Sunday, June 9, 2019

Breaking Chains (Acts 2)

According to the book of Mark, Jesus began his ministry by saying: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus elaborates on what the good news of God’s kingdom means. It means good news to the poor, release to the prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.”
These things, he says, are signs of the Lord’s favor, and the time when they are about to happen has arrived.
This is an incredible message of hope to those longing to be free! It's a message that many are dying to hear… So many - then, and now - are imprisoned by chains - literal chains, and figurative chains.
Chains that deny people the opportunity to live lives free of violence and fear.
Chains that shove people into closets and caves, where they must hide their true identity, because who they are is not accepted by society.
Chains that hold people back because of their race. Society lays out the race that is to be run, and says everyone has the same distance to the finish line, yet society does not remove the heavy chains attached to the legs of those who do not have the right skin color.
Chains placed upon people by a society that keeps them locked away in poverty, a society which places heavy burdens upon their shoulders so that only a select few can enjoy freedom and prosperity.
The good news of God’s kingdom is that every one of these chains will be broken. Every prisoner will be released. Every oppressed person will find freedom in God’s kingdom.
Jesus encountered many who bore the chains of society, including:
A leper denied his place in society... A woman considered unclean and untouchable because of her bleeding... A Samaritan, forced to fetch her water from the well after all the others had come and gone... A child, considered a nuisance by even his own disciples... A sorrow-filled sinner, who wiped his feet with her tears... A teacher of religion, trapped by fundamentalist interpretation... A Roman officer, a servant of Rome, who wondered if perhaps he was serving the wrong master... A Syrophoenician, who would be satisfied with crumbs that fell from the table...and so many others...
Jesus removed their chains. Jesus set them free. Jesus welcomed them, and affirmed them, when no one else would.
And the disciples watched him do this. At times they were surprised. Shocked, even. But they watched. They participated. They learned.
Then came the day of Pentecost, a great festival which drew people from all over the known world. People of every race, from every nation, speaking a multitude of languages. They were devout Jews, the scripture says, but some, I think, were also what we would call seekers. They weren’t all that familiar with the temple or the teachings that came from the temple, but they felt the stirring of faith within them, and they longed for an encounter that would draw them closer to God and God’s ways.
So they came to Jerusalem.
When the day of Pentecost began, the disciples were there, in Jerusalem, gathered together in a room somewhere. Jesus was no longer with them, not physically, although Jesus did tell them the last time they saw him that he would be with them always, to the end of the age.
What did that mean?
It’s confusing, and bewildering, when one who you were close to, one you had loved, one who had taught you so much, is no longer present.
And you're left to reflect on their life, how to keep a part of them alive, and with you, present to inspire you to live in a way that honors them.
What would that mean for the disciples? How could they live in a way that honored their Lord, their Master, their dear friend? How could they carry on with the work of the kingdom, and live out the good news Jesus proclaimed, now that he was no longer there with them?
Suddenly - as we heard - the whole room was filled with a strange sound, the sound of heaven, which was like the howling of a fierce wind. It filled the entire house where they were sitting.
And then there appeared what looked like individual flames of fire, blazing right above each of their heads.
It’s an almost impossible-to-believe scene. Floating flames of fire!
Then again, the fact that there’s this massive, blazing burning fire above our heads, which we call the sun, many times larger than the earth itself, is almost impossible to believe as well, when you think about it…
So there were all these flames, and this howling wind...
And then each of them was filled with the Holy Spirit, and they were given the ability to speak in different languages, the languages of all those who had pilgrimaged to Jerusalem that day…
And yet, as remarkable as this all is, this is but a small bit of what the Spirit did that day and continued to do from that day forward in the lives of the disciples.
Because, before the day of Pentecost, the disciples were unsure of what to do, how to proceed, how to get on with their lives now that Jesus was no longer with them. It was unclear to them how they were to continue the work Jesus called them to and proclaim the message - the good news - that Jesus proclaimed.
In short, they didn’t know how to be who they were called to be.
But then, when the Spirit came upon them on the day of Pentecost...
It made them realize who they truly were, and what they were called to do.
It brought out their true selves, their hidden identities.
It released them from fear and from hiding.
It blew them out into the streets, out into public view, to share their message of hope with the world.
It allowed them to come out from behind the locked doors of seclusion and show their pride in being disciples of Christ.
And this, my friends, was just the beginning!
With the Spirit in their lives, the disciples began to proclaim with boldness the good news of God’s kingdom. They proclaimed it that very day, to all who were present - which, according to the Bible, included Parthians, Medes, Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and Libya and even Rome! And also Cretans and Arabs!
And in the chapters that follow, in the book of Acts, the good news is proclaimed to others, many of whom carried heavy chains in life… people like that eunuch from Ethiopia, who carried two very heavy chains, one because he was a foreigner, and one because he was queer. Does he get to receive the good news? Yes! The Holy Spirit breaks those chains of oppression, the chains that society used to hold him back, and he is granted freedom and welcome, just as he is.
This is the Holy Spirit at work. The Holy Spirit is present today. The flame burns within us. The wind rushes through us. And that holy work continues.
It must. Because there are still so many heavy chains that need to be broken. There are too many immigrants and refugees who have not found safety, who have not found freedom, who have not found welcome.
There are too many LGBTQ folks who are still forced into closets, and who have rights denied, because too many want to keep the chains of oppression fastened on to them.
There are too many living in poverty, despite what the headlines declare is a robust economy. The economy is growing, but only those at the top benefit. For most, wages have not kept up with the cost of living, the cost of housing, and life is getting harder.  This is a direct result of current economic policy, which makes those chains stronger and stronger.
There are still too many who run with chains attached because of their race. And there are too many who work to keep those chains attached, white nationalists and racists, on the streets and in city squares and in the halls of government.
But the kingdom of God is all about breaking those chains. And when we welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives, and when we allow its fire to burn within us, then we will be the ones to break those chains. And in breaking those chains, we will be doing our part to make God’s kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.
That is good news.
Our world needs some good news. Our world needs Pentecost fire today. Our world needs a holy wind to blow through our lives. Our world needs sons and daughters to prophesy, and young women and men to see visions, and elders to dream dreams.
We need the prophets and dreamers to help us all see the true kingdom of God, the kingdom where the poor are fed, the kingdom where the sick are cared for, the kingdom where refugees and immigrants find welcome, the kingdom in which the great diversity of God’s people is embraced and affirmed.
Can you see it? Can you see that kingdom?
Because as Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel: that kingdom is here. Change your hearts and minds, and you will see it. Repent, and you will see God's kingdom present among us.
And as Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel: that kingdom has arrived, for this is the year of the Lord’s favor.
And it is good news for all the world.
Come, Holy Spirit. Open our eyes. Place your fire within us. Send us out into the world, to share the good news that God’s kingdom - the kingdom that breaks every chain and sets all people free - is here.
Holy God, we give you thanks for this world you have made. It is good, it is holy, it is beautiful.
And we give you thanks for creating us, each one of us, and for putting within each of us your holy image. We give you thanks that you call each one of us your beloved child, beautiful, and precious in your sight.
We give you thanks for wisdom and knowledge, and for the increase in wisdom and knowledge that we celebrate each year when the school year finishes, and young people move up a grade or graduate from school.
And we pray that, in addition to wisdom and knowledge, that they may also be filled with your Holy Spirit. We pray that we ALL may be filled with your Holy Spirit. We pray that we may become more aware of your Spirit, which is as close to us as our own breath. It is nothing less than your very presence within us and among us.
And we pray that we may listen to your spirit, that we may listen to our breath, and hear the wisdom that your Spirit offers to us. As we learn more about your world, let us also recognize in the world your presence. As we learn more about the people you have created, teach us to recognize each person as our neighbor, and to value the gifts and diversity that each person has.
And we pray that we may never lose sight of the power of love, for your Spirit is a spirit of love. It is this love that gives us hope. It is this love that fills us with joy. It is this love that leads us to mourn. It is this love that motivates us to use our knowledge and wisdom to better care for the world, and to better care for our neighbor, knowing that our freedom and our joy is connected to the freedom and joy of those around us.
Help us to never pull others down, but to instead lift each other up. Help us to become more aware of our own prejudices, so that we may overcome them. Lead us to repentance - to changed hearts and minds - so that your kingdom of shalom may be made real on earth through us, by the power of your Spirit.