Word of the Week

Kevin and I recently returned from a short visit to South Georgia where all of his family lives but us. One of the joys of every visit we make down to Georgia is time that we get to spend with our four young nephews. It’s always fun to spoil them and then get to leave when they start fighting . . .

I always find myself playing with of my nephews, Landon, age 9  who seems to latch onto me from the moment I walk in the door till the moment we leave. When I can get him off my IPad (where he’s proceeded to load every new video game imaginable) we play board games.

One of the games that we often play together on the floor of my in-law’s living room in Rummikub. Success at Rummikub depends on good draws of chips and insightful strategy of matching rows of numbers and colors.

But, if you draw the smiley face—you find yourself with the game-changing tile! I love watching the glee that comes across Landon’s face when he draws it. For I know in that moment he thinks he’s hot stuff!

For with the smiley face, you can play almost anything and get rid of the numbers on your tray faster.

Much like in other games, the smiley could be called the ultimate trump chip or trump card because when you have it in your line-up, the rules no longer matter anymore. You can really do whatever you want!

In the same way, Matthew 18:15-20  seems to present us the ultimate trump card when it comes to life in Christian community.

And in sum it says this: if someone in the church sins against you, go and talk to them in private. If they won’t listen to you, take 2 or 3 more people. Then if the “sinner” refuses to listen to you then, tell the church. If they don’t listen to the church then let them go on their way without blessing.

Or in other words, my Bible verse trumps you. 

You don’t have to do a very exhaustive search on the Internet to find Christian ministries who have framed their governing boards around what many of them call the “Matthew 18” principle.

Everyone from the Association of Christian Schools International to Focus on the Family to Lifeway cite Matthew 18 as the formula by which to handle conflict in the church.

But, the Bible as I come to understand it never gives us a checklist. As Jesus is teaching, it is always about a conversation into what life in the kingdom of God entails. And it is always more complicated than it seems at face value.

Consider this. A Methodist pastor friend of mine in Virginia once told me the story what happened at his church after a long tenure in a particular community. He had become particularly passionate about connecting his congregation with a church in Rwanda.

The Rwandan church was located in a community where hundreds of families were out of reach from life’s most important essentials, especially water. After several exchange trips where members of the Virginian church went to Rwanda to visit and the pastor of the Rwandan church came to America, it was decided that the Virginia church would help bring fresh water to the community.

It would be a large chunk of the church’s budge to fund such a sustainable project—literally nowhere near a major city so they pipelines would be long. But the pastor knew it was the right thing to do. And the Rwandan church couldn’t have been more grateful. Even though one church leader met with him once to explain her concerns otherwise the pastor thought overall the church leadership was behind him.

This was until the deacons from the church board appeared at his house one night. They brought their Bibles and said that they needed a word with him. After settling in into the pastor’s basement living area they read part of our scripture passage from this morning. They told him what they really thought of the Rwandan project.

“It’s our Christian duty to tell you that you’ve sinned. Building that well is a waste of our resources. You should be caring first about the community in the local area first, not the Africans.”

Furthermore (they went on) if the pastor wanted to continue at their church, all contact with the Rwandan church must stop immediately.

But I’m sure you can imagine that this pastor was devastated. Maybe he’s misjudged the pulse of the church and led with a lot of gusto but such did not warrant the “visitors in the night” intrusion as he would later call this incident.

In the end, the church did stop its ministry in Rwanda (sigh) but the pastor (I guess luckily) didn’t loose his job over it.

But what bothered him the most was how the deacons used scripture. It was as if this Matthew 18 passage was the trump card to get the pastor to do what the deacons wanted him to do.

A story like this one is not an isolated example. I know dozens of churches wrecked by conflict that goes back to the same sort of thing. It’s the stuff of the worst of church life is made of.

Our pattern becomes we take scripture. We present it from the perspective of “you’re a sinner” and “I, the real Christian” knows best. And then we use scripture to hurt people. We really hurt people.

This is not to say that discipline isn’t important or sin isn’t really or talking to those in whom we have conflict one-on-one isn’t a good idea. BUT, how we use our so-called trump card of power in numbers has to be handled oh so carefully (if at all).

But it is important to consider that the lection ends this way: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.”

To help myself get the point I wrote it out like this:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone remembering that I, Jesus, am there with you.

But then if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses, remembering that I, Jesus am there with you.

If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church . . . remember that I, Jesus am there with you

As simple as the addition is, it sounds different doesn’t it?

And this is what Holy Spirit abiding with us, and blowing through us, and giving life to the church in the first place is all about.

We are never alone. We are never abandoned. God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is with us.

And because of this WE CAN CONNECT to those most impossible people that we don’t understand or appreciate. So, we don’t have to waste so much of our time labeling particular people as "sinners." But, we let the Spirit of God do the work of joining our hearts.

Thanks be to God that the one who holds the “trump card” is not us-- but the great mystery of the Spirit, always at work.

Today our Pentecostal series continues with a guest post from Susan Smartt Cook. You may remember her wonderful prose from our Advent series last winter. Susan is a midwife, a wife, the mother to two fabulous dogs and a friend to many in Edmond, OK.  

She blogs about the question, "What does living in the Spirit mean to me?"  . . . words that I think will resonate with any of us who've waded through life's biggest questions. 

Some call them signs, synchronicities, affirmations. Others say it’s just reading into things. I call it living in the Spirit. Opening my eyes. I love to notice what some would call coincidences, but what I call clear moments of truth.

It’s the Spirit of God whispering my all-time favorite verse, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” (Isaiah 30:21). Pressure’s off!

Right OR left … just walk!

Pick up those feet and move. Show up, press on, step out. Life is scary. Changing is scary. Walking is scary. Considering the harsh negativity and pervasive your-annoying-if-you’re-inspired cynicism of this day and age, we have every reason to be spiritual couch potatoes, but the Spirit says WALK.

Several years ago I was on a study retreat in Idaho preparing for my national midwifery exam. I was daunted, paralyzed, COUCH potato-ed by the task. The exam, sure, it was gonna be long, but MIDWIFERY.

How dare I claim such a high calling in the world? How dare I fancy myself worthy of such sacred, special work?

I needed fresh air, so I went for a walk in the snow along a nearby stream.

On the way, I was feebly whining to God about my fear, my doubt, my stuck-ness.

And lo and behold if that very moment a bald eagle didn’t swoop low over my head, circle back over the water, snatch a fish, and soar away! It was stunning! Crisp winter air, snow capped mountains all around, and an eagle flying home. Many might consider that no more than a neat nature moment, but to me it was God. It was Spirit showing up, flying over, swooping down.

Why not infuse life with such meaning?

Why not find spirit among us every day, guiding us like a pillar in the wilderness or a bird in the sky?

Sometimes it feels more like a wink, and pat on the butt, “Go get um! Show ‘em whatcha got!” And sometimes it feels like the clouds roll back, the angels hit a high note, and God says “Hello, and YES!”

Yes to life, yes to me, yes to the right or to the left … choose a path, sister, and walk in it!

The particulars might change, but it’s the conviction, the force behind what we do that’s living in the Spirit. God is with us. It is so.


Today, I'm glad to share the words of a fellow member of the RevGalBlog, Amy Hanson a ELCA (Lutheran) seminarian. She allowed me to repost this part of her Pentecost sermon from 2013 posted originally on her blog, Diary of a Contemplative. Amy suggests that when the Spirit comes it is not as much about the institutional church . . . 

I think that we all sometimes operate under the mistaken assumption that when the Holy Spirit enters into our lives and starts remaking us, it is going to feel good.

The Holy Spirit not only forms and reforms us as a church, it also forms and reforms us as individuals.  I am not sure where we get the idea that the Holy Spirit is a gentle dove that is guiding our way, because the Holy Spirit that we hear about in today’s reading is downright terrifying.

Flames and noise and confusion.

But this Spirit…she speaks truth.  The truth is often painful to hear and might not be what we want.

Just as the Holy Spirit gathers together an improbable collection of people in today’s text to form the body of Christ, she continues to do so even today.

What if Pentecost is less about the establishment of the institutional church and more about being broken open and baptized by a fire of truth over and over again?

. . . I want to share a story with you about how I experienced the Holy Spirit this week.  In the heartbreakingly truthful way that she often works upon us.  I spent most of last Monday at the capital building as we awaited the results of the vote for marriage equality in our state.

I was with friends, surrounded by at least a thousand others chanting and singing. You could feel the spirit move as we implored our senators to “be on the right side of history” and “make the right choice” and generally we all got caught up in the joy and excitement.

I went outside to get some fresh air and that is where the Holy Spirit really got me.

In the midst of a sea of orange t-shirts and rainbow flags was a lone middle-aged man wearing a polo shirt and khakis sitting on the steps holding a pink “Vote No” sign.  It was clear that he was fearful and uncomfortable.

I really wanted to dislike this guy because he was invested in the idea that people like me and so many of those whom I love should not be allowed to marry.  Instead of hatred, I only felt compassion.

This man was trying to be faithful in the best way that he knew how, just as I was attempting to do the same thing.  And believe me, I am not a good enough person to pull this off on my own.  The Holy Spirit is behind this one.  It would have felt good to be angry with this guy, even to hate him, and instead, my eyes met his and I felt my heart-break.  Even though I didn’t want to claim this guy as a fellow worker in the Kingdom of God, an integral part of the Body of Christ, he’s most certainly a part of it, and it’s not my job to decide whether he is in or out and not something I can do on my own.  THIS is what the Holy Spirit will do to you.

This very Spirit is God coming into the world and smashing apart every human judgment and every disagreement and every possible flimsy construction we have for understanding who God is.

The church that was created on Pentecost is not a building and not a denomination and not a place you go on Sundays, but a body of wildly diverse people who are continually being made and remade in the image of God.  And we need each other.  That is what we celebrate with Pentecost.

My favorite Sunday of the year is hands down: Pentecost. I loved having a chance to preach it this year at this church.

Who doesn't love an excuse to wear red, adorn the church with colorful banners and have a birthday cake at coffee hour after worship?  And personally, I love having an excuse to buy Pentecost shoes (an annual tradition).

But then it's one day. And, it's over. We pack away all the red till next year.

And in the same way, it seems that our "Spirit-filled" language seems to cease too.

(Unless we are Christians who are members of a Pentecostal denomination such as the Assemblies of God, Four Square or a non-denominational congregation).

Especially in the mainline church, where I spend most of my time,  we don't talk about the Holy Spirit all too often.

Maybe we think we're too busy with other things? Maybe because we believe one Sunday does it all? Or maybe we're just afraid.

If I got to vote, I'd say the mainline church is afraid. We're because the Spirit is not something we can control or put into a pre-planned and printed order of worship. We're afraid of the label  "Pentecostals." We want our worship to be respectable, intellectual, and in the pews with appropriate space from our neighbors.

But, might there be another possibility, even for us "frozen chosen" or "back row Baptists" or "contemplative types?"

This past Sunday at the church I've been attending in Oklahoma City, we had Pentecost day round 2.

It was a bit strange at first. After checking out the bulletin as the prelude played, I leaned over to Kevin and commented, "Don't they know that Pentecost was 2 Sundays ago?" Maybe they just forgot?

As the service continued, we heard the same scripture from earlier in the month (Acts 2). We sang Spirit acknowledging hymns. The preacher preached with a red stole around his neck.

But there was point. As the proclaimer started his remarks, he started with this claim. We are all Pentecostal people.

Like those gathered in Jerusalem on that first Pentecostal day, for us as followers of Jesus, it doesn't matter our country of origin. It doesn't matter our language. We can understand each another because of the Spirit's presence among us.

The proclaimer said, the diversity of those in the congregation that first Pentecostal day was the message. The kingdom of God would always be lived out in community. The kingdom of God would always be lived out with different colors, accents and ways of worshiping present. We need not be afraid of the word Pentecost. For if we are followers of Jesus, we are all Pentecostal people.

Pentecost was not a day but a way of life.

So, in the spirit of this exhortation and something that has been on my mind for a while, I'm happy to announce that for the next several Thursdays, Preacher on the Plaza will be hosting a group of diverse guest bloggers.

They'll be musing about: what does it mean to walk in the Spirit today? How have they come to see themselves as Pentecostal people?

All of this comes with the hope that this summer will be a time for  new dreams, new visions, new words to describe our collective journey of faith. That though the church we worship in might be Baptist, Catholic or Reformed, we'd be ok with acknowledging our shared Pentecostal faith.

Joining the conversation next Thursday will be the fabulous, Rev. Abby Thornton Hailey and her experience of preaching Pentecost in another culture other than her own. Stay tuned.

Here's to hoping your weekend is full of Pentecostal possibilities!

(If you'd love to join in this series with a blog to share, contact me. I'd be glad to include your voice too!)