and everything changed.

They were no longer content in their current slumber and sleep.   They were awakened in that moment, and their attention shifted.   They were no longer content, a new life, a new mission, and new purpose was exploding in their midst and it changed everything.  No level of pleadings, promises, threats, or treats would come between them at that mission.   There was a fire in their belly.

In that first moment, they caught a glimpse of something and everything changed.

 As time passed, and when they celebrated that miraculous moment that came to be seen as the birth and genesis of the church.   Maybe they told the story of the flames that appeared on that first day, or perhaps they created them to put images to the truth of that moment.   Either way, a holiness embraced that day.   When they gathered in the shadow of that holiness, they didn’t tell their own story, they turned interestingly enough to the Old Testament.  

To express the truth of that moment, they told the story of Ezekiel.

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.

Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’

Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.   I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.”

2000 plus years come and go, and we arrive at this moment.   We have cake, and we have a sanctuary filled with red.    Yet, behind all of those things, we can’t forget the true reason for our Pentecost moment.    We need to stop and remember that in those miraculous events in Jerusalem something happened that changed everything.   A power came into play in that moment, and a new life, new mission, and new purpose came into being.   

We remember and celebrate today, because we need the reminder that it never left.

On Pentecost we celebrate that there is a power which will disturb your slumber.

On Pentecost we celebrate that there is a power which will keep you from being content in the warmth and coziness of your couches. 

On Pentecost we celebrate that there is a power which that will awaken and capture your attention, your imagination, and become the flame of your inspiration.

On Pentecost we celebrate that there is a power which will lead you to dig holes and build mountains, and no treat, no threat, no promise, no distraction will turn you away from doing so.

On Pentecost we celebrate that power, which the church has named the Holy Spirit, and others may see as faith, or the that invisible push at the core of your chest,  or the very presence of God itself, and we recognize that it is that power which puts life into our living, and gives purpose to our steps.  It adds the spark to your being.

On Pentecost we celebrate that power, and we are reminded to claim it.  We celebrate the fire that has been lit and will not die out.

And On Pentecost,  we are reminded to open our eyes to that  something that sparks those instincts deep inside that will awaken our slumber and drive us to be different, to embrace the divine, and to find our mission and our call.

We all have our “chipmunks”;  today I pray that you celebrate Pentecost, by asking what is yours, and are you chasing it or finding satisfaction on the couch?

 

*Please note, in developing this message for Pentecost Sunday, I tripped over a passing mention on Facebook that spoke of a graduation speech with a similar illustration (tossing a tennis ball to a dog).   Although I did not hear it, nor know who ultimately mentioned the speech on Facebook, where the speech was made or by who, that one comment helped open my eyes to the kicked in instincts of our West Highland Terrier.   As such, someone deserves less than clear attribution.   Mr. or Mrs. I don’t know who you are…  Thank you. . 

 

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