Well, back from an eventful holiday. Great to see my sister and bro-in-law in Manchester (thanks guys) and my grandmother and great uncle in Edinburgh. Some 950 miles driven but a great time had...
I was late to bed and up early to write what follows which is a version of what I preached this morning - Pentecost Sunday...
I recently have finished reading Barak Obama's "Dreams from my Father" which he wrote long before he even ran for the Senate. The book is masterfully written. As I read I was drawn into the story of the President’s early life and the discovery of his Kenyan roots, in a way that novel often does for me. It was absorbing.
A significant chunk of the book tells of his experiences as a Community Organiser in Chicago. He worked in the toughest neighbourhoods amongst communities who had been shunned, forgotten about, and socially and economically abused by ‘the system.’ These stories of the streets and communities of the Windy City ring true with any who've felt the tears, sweat and blood of working urban streets. Most of his time was spent with churches in poor areas even though at that point he was "a reluctant sceptic".
One Sunday morning he goes to Trinity Church. The Gospel Choir enters, clad in white, clapping and singing to quickening drums. The Pastor gets to the pulpit and preaches about the audacity of hope. You have to read the chapter to feel the impact this has on Obama. But as he hears the preacher intone the spiritual "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord. You brought me from a mighty long way" a young boy sitting next to him hands him a pocket tissue. It's only then, as he thanks him, that Obama realises and feels the tears running down his cheeks. And just in case this man-born-to-be-president fails to grasp the impact of this moment of faith, one that will take him from the back streets of Chicago to the political avenues of Washington, the boy's mother whispers softly "Oh Jesus, thank you for carrying us this far".
The events we recall this morning are about the audacious hope of God at work on the streets and the homes of Chicago... and Leverstock Green. They are about seeing lives in those streets transformed by the presence of a God as powerfully present in His seeming abscence. They are about knowing that it is God who has brought us this far, but who longs to take us so much further.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus has drawn people to him, he has built community focussed on the presence of God at work in and through him. As Jesus leaves his disciples, he builds a community focussed on his abscence - a community
that is now well aware that Jesus is no longer with them and yet, as they will discover, clearly still with them.
Whilst with his disciples, Jesus worked on building intimate relationships withe them. In recent weeks we have heard Jesus address his disciples in a new way, as friends. He assures that as his friends they have seen and heard God at work amongst them, but as his friends they also need to be preparing for him to Go away. Not because Jesus is suddenly less interested in an intimate relationship with people he has spent time with, but because Jesus’ ministry in not about intimate relationships, but about mission in which he assumes that those closest to him will share fully in - a sharing of something of the reality of God’s love in our lives and the world. To do this, Jesus needs to be absent so the Holy Spirit can be present in power - encouraging, equipping, empowering and transforming the people he loves most.
Barak Obama discovered a passion for people and the world around him on the streets of Chicago, but he didn’t see a need for a passionate relationship with God until God cam to find him in the pews of Trinity Church. Friends I am fed up of this sort separation of life. Why can’t I be passionate about the world and her peoples and seek justice for them, and be passionate about God? Today of all days, through what God did with the disciples and continues to do amongst us, I have discovered I can...
Today we recall the Holy Spirit-fired apostles bursting on the Jerusalem scene that first Pentecost with the startling announcement that the Good News is not just good news for the Jews. The announcement is to be heard everywhere and by everyone. And they all hear it - in their own languages! The resurrection is a gigantic stone heaved by God into the world, and its ripples are beginning to spread “from Jerusalem, through Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost ends of the earth”. God isn’t just interested in sorting out the Jewish people’s problems - God is in the business of transforming the world! God is not the tribal god of a small nation, but is God of all the nations. The God who broke the power of Pharaoh is the God who will smash all systems that enslave, oppress and kill. And how should we know this? Because the Spirit is being poured out … on all flesh. These are the Last Days. This is salvation time!
God is passionate about me and you, and calls us into passionate relationship with him, but so that through us, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we too can proclaim the news that God is still transforming the world! Today we are thankful that God has taken us this far, because the coming of the Holy Spirit what we recall today, is not God doing something new, but something that Jesus had promised his disciples, and something that God had promised throughout the scriptures. Something that would continue to happen to his church in our day, and yet all too often Sunday mornings can so often feel like a bad zombie movie ‘Church of the Living Dead’, and yet in a way that’s right. We’re seen as an institution past its sell-by date, inhabited by people equally past their sell-by date. Our buildings, hymns and practices are monuments to a past that has long gone: we just haven’t realised it!
Pentecost is a wake up call to the Church. The message of hope - the Good News of what God has done in Jesus to save the world - still needs to be heard. It has no sell-by date! The message of a world that needs transforming is as fresh and needed as ever it was - perhaps more so than at any time in living or recent memory. There is still a missionary task to be completed, and that means that God still has need of a faithful community of witnesses.
Friends, that’s the audacity of Hope. What we are doing today is not celebrating something in the past, but turning to God, and saying, go on then, here I am, use me. I am so thankful to God for getting us this far, but by the renewing power of his Holy Spirit, we go further, speak more effectively, love longer the love of God, allowing that love free reign in us to transform us, our community and our world.