Monday, May 20, 2013, 12:35 PM
Yes, I do know that my Spirit Calendar reflection last Monday had the same title. Strangely (or so it seems to me), this is the first time that my turn to write a Spirit Calendar reflection has coincided with a preaching invitation the following Sunday. And yes, I followed the same idea from the reflection to the sermon.
- Eric Anderson
"Focused on the Fire"
Preached at the Plainville Congregational Church UCC
May 19, 2013: Pentecost Sunday
Primary text: Acts 2:1-21
Signs and wonders, wonders and marvels. That's where we start today.
One moment they're just gathered together, those disciples of Jesus, and the next moment the room is filled with the sound of a mighty wind. They look up, and there they see the tongues of fire dancing above the heads of their friends, and above their own.
We tend to focus on the fire.
That's the sort of thing that will change people and these people need changing. On Good Friday they were terrified, hunted fugitives, looking for a place to hide, looking for a place to cry with sorrow and self-loathing.
Then on Easter Sunday -- or a week later, for Thomas -- they become relieved and rejoicing friends, celebrating the unlooked for return of their best friend and leader. Then at the Ascension, they become awed and wondering... looker-uppers.
But in all this, they've remained disciples. Followers. They have not become apostles, messengers, yet. Not until the tongues of fire.
We tend to focus on the fire.
They're filled with a mad energy, and they rush outside into the street. There they start telling everyone they meet about what God has done: sent us Jesus, sent us the gracious words of Jesus, sent us Jesus resurrected, sent us the Savior of the world. The crowd grows like a wildfire.
We tend to focus on the fire.
The onlookers are amazed, but here's the strange thing. They're not amazed by the fire. That's not what they comment on. They're amazed by the words, and by the language. "How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? We hear them speaking about God's deeds of power."
Speaking in other languages, of course, is not a miracle. It is a gift, and it's one that I don't have very much of. I've studied four foreign languages in my life in addition to English, and the one I'm fairly good with is... English. I went to Korea recently and I spoke two words: Kimchee and bulgoki. Those two will get me fed in a restaurant, but they're not much for anything else. I came home with nine words of Korean, and two of them both mean good-bye. And people always smiled when I said anything at all in Korean.
So those devout residents of and visitors to Jerusalem didn't think they were experiencing a miracle. It was a wonder and a mystery, but not a miracle, and so some turned to the easy explanation for out-of-the-normal behavior. They're drunk. Out of control. They've been up all night with too much wine. It's a pity they're ruining the holy day. Scandalous. But they'll pay for it with a hangover in the morning!
And so Peter has to stand up there and say, no, they're not drunk. I've always found his first explanation, that it's too early in the morning to be intoxicated, rather naive, particularly for a fisherman. What's astonishing is that he has to make it at all. With the mighty wind and the tongues of fire and all, shouldn't it have been abundantly clear what was going on? That the power of God had arrived, the Holy Spirit manifest, the world made new?
But no. It's not obvious. The Holy Spirit had indeed arrived, but not with clarity. The Holy Spirit had come with mystery.
It's not obvious. And so Peter has to explain.
Yet we tend to focus on the fire.
We focus on the fire because it changed so much in the life of the church. It really did transform those variously terrified, wondering, awed looker-upper disciples into apostles.
What it didn't do was transform the entire world. That became the job of the newly commissioned apostles.
They were sort of in the position of Ole and Sven on a fishing vacation. They rented a boat, filled it with bait, fishing tackle, and lunch, and went out on the lakes. They motored around, fished some, ate a lot, told old jokes they'd both heard before, and bickered about bait and lures. And then they found the spot. One after the other, they hauled fish after fish out of the water and stuffed their creels. They were practically jumping into the boat to catch the newly baited hook before it hit the water.
"How are we going to find this place again tomorrow, Ole?" asked Sven.
Ole thought about it, then reached into a bag and drew out a marker. With it he drew a big "X" on the bottom of the boat. "There!" he said. "That'll do it!"
But Sven wasn't satisfied. "Hold on there, Ole," he said. "What if we don't rent the same boat?"
The cross might mark the spot, but it's going to take more than that to find the source of fish. The Holy Spirit might give the gift of languages, but it takes the words of Peter to change dismissal and derision into understanding and commitment.
That's why Peter makes the case. That's why he pulls out his Bible, and looks for the connection that his hearers will understand. This is Scriptural, he says. This is what was promised. These are the men and women prophesying. These are the young seeing visions; these are the old dreaming dreams. And all you have to do is trust in God.
He goes on from there to tell about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and to offer his hearers a place in this new community that would originally simply be called "The Way." "For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls."
That is still our task. To take the truth we know, and to bear it to a world that does not believe it, to testify, to explain, to convince, and to persuade. We tend to believe that all we have to do with truth is simply say it, but that's not the case. Studies have shown that roughly 40% of Americans believe that scientists are divided on the issue of climate change, that they still debate whether global temperatures are rising and whether human activity is responsible.
But a new study was released this past week that reviewed the scientific literature. In papers that take a position on climate change, 97% say that it is happening, and that we are warming the planet.
It's not enough just to say it.
There are a lot of things that we know or believe to be true. And please hear this: before you go to testify, explain, convince, or persuade, please do make sure it's true. I thought it used more electricity to turn fluorescent lights on than they used running, so that I'd leave them on for a brief time rather than turn them off. Well, it's not true. And in these days of easy sharing of information on the Internet, the number of rumors or deliberate falsehoods running around is mind-blowing. Really, really, really check it out first.
But God loves you. God loves your neighbor. God wants you to love your neighbor as yourself: That's true. You can say that.
We tend to focus on the fire because in it, the Holy Spirit has written a sign on the world, saying, "I'm here!" It is our task to read and interpret that sign to those who have not seen it, who have not heard of it, who have not encountered its implications for loving community in the world. It's our task to testify to the love of God, to explain the manifold expressions of the love of God, to convince others that God loves them, and to persuade them that they can love God, and others, as well.
We tend to focus on the fire, but it is not the fire that spread the Word. It is Peter and the newly minted apostles. It is you. And it is me.
Monday, May 13, 2013, 1:56 PM
This blog entry was first published as the Spirit Calendar meditation for the week of May 13, 2013, based on Acts 2:1-21.
We tend to focus on the fire.
Every year I served in the parish, we celebrated Pentecost with an "apostle cake": a set of small figures, hand-molded in clay, with a lit birthday candle rising from their heads. In memory of those Pentecost flames and the birth of the church, we'd tell the story, we'd sing a happy birthday song, and then blow out the candles. They were ever-light candles, of course, which would relight themselves, and I'd declare, "The flame of the Spirit never dies."
Similarly, we've commemorated Pentecost in our Conference Meeting with a pillar of (flash paper) flame, the climax of a rising cacophony of voices and music: with a bright, unmistakable flash of light, we cheered the arrival of the Holy Spirit.
We tend to focus on the fire.
But strangely, in the story, nobody comments on the fire. Jerusalem's devout visitors and residents follow the sounds, and by the time they've discovered the newly commissioned apostles, the tongues of fire have faded away. They find a confused and chaotic scene, where even the realization of understanding ("They're speaking our language!") provokes further mystery, even bafflement. "What does this mean?"
Is it any wonder that they seize the first explanation to hand? And doesn't Peter's first defense of his companions, it's too early in the day for drinking, seem remarkably naive for a gruff and hearty fisherman?
We tend to focus on the fire, in part, because it seems so clear -- though we might bear Moses' ability to bargain with a burning bush in mind. When the Holy Spirit comes, the end of doubt and confusion is at hand.
The Holy Spirit's mighty wind, however, doesn't rush in with clarity, but with mystery. Like Peter, we still have the task of using our newfound gifts to communicate God's deeds of power, mercy, and grace. The most likely response is the one that greeted our forebears that first Pentecost morning: sneers, derision, and dismissal.
But perhaps, just perhaps, someone might find, in the center of chaos, the echo of the still small voice that says:
"God loves you."
Call me crazy, call me drunk, but that's worth a little derision to me. Even without the fire.
Holy One, renew your people. Send your Holy Spirit like the rush of a mighty wind, and send us forth to proclaim your deeds of power, mercy, and grace before all people. Let them call us crazy, let them call us drunk: but let them never lack for assurance of your love for all your people and for all your Creation. In Jesus' name: Amen.
Wednesday, May 08, 2013, 5:41 PM
One of the first full meals I had in the United States after returning from South Korea was breakfast in a restaurant in Boston. I took a fried potato on my fork, placed it in my mouth, and my eyes flew wide.
It was salty. Noticeably salty. Startlingly salty.
I really enjoyed the Korean food during my visit, and although I was never as adept with chopsticks and long spoon as my hosts, I never had serious difficulties. At one meal, a pastor warned me against one dish I'd just helped myself from. It looked like rather long, rounded noodles with some shrimp in a creamy sauce.
"You may not like that," he said.
"What is it?" I asked.
Well, I wasn't in Korea to not try things, so I did. Mostly, it tasted like pickling spice to me, and I found it rather tasty. My Korean hosts later made a point of telling me that they'd appreciated the fact that I not only tried their cuisine, but clearly enjoyed it a great deal.
Korean tables have a lot of food on them. The chefs are liberal with peppers, pickling processes, and of course the fermentation process called kimchee (which they apply to more than cabbage). The flavors tend to be quite strong, though they also appreciate a very plain rice and water soup as well. But the only times I had much in the way of salt at a Korean table was when the dish had a dipping sauce based on soy or miso (which was fairly rare).
Korean meals mostly lack sweet desserts as well. They like sweets, but don't make a habit of them. The snacks we enjoyed while singing karaoke were mostly nuts and dried fruits. Breakfast appears to be incomplete with fruit (we had oranges and strawberries), but there's very little processed sugar.
And Koreans, by and large, are thinner than Americans.
I'm still uncertain whether those Boston hashed brown potatoes were overly salty, but to my Korean-influenced taste buds, the difference was eye-popping. My eyes have stayed open, to note that Westerners put flavor into their cooking with sugar, with fat, and with salt. All three, we note, have real health consequences.
In contrast, dishes in Korea rely on pepper and pickling.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 9:34 AM
Tonight is the last one I'll sleep in South Korea this trip. The bags are packed, with just the traveling clothes left out. It's after 10 pm here, so this post will have to be brief, though heaven knows I will be spending a lot of time doing nothing but sitting in an airliner seat tomorrow.
In just five days (thanks to a huge delay in our arrival), I've done a great deal. I've preached twice. I've addressed the Kyung-Ki Presbytery meeting. I've had tours of the National War Memorial Museum, the royal palace in Seoul, and an ancient set of royal tombs. I've spoken with members of the Presbytery's Overseas Committee, its ministerial authorization committee, the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Korea and the head of ecumenical relations, as well as the dean and the head of the international studies program at Hanshin University.
I've visited the home and memorial to the women forced, during World War II, to provide sexual services to Japanese troops. I've seen two of them at a protest outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. I've spoken with the leader of the protest movement, which is asking for a simple admission and apology from Japan.
I've been to the Demilitarized Zone, and witnessed how hope refuses to whither amidst a human tragedy of separation. I've seen and walked one of the tunnels dug by North Korean forces to prepare for an invasion. It made me both very aware of the real danger faced by my hosts, who live very close to the border, and the resilience of hope.
I've made my hosts very pleased that I thoroughly enjoyed each Korean meal they served me.
I have a great deal of stories to tell. One regret I've had is that I've had so little time to tell them!
But the final comment for the night has to be this, and it was made by Professor Yeung Mee Lee at Hanshin University who, when she heard that our visit was only five days, exclaimed, "But that's not enough!"
And she's right.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013, 8:50 AM
What do you get when you combine a Methodist, a Presbyterian, and two UCCs?
Wait for it...
Pretty darned good music.
Yesterday, after attending the Kyung-Ki Presbytery meeting, held at Immanuel Church in Suwon, delivering our greetings (in the previous blog post), and speaking with Dr. Bae, the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK; more on that later), the Presbytery's Overseas Ministry Committee (more on that later, too), and Dr. Min, the ecumenical affairs officers for the PROK, it was time for some sightseeing. Rev. Lee and a good friend of his, a Methodist pastor, whisked us away to Seoul.
There we visited the palace of the Joseon Dynasty, which is surrounded by the modern structures of this enormous city, and beautifully restored and maintained. Couples, families, and school groups flowed around us as we moved through the complex.
From there, we went to South Mountain, upon which stands a space needle-like observation tower. The view was incredible, despite a hazy day. It's very touristy - in fact, most of the signage is in English first, then Korean - but the locals clearly enjoy it, too. There was a duo singing as we left, and a local astronomy group had telescopes set up.
We enjoyed - really enjoyed - a late dinner at a little restaurant in Suwon. Around the tower, they'd offered plenty of tourist fare, but this was what the local residents really like to eat, and it was a bowl swimming in seafood and a hearty broth. Add some rice and various spiced vegetables, and we were a well satisfied group.
That leads us to the adventure of the night, which was "no re bang," the Korean equivalent of karaoke. Unlike what I've seen in the States, there's no stage. We were ushered into a smallish room with a table (and plenty of snacks), a big TV screen, song title books, a controller, and two microphones.
Irene Choi and I can carry a tune (she's an operatic quality soprano), and our two guides were enthusiastic and amazing. Rev. Lee loves music, both traditional Korean and American pop of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. So we sang the Beatles and Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and contemporary Korean pop, with the sound echoing around our little room.
We laughed and snacked and applauded each other. It made for a late night - we sing quite a while - but oh, it was worth it.
What do you get when you put together a Presbyterian, a Methodist, and two UCCs?
Amazing music: and a balm for the soul.