Archive | May 2012

Pentecost: Unity in Diversity

27 May 2012

Festival of Pentecost

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

Unity in Diversity

Based on Acts of the Apostles 2: 1-21

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            Happy Birthday Church! By Church I mean not just our congregation here, or even our denomination – but the whole Church throughout the world in all its various permutations. A great teacher once said, “The Church is broken, but the Church is one.” It is for the life of the whole Church throughout creation that we celebrate today. Pentecost is the day on which we believe that the life of the Church began. Jesus had told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit descended. We hear in our passage that the disciples were all gathered in a house together. Now it wasn’t just the 12 apostles – but all the primary followers of Jesus, including his mother and Mary Magdalene. Tradition tells us that 120 persons all were present that morning. Scripture says that, “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting…All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” This Spirit that gave them this ability to speak other languages, is the very same Spirit of God that at the beginning hovered over the face of the deep and molded creation out of a formless void. The same Spirit that descended on Jesus in his baptism now descends on his disciples and empowers them to go out into the world with the Good News. In this moment, with this rush of the wind-like Spirit, the Church is created.

            And what is the first act of the newborn Church? They go out into the marketplace where people from many nations are gathered. The disciples speak, and amazingly each of the people gathered in the crowd heard and understood in their own language. We don’t know what the disciples said, but we know that the crowd gathered from many places understood. Those in the crowd said, ““Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” These are places and cultures that represent what would have been the entire known world for the disciples – not just people of Israel and its neighbors, but from all over the world. And yet somehow, by the power of the Holy Spirit the disciples, most of whom by all accounts are not educated, speak and the others understand in their own language. God certainly could have enabled all to understand one language, and yet the Church is born in the midst of the diversity of languages, cultures and experiences. When God could have made us all uniform, instead God chose to show us unity in diversity.

            Dr. Eric Bareto, professor at Luther Seminary writes that, “The story of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-21 helps us understand how God sees human diversity: one of God’s greatest gifts to the world. At Pentecost, God through the Spirit does not erase our differences but embraces the fact that God has made us all so wonderfully different… God meets us in the messiness of different languages and does not ask us to speak God’s language. Instead, God chooses to speak our many languages. God does not speak in a divine language beyond our comprehension. At Pentecost, God speaks in Aramaic and Greek and other ancient languages. Today, God continues to speak in Spanish, Greek, Hindi, and Chinese alike. At Pentecost, God makes God’s choice clear. God joins us in the midst of the messiness and the difficulties of speaking different languages, eating different foods, and living in different cultures. That is good news indeed.”[1]

            Too often we want to erase or differences, or worse marginalize them. Difference makes us uncomfortable – it makes things harder understand. It is usually with good intentions that we say “We’re really all the same.” But that’s not even true of those who speak the same language, worship the same God, and have the same skin color. We all have different life experiences and learnings that impact who we are – and we are all different, regardless of what it may look like in the mirror. While the temptation for us may be to wash away all difference, to try to grasp what makes us the same – in the life of the Church, in this very first act of its life there is a diversity of voices and languages. It is as if God has already ordained that there be a vast variety of expressions of the Christian life throughout the world.

Of course today there are innumerable ways to be a Christian in our world. Even in our own United Church of Christ on any given Sunday, 21 different languages are spoken in worship throughout our 4,500 congregations. They include Native American congregations of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Ho-Chunk tribes; Samoan, Micronesian, and Marshallese congregations from the South Pacific, Japanese, Chinese and Indian congregations from Asia, historic Hungarian and German congregations for European immigrants, Spanish-speaking congregations for Latinos, including Iglesia Cristiana El Dios ViViente in St. Louis, multicultural congregations like Pilgrim UCC in St. Louis, and many more varieties. There are churches from the Congregational, Christian, Evangelical or Reformed tradition that merged into the UCC, churches planted by the UCC, churches that have left Pentecostal, Baptist, and charismatic traditions for a home in the UCC. There are a broad variety of worship styles – from congregations that have incense, chanting, and kneeling to ones that have ecstatic experiences with praise bands, dancing, and sometimes even speak in tongues. Three of our newest congregations show this broad range of God’s diversity: West Hollywood UCC in California, a formerly Presbyterian congregation; Vision Church of Houston, TX, a Korean-speaking congregation; and Community Church UCC in Washington, DC, a predominately African-American church. These are all wonderful examples of our own denomination living into Pentecost diversity. The point here is not diversity for diversity’s sake, but recognizing the myriad ways in which the Holy Spirit equips different people to be the Church. These are just examples of our own little denomination, among hundreds of other denominations, among thousands of churches – that show forth God’s presence in a multitude of ways.

David Bartlett reminds us that “The miracle of Pentecost is that even though there are still many languages and diverse words people are able to understand each other. It is a misreading of the story to think that God’s promise for the church is a kind of ecclesiastical Esperanto—a universal language we all can speak and understand. The apostles speak a variety of languages so that a variety of people can hear. God’s promise for the church is that in our diversity, through our diversity, the Spirit still leads us forward in understanding.”[2]

We have so many modes of expressions in the UCC and beyond, in the way we speak of God and worship God, precisely so that people from all walks of life can hear and participate in God’s saving work, in ways that we each can understand. God calls us out of the temptation to erase our difference, to acknowledge the gift of all the unique ways God has created us – inviting the Church to speak to each one in their own language, so that all can understand.

In the United Church of Christ statement of faith we proclaim each week that God “bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages tongues and races.” Of many tongues and races we are united in our faith in Jesus Christ. As most of you know, I come from one of the last 3 remaining German-speaking churches left in the denomination. I’m reminded of watching people lining up there to kneel before the altar rail for communion – it was a marvelous rainbow of people – immigrants from Germany, Ukraine, and Ethiopia, college students from Korea and the US, African-American and European American, homeless people, academics with PhDs, young and old, gay and straight – all people seeking Christ, seeking to be fed by his body and blood, each one called into the Church by the Holy Spirit. It was a beautiful moment of experiencing a glimpse of Pentecost.

Today as we celebrate Pentecost, we remember that the Holy Spirit doesn’t disperse our differences, but we understand and see Christ through each of our differences, cultures, languages and experiences – and help each other see how broad and expansive the Church really is. So today we celebrate the life of the Church in all the wonderful, different and unique ways it makes Christ known in our world.

 

+To God be the Glory. Amen.

 


[2] David Bartlett, workingpreacher.org

6. Easter: All You Need is Love

Sixth Sunday of Easter

13 May 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

All You Need is Love

Based on St. John 15: 9-17

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            By now most of you have heard that last week, our softball team was informed by the St. Clair Softball Church League that our team was no longer welcome in the league. Apparently three of the more fundamentalist congregations decided that they no longer wanted to play softball with our team because of my sexual orientation. Now, what exactly, anyone’s sexual orientation, let alone mine, has to do with softball is beyond me. What angers me most about this situation is not any offense to me, but that our softball team just wants to play – they aren’t making a statement on sexuality, they simply want to play as they have for over ten years.

            So what does this have to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ? Our reading this morning from St. John says “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus tells us that we are obedient to him, that we abide in his love, when we love one another as he has loved us. The commandment is not to judge others or to marginalize those not like you, but to love one another as Christ has loved us.

            Frankly, I think some of our brothers and sisters in St. Clair have forgotten this. It seems that they would rather take on the role of judging who is right and who is wrong. But nowhere does Jesus say “Love one another as long as you believe and act the same way.” By the exclusion of our team from this league love is certainly not being shown, but blatant bigotry and discrimination. But I am glad to say that others are responding with love and grace. St. Martin’s UCC in Dittmer has offered to play us in pick-up games on Thursdays. Friedens UCC in St. Charles, St. Lucas UCC in South County and Parkway UCC in Town & Country are each interested in a tournament. Ebenezer UCC in Augusta and St. Peter’s UCC in Owensville are looking into forming teams as well. Our sister congregations in the United Church of Christ are responding to this act of exclusion, by reaching out to us in Christ’s love. They are ready to stand by us.

            As much as the action of the softball league provokes our anger, and appropriately so, I think this is also an opportunity for us to demonstrate Christ’s love. Jesus tells us to love one another as he has loved us, and even when we are unfaithful, even when desert Christ, he shows us love and care. Can we be bold enough to do the same? What kind of statement would it make if we were to offer water or Gatorade at the softball games we have been excluded from, as a gesture of love to those who forced us out of the league?

I think that it would show that we don’t seek to be legalistic or to return their judgment, but offer them the same openness, welcome, and love that we offer to anyone who steps inside our building.

            Love is not always easy. I was privileged to officiate Zack and Samantha Harmon’s wedding yesterday. If only love could always be as wonderful as the moments of a wedding. As I told them, love opens us and makes us completely vulnerable to each other, open to the greatest joys and pains of life. It is when that love is rejected or when we are called to love people who have shown us bigotry, that it is difficult. Yet Jesus tells us that when we love in the same unconditional, sacrificial way that he does that we obey him, and abide in his love.

            In the end our love makes us stronger – it frees us from hatred and fear of those we don’t understand and those we don’t know. It compels us to go out into the world with open arms rather than clenched fists. Rather than focusing on the letter of hundreds of laws, Jesus sums up his command simply into loving as he. The Beatles were right, all you need, really, is love.

 

+To God be the Glory. Amen.

This entry was posted on May 14, 2012. 1 Comment

5. Easter: Tangled Together

Fifth Sunday of Easter

6 May 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

Tangled Together

Based on St. John 15: 1-8

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            “I am the vine and you are the branches.” As I sat with this morning’s gospel text I was befuddled. As most of you know I’m a city boy at heart, and grew up closer to the concrete jungle than a vineyard. So I wondered what to do with this text since I know little about what it means to be the vine and the branches myself, although that is a metaphor that would have made sense to Jesus’ followers in 1st century Palestine. So I turned to a friend, Dr. Jon Sanford. Now Jon is even more of a Washingtonian than I, a well respected political economist. But he is also a winemaker, or more properly, a vintner. In fact, Jon made the wine for holy communion for my ordination. Jon astutely commented on this passage saying

The grapevine by itself does not produce very attractive fruit, as the branches will go all wild and set lots and lots of tiny grapes. These will be mostly seeds and not much use as fruit. So I guess we all need tending.[1]

I think this actually gives us a lot of insight into what Jesus might mean here. Jesus tells the disciples that God is the vine grower, he is the vine, and we are the branches. As noted, all of the branches would need tending or pruning, or else they just go wild and produce little fruit. Jesus tells us that branches that do not bear fruit will be removed, and those that bear fruit will be pruned so that they can bear more fruit. The irony here is that those branches that don’t bear fruit are only cut once, but those that do, they will be pruned over and over again to continuously provide more fruit. Every time that they are pruned, though it’s not a pretty sight, there is a reminder of the source of the branch, connected to the vine. We too should continually be reminded of our source in God in Christ.  UCC minister Bruce Epperley writes that, “divine pruning orients us toward growth – it is the presentation of challenging possibilities, sometimes in contrast to our narrow understandings and self-interest to open us to God’s greater vision for our lives. God prunes us with challenging possibilities intended for our growth, not diminishment or punishment.”[2]

            But just what is this fruit we are being pruned to produce anyway? Is it converts? Do we each have to produce more Christians in order to be considered worthy? I think helping to form disciples of Jesus Christ is a vital part of our Christian life, but too often I think we get caught up here. Remember, St. Paul tells us in scripture that there are a variety of spiritual gifts for different uses. Essentially I believe we show our fruit when we use our God-given gifts to the glory of God who gave them. Whether that is teaching Sunday school, offering a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on for someone in need,  giving someone food who has none, protesting injustice and standing up for those on the margins, sharing your faith with someone who longs for hope in their life, or helping a kid go to camp who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity – in all these situations, I believe we both use our gifts and show fruit. As the saying goes, God wants spiritual fruit, not religious nuts.

            My friend Jon also told about vineyards saying:

            Ironically, the best wine is often produced in difficult circumstances. High heat, limited water, and rocky or stony ground puts great strain on the vines and causes them to produce superlative fruit. The number of grapes may be intentionally limited but the flavor in each is maximized. Some of the very best wine is produced in poor soil with a limestone underlay, a situation which limits water saturation in the soil. Your farmers will know more about this than I do. Some vintners avoid planting vines in this situation, as they are looking for the maximum production of what will probably be rather ordinary wine. The ambitious vintner goes to special lengths to plant vines in trying situations, expecting the highest quality fruit will result. Of course, from the point of view of the vine, this is probably not much fun and I suspect the grapevine lobby is perpetually complaining about poor working conditions. However, despite the stress which is put on them, vines with good character and stamina can produce some of the best and richest grapes under these adverse circumstances.[3]

I don’t know about you, but I find that fascinating. I wonder if God as the vine grower “goes to special lengths to plant vines in trying situations, expecting the highest quality fruit will result.” Some of most spiritually rich times for the Church have been when it has been under greatest difficulty. For the first 300 years of Christianity it lived and grew on the edges, on the margins of society – much of the time under much persecution. To proclaim Jesus as Lord in the midst of the rule of Caesar meant at times certain death. Today, the Christian church is growing the fastest in Africa, Asia, and South America. The decline of Christianity in North America and Europe is well-documented. Now some want to attribute this to an increasingly secular society and dwindling influence. But I think the opposite is true. I think we have been comfortable and in control for far too long. Have our vineyard conditions simply been too easy? Rich, comfortable soil, instead of that more difficult soil that produces the best grapes? Have we become too comfortable with lots of grapes with ordinary flavor, with lots of churches and members with little discipleship and few changed lives? If we carry out the metaphor of the vine and branches to its logical conclusion, in the midst of the most trying circumstances for the Church there may be fewer, but far more luscious and substantial fruit.

            Now, that’s not entirely comforting — that the Church may be better off under more difficult circumstances. But as a wise woman once told me, “It is the times of difficulty  that make us more of who we are.” And remember, Jesus doesn’t say, I am the vine and you are my one and only branch. He says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” Lutheran pastor Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber says “Vines, and branches off of vines, are all tangled and messy and it’s just too hard to know what is what. If I’m going to bear fruit I want it attributed to me and my branch. If I’m too tangled up with other vines and branches I might not get credit…So not only are we dependent on Jesus, but our lives are uncomfortably tangled up together. The Christian life is a vine-y, branch-y, jumbled mess of us and Jesus and others.”[4] You see we’re all tangled up together in the midst of this journey of faith, trying to produce fruit, walking through this world. We are intimately and intricately connected with our vine and with all the other branches around us. No, we won’t get credit for that really good grape we just produced  (It came from my branch, not his!). But we are in this together. The Christian life, and life in the Church is bound up together. It’s not about us as individuals, it’s about us as community, as community grounded in the work and Word of Jesus Christ, incarnate and risen.  It’s not always comfortable being tangled up together. Let’s be honest, there are some people we’d rather not be tangled up with, and some we’d like to be tangled up with, who are perfectly happy elsewhere. That’s the glory of the Church – it brings together an unlikely group of people who otherwise might not choose each other. But we don’t get to pick each other and pick who sits in our pew. We’re all caught up together, branches entwined together, each trying to produce fruit. The comfort in that jumble is that we don’t do it alone in the midst of that difficult ground – but we commit to grow fruitful, tangled together. Through it all we are united to our one vine, and give glory to Jesus Christ.

 

+To God be the glory. Amen.


[1] Dr. Jonathan E. Sanford, via email, 30 April 2012

[2]Rev. Bruce Epperley, “The Adventurous Lectionary: Flourishing with God,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/

[3] Sanford

[4] Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Vines and Branches,” The Hardest Question, http://thehardestquestion.org/yearb/easter5gospe/#more-2599

This entry was posted on May 7, 2012. 3 Comments