glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Who's Testing Whom?: A Sermon on the Binding of Isaac

When I started seminary back in the stone ages of 1995 I became aware of a book that has shaped the way many read the Bible, or at least certain passages in it. It’s called Texts of Terror and was written in the mid-80s by a feminist scholar named Phyllis Trible. It focuses on biblical stories in which women are victimized, seemingly with the blessing of God. For the most part, these are stories that we don’t hear read in church, because they are so shocking, so far from how we would expect people of faith to act, and certainly far from how we would expect God to act.

Trible’s book has had a profound impact. She gave people license to wonder about whether the God that’s represented in certain stories really can be called God, or whether it is the construct of a people who valued (or disvalued) women and life in a very differently than we do today.

Trible doesn’t address the story of the Binding, and near sacrifice, of Isaac that we have just heard this morning, but I think it’s fair to say that it, too, is a “text of terror.” As you probably know, the customary interpretation is that God was testing Abraham, to see how much he loved God. God knew all along that he wouldn’t allow Abraham to kill Isaac (it says at the beginning of the passage that it’s a test), but he had to be sure that Abraham was worthy and that his faith was unflinching enough to become the father of God’s people. At least that’s what I’ve always been taught. But for a long time, I never gave it much thought, to be honest. Of course I knew that it was a difficult passage, but I was never too invested in it, one way or another.

But over time, my perspective about the Abraham and Isaac story has changed. I’ve moved from indifference to horror. Today, I am appalled by the suggestion that the God I am supposed to believe in behaves like a tyrant, playing with people and their emotions, testing their true loyalty, terrorizing them. Rather than love and compassion, rather than justice and hope, the God we find here is a lot like a medieval king, or maybe even the Southie mobsters in the news lately, demanding that people do whatever horrible thing they think up, to prove their faithfulness and allegiance. I know it sounds harsh, but it’s honestly the way I feel hearing the story of Abraham and Isaac.

And I would imagine that those of you who are parents feel just as strongly and probably exponentially more so. Just think: if anyone today were to act in the way that Abraham appears to have, claiming that God commanded that he kill his son, and attempting to do it, he would be locked up for life and we’d see coverage his trial on CNN. What’s more, it’s passages like this—calling people to swear unflinching allegiance to a god no matter what—that give rise to all sorts of fanaticism, in people like Jim Jones and his followers in Jonestown, the Branch Davidians in Waco, and most recently, of course, Al-Qadea.

The good news, though, is that the traditional interpretation of this passage is not its only or even its definitive interpretation. In fact, there is no definitive interpretation of any story in the Bible, because they are just that—stories. It’s up to us to figure out the meaning. So, maybe, there’s another way to read this story: a way that is less offensive and a little more hopeful.

Some of you may recall that when Anne Minton, your former interim priest, came back to Emmanuel last fall to lead a couple adult education sessions on Islam, she suggested that Christians and Muslims tend to read our respective scriptures in a way that our Jewish brothers and sisters don’t. We tend to accept things at face value, “what the Bible says is what it says” in a literal kind of way, while in contrast there’s a long tradition among Jewish rabbis of struggling with the text and finding new, different, and hidden meanings. It’s called “Midrash.” That Midrash tradition is really wonderful in that they are not afraid to argue with the text, to propose unusual readings, and even to wrestle with what it seems that God says. They try to fill in the gaps and imagine what was going on in the characters’ and God’s minds. They break a passage apart, especially a tough passage like today’s, so that some rays of sunlight can shine through.

Since the story of Abraham and Isaac was first a Jewish story, I thought we might look at what Jewish interpreters have to say. Now, many rabbis read it in much the way we tend to, as a test of Abraham’s faith. But others have suggested that there’s more, or perhaps that the test was different than we might first think. For example, some have suggested that Abraham must have been hallucinating if he thought that God would demand such a thing; others that it was God’s punishment of Abraham for abandoning his older son, Ishamael; some that Abraham really did kill Isaac, but that he was resurrected. And others still have argued that human sacrifice was so common in the age in which Abraham lived that the fact that God interceded to prevent it is what makes this story so profound, marking a shift in the way humans thought about God—toward a God who is appalled by senseless killing and human sacrifice, rather than demanding of it.

A contemporary Jewish scholar named Lippman Bodhoff, in Midrashic fashion, employs some creative thinking and suggests that perhaps God and Abraham are really testing each other—but not in the way you might think. To understand his point, we have to go all the way back, almost to the beginning of creation, and the story of the brothers Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s sons. You remember that Cain, who was jealous, killed Abel. God is appalled and decrees killing wrong. After the great flood, God reiterates that to Noah, saying: "Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that one's blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind."

Moving ahead several generations, today’s hero, Abraham, holds God to that standard when he intercedes for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah on the grounds that God’s plan to destroy the towns would have the consequence of killing innocent people. Abraham argues with God so persuasively that God promises to spare the towns if even five righteous people are found within them. Apparently there weren’t five righteous people, since God destroyed the towns anyway, but he did lead to safety the few who were righteous--Lot and Lot’s wife, and their daughters, though Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back against God’s command.

That brings us to this morning’s passage in which it seems that God is requiring that Abraham show his fealty by sacrificing his beloved son. This really puts Abraham in a bind, since he knows that what God asks of him is actually against God’s laws, as declared to Noah. Does Abraham comply with God’s order, horrific as it is, or does he follow God’s law? Bodhoff suggests that Abraham knows that he can’t kill Isaac, but he also doesn’t feel that he can argue with God again. He doesn’t want to test his luck and insult God, but he hopes that God will change his own mind.

And so, Abraham puts God to the test. He thinks to himself, I have found God and my tradition and experience have revealed Him and made Him known to me as an all-powerful, all-knowing, just and compassionate God. But I need to be sure that this is the God to which I truly wish to dedicate myself and my progeny and my followers for all time. If the God I have found demands the same kind of immorality that I saw in my father's pagan society, I must be mistaken. I must look further. To obey such a God is not a moral advance at all.” What he doesn’t know is that God is testing him, too. Only God isn’t really testing him to see if he’ll sacrifice Isaac, rather God’s testing (or tricking) to see if Abraham will refuse to do it, as he should.

After God’s command, Abraham is in no rush and takes his time getting around to it (he’s stalling, in other words). He has men accompany them on their journey, and when they get closer to the mountain he asks the men to wait for their return. Notice Abraham doesn’t say for “me” to return, but for “us” to return. It seems he planned to return with Isaac all along. As he and Isaac are making their way, Isaac asks where the lamb is for the sacrifice and Abraham responds that the Lord will supply it. Even at this late stage he trusts that God will not make him go through with this horrific plan.

Meanwhile, God watches in horror (just as we do) as Abraham makes his preparations. God wonders when Abraham will call it all off, when Abraham will fight back, like he did for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham stalls for as long as he can, waiting for God to call it all off, wondering what kind of God he had come to believe in, what kind of covenant he had agreed to follow. It’s a divine game of chicken, really, with poor Isaac caught up in the middle.

Ultimately, God flinches first. He tells Abraham to stop, to drop the knife, untie Isaac, and sacrifice a ram instead. God knew, of course, that he would never let Abraham take things too far. God appreciates and honors Abraham’s loyalty, but is also perhaps disappointed that Abraham didn’t fight back, that he didn’t protect Isaac, that he didn’t reiterate God’s law against murder. In a sense Abraham actually failed that test.

But not really, because God didn’t know that Abraham was testing God at the same time. You see, Abraham had no intention of killing Isaac. To do so would break one of God’s laws. If God had not intervened when he did, Abraham planned to drop the knife and abandon this cruel, false god, in favor of the true God who is actually loving and caring, the God who is life-giving not life-taking. But Abraham never really thought it would come to that. And he was right. In the end, both Abraham and God passed the test, in spite of themselves, so much so that God blessed Abraham and Isaac, and their descendants became greater in number than the stars in the sky.

Well, is this Midrashic interpretation any better than the traditional one? I don’t know. But it is in keeping with an ancient understanding of God—who did not read human thoughts, but who could be bargained with, and who put people to the test. Really, he’s a smaller, more human-like God than we tend to believe in today. In any case, it helps us to consider this passage in different way. It’s no more official than any other interpretation, but maybe it’s less offensive, since we know that neither God nor Abraham were willing to see Isaac killed.

Like Abraham and Isaac, throughout our lives we are asked to make choices and swear allegiances. We are told that some authority, perhaps even God, wants us to act in a certain way, when deep down we struggle with how this could possibly be true. If you heard any of the debate about marriage equality in New York this week you might have noticed that several Roman Catholic lawmakers said that they struggled with their church’s teaching on the one hand and what they thought to be right in terms of justice and equality on the other. While senators came down on both sides, several bravely said that they ultimately chose justice and equality over the church. It doesn’t mean that they love God any less, but perhaps that how God speaks to them may be different than they have traditionally thought. In a way, that’s what this new interpretation tells us that Abraham did as well. He wanted to know if the God he had come to follow was truly a God of love and compassion or not. He wanted to know if God would support him, sustain him, and bring him abundant life, and not only him, but also his son Isaac, and for all who would follow them, or if the god he had come to believe in was no better than all the other false gods that people before him had followed. In the end, both he and God chose right.

And that, I think, is our test, too. It is up to us to decide if something is of God, or some other authority, telling us it is God speaking, urging us to do or believe something, but is actually far from what the true living God would want. Sometimes we may even find those other voices speaking to us through the church or the Bible. Often, those voices seek to divide and hurt us, and those we love. But here’s the thing. We like Abraham, like the prophets, like Jesus, believe in a God of love, a God of compassion, a God of hope, and we can know with confidence and assurance that the true God will never terrorize us or ask us to make choices that call us to hurt those we love; rather, the only commands that God gives us will come from love and result in love, they will come from compassion and result in compassion, they will come from hope and result in hope. We know that because that’s who God is, it’s how God acts, and it is who God wants us to be. That’s the God I believe in, and I hope you do, too.

To whom be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

Monday, June 20, 2011

On Belief, Doubt, & the Nicene Creed: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Some of you may remember that a few weeks ago I talked about how when I was applying for the rector’s position here I was also a candidate in a couple other searches. Those who are new to the Episcopal Church may not be aware that we follow a call process, by which the congregation selects its priest, rather than an appointment process where the bishop makes the decision for you (here the bishop has to approve the congregation’s choice, but doesn’t actually select the rector). You also may remember that I said I was disappointed when I was turned down for a glamorous position in Newton, after a somewhat disastrous phone interview.

Well, as it happens, that interlude was just as Emmanuel’s search process was picking up. So my distress didn’t very last long, because as I read Emmanuel’s search profile materials I started to be intrigued by this parish and most especially by what I read about your interest in focusing on adult education. That is such a rarity in so many churches, where there’s a strong education focus for children’s ministry (as there should be), but the adults are pretty much content with what they learned in church school or confirmation 20, 30, or 40 years earlier. But here, at Emmanuel, there’s a desire to learn and grow in faith. That’s why we came up with the tag line, “Come and grow with us” that we have plastered all over our building and printed materials. Because our deepest desire is to grow, not only in numbers, but also in understanding, in relationship with God, in community life.

So, a mission of mine has been to focus on adult education (along with worship and pastoral care). And we’ve had a variety of approaches and courses over the past three years—most recently on the Gnostic gospels. What I especially appreciate about these sessions is how open everyone is coming to a deeper understanding, not needing to agree with other necessarily, but certainly wanting to learn together and from each other.

Interestingly, conversations often veer back toward the Nicene Creed, I suppose since we recite it together every week. What does it mean? Why do we say it? Do we have to believe all of it? What if we don’t believe all of it? Since today is Trinity is Sunday, and since it’s really in the Nicene Creed that we find the Trinity articulated, I thought I might say a bit about the creed: where it comes from, why we say it, and what it might mean for us today. This might be a little dry, or a bit like an adult ed session (though unfortunately less interactive), but hopefully also interesting. And if it’s not, you can mentally work on your Father’s Day barbecue menu.

The Nicene Creed was formulated in the fourth century—the 300s—to articulate what Christians believe about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. It came about as a result of debates and disagreements over whether Jesus was fully divine—in other words equal to God—or maybe not quite equal to God. And whether he was fully a human being, or maybe just looked like a human being. Emperor Constantine was concerned that Christians were so divided over these issues that told the bishops to figure it out and come to an agreement, and that’s what Christians would believe. It’s an understatement to say that it was an exercise of top-down authority. Ordinary people like us had no say.

So, the creed was worked out in the much the same way that Congress passes laws. It didn’t descend from heaven on a cloud and it’s not written in the Bible. In fact, the only place in the Bible that mentions the Trinity in the way we do as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is this morning’s gospel. The bishops debated and argued and changed some words here and there to appeal to various groups, and then debated some more, and eventually came to the greatest agreement they could, with as many people as possible agreeing to live with whatever they decided on, but everyone was not always exactly happy.

The original version of the Nicene Creed was decided upon in the year 325 and was quite a bit shorter than the one we know. There was no mention of the Virgin Mary or Pontius Pilate. It actually didn’t even say Jesus was crucified. Or much of anything about the Holy Spirit. In it’s earliest form, it was simply an attempt to emphasize that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. But that wasn’t enough, and people started arguing that maybe the Holy Spirit wasn’t equal to God, so they called another council to deal with that issue, as well as to flesh out the finer details. They added those portions that we know, and finally approved it in the year 381. With that, the doctrine of the Trinity was born. And we’ve had it mostly as is ever since.

The purpose of the Nicene Creed was two-fold. First, it unified Christians, articulating what they believed (or should believe), especially about Jesus. And second, it was meant to exclude teachings, like Gnosticism, which the majority of bishops decided were wrong. For example, the Gnostics believed that the world was created bad, not by God but by a lesser being (obviously in contrast to this morning’s reading from Genesis in which we heard that God created everything and called it very good). The orthodox Christians won that debate and enshrined their belief in the creed when it says that the one God is the maker of all things, visible and invisible. The creed also excluded those who didn’t believe that Jesus was fully divine (Arians) and also those who didn’t believe that he was fully human (Docetists). In fact, anyone who couldn’t agree was thrown out of the empire entirely. I guess that’s one way to enforce unity, if a bit draconian.

In the 1630 years since the Nicene Creed was adopted Christians have been reciting it week by week all over the world, in our various languages. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and Anglicans all say it every Sunday morning (and in some churches they even sing or chant it). As it was in the year 381, so today the creed is the single defining statement of the Christian faith. Everything else, really, is extra.

But here’s the thing: I know that some of us are able to recite it and believe every word, and some are not, feeling like they have to cross their fingers or take a deep breath during certain portions. Thankfully, it is no longer the case that any of us will be thrown out of the empire if we can’t agree to all of it. Nor will any of you be thrown out of Emmanuel Church if there are portions of it that you have a hard time saying. Even so, there are some find the creed to be exclusionary, because it tells us what we are supposed to believe, sometimes things that are very hard to believe. People even leave church because of it.

In my younger days I didn’t like it either, and I, too, had a hard time with several passages. But then, when I thought about it more deeply, I realized that in its own way the creed is actually kind of inclusive—or at least it can be. You know, when people come to Emmanuel, we don’t ask them what they believe or don’t believe. We don’t make any one sign a statement of faith. All we do here to confess our faith is recite the Nicene Creed. But if someone has a hard time with a portion of it, or if they don’t say part of it, that’s completely up to them. It’s no one’s business but his or her own. Maybe through reciting it together he or she, or you, will come to a greater appreciation and deeper understanding, and maybe not. But that’s okay, because if you’ll notice, it’s not necessarily saying that it’s what I or you as an individual believe, but what “we” as a church community together believe. What’s more, in the Episcopal Church there is no authoritative or official teaching to go along with the Nicene Creed. The Roman Catholic Church has a large catechism to explain everything, but we don’t. So, how we believe that Virgin Mary conceived or how the resurrection happened is open to a lot of interpretation. If you think about it, there’s actually a significant degree of liberality in that.

But just as important is the fact that what the creed covers is really very minimal. It basically addresses the Holy Trinity—who God is and how God relates to us—and that’s all. None of the other things the church gets so fussed about it is covered in any way. In 1996 the Episcopal Church determined that the Nicene Creed establishes the core doctrine of the church, which means that anything that falls outside the scope of the creed is open to debate, dialogue, and diverse belief and practice. This came about when some conservatives brought heresy charges against a retired bishop for ordaining a gay man to the priesthood. Well, the court of bishops who heard the case ruled that anything not related to the Nicene Creed could not be considered a matter of heresy. And of course the creed certainly doesn’t discuss who can be ordained (or married or anything like that), so the case was thrown out as without merit. It’s actually kind of ironic that the Nicene Creed, which was once used to exclude people, some 1600 years later was the basis for the church becoming more and more inclusive, and it has been ever since.

And so over the years, I have come to appreciate it more and more, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Today, I think of the creed as the skeletal structure of our faith. We each have bones and frames that look more or less the same, but the way we flesh them out, the way we bring them to life, is different for each of us. Some of us are tall, some short. Some thin, others not as thin as we’d like. Some have a deep rich skin tone and others like me are pasty white. And so it is with our faith. We take what has been handed down to us for nearly 2000 years and we interpret and express it in a multitude of ways. In fact, I would imagine that there are as many interpretations and expressions of the Christian faith as there are Christians in the world, and as there have been since Jesus called his first disciple. What unites us is not believing all the same things (because we never will), but sharing that common structure, that frame, the bones, which are really just beginning of a much deeper, richer, and livelier faith.

And you know what, that’s just as it should be. Because it is only together, when we all share our various and unique insights and perspectives, that we can truly come to who God is and how God is active among us. In fact, that’s why we have the doctrine of the Trinity in the first place, since God is known to us in diverse ways as Father, Son, and Spirit, as Creator, Redeemer, Giver of Life, as Mother, Liberator, and Friend. No single image is sufficient. We need them all.

So, the Nicene Creed is a wonderful start, expressing an ancient faith shared by Christians across time and space. But it’s always up to us to bring that faith to life in our own time and place. And that’s what we do here, when we pray and worship together, when we serve our neighbors, and when learn from each other. When we grow together in faith, spirit, and community.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

Monday, June 13, 2011

On Endings, Beginnings, Graduations, & the Gifts of the Spirit: A Sermon for Pentecost

I’ve been thinking a lot about endings and beginnings lately. I think that’s because of this time of year—the ending of a school year, for some even it’s even the ending of a school career with graduation season upon us. But then, of course, just when something ends, like high school, college, or graduate school, a new beginning is set before us as well—or at least the hope of a new beginning—whether that’s a job or more school in a different place. I suppose it’s not too profound to say that whenever we experience any kind of ending in life, we experience a new beginning at the same time. Whatever circumstance life hands us, there is always the hope of something new to follow.

Later this afternoon, my high school will be holding its graduation ceremony at the Target Center (the arena of the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team) in downtown Minneapolis--the very same place that my own graduation ceremony was held 20 years ago when the Target Center was just a few months old. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years on the one hand, but then on the other, it really seems like a foggy, misty life-time ago that I can barely remember.

Perhaps like you, sometimes I wonder, if I were to go back and look at my former, younger self, who would I find? A very skinny guy with a lot of insecurity and doubt, who didn’t always get along with his mother and new stepfather, who didn’t even have a drivers’ license and was tired of working for $3.85 an hour at the Dairy Queen, but who also looked forward to a future full of possibility. Most especially, I looked forward to going away to college, to starting over, to figuring out what my life should be all about.

What I definitely know is that I would never have expected that I would be here, in this place with you, 20 years later. When I graduated from high school, my plan was to go to college and major in German and Political Science, with a goal of being a German teacher, or if I was thinking really big, to work in international politics in Austria or something. But as it turns out, I didn’t end up majoring in either German or Political Science. Early on I discovered my deeper interest in religion; the college’s German department fell apart so I switched to Swedish (Minnesota is probably the only place in the country you can do that with no more than a blink of the eye!), I learned about the Episcopal Church, and my life was somehow set on a very different trajectory than I had planned when I donned my graduation cap and gown. My mother jokes that she sent her Lutheran son to a Lutheran college and he came out wanting to be Episcopal priest!

Our lives take many unexpected, bumpy, twisty, windy paths, don’t they? Sometimes there are forks in the road that force us to make difficult choices. We find roads closed that we had planned to take, sometimes we have to ask for directions, and we may even have to turn around and go back when we get lost. I suspect that for many of you, life has been much the same. And for those who are younger, thinking of graduation, college, jobs, and your own life’s future, you should remember that whatever plans you might have, whatever road you have mapped out today, may not be the one that God has planned for you. But that’s okay. It’s even as it should be. Because somehow, in some way, you will get to where God wants you to go, even if it may seem like you have to take more than your fair share of detours to get there.

One of my favorite people is David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to National Public Radio and the PBS Newshour. Recently he wrote a column for today’s college graduates. But actually, I think his insights apply to just about all of us. He writes:

Today’s graduates are told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams…. But, most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution….

The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy. But, of course, when you read a biography of someone you admire, it’s rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration. It’s the things they did to court unhappiness — the things … that were arduous and miserable, which sometimes cost them friends and aroused hatred. It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most…. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.

Well to me, that sounds an awful lot like something Jesus said to his disciples 2,000 years ago. They likewise followed a bumpy, twisty, windy road. For them, like us, there was no map, no GPS, no life plan. They must have wondered: Was there any kind of future in this disciple business or would it be better to try fishing, net mending, and tax collecting once more? Would their friends and family take them back? Would their employers? Or did the path they followed Jesus on prevent them from going back to the life they had known previously? And if so, where would it lead them now?

Of course they had that promise of Jesus that he would not leave them comfortless, that God would send the Holy Spirit to fill their hearts, sustain them, uphold them, and help direct their path. But until the Spirit came, during the time of waiting, it must have seemed like one more impossible puzzle, one more confusing mystery among many since the fateful day they decided to drop their nets, to give up their lives, and fish for people.

Eventually, of course, on Pentecost, the Spirit did come and filled their hearts. In the Acts of the Apostles we read that the Holy Spirit came like a rush of a violent wind and descended on them like fire, giving them the ability to speak in a multitude of languages. Of course, we can’t be sure if that’s how it really happened, or if that’s more of a dramatic, pictorial way of describing something that, like the resurrection, defies explanation. But however it happened, the disciples came to believe, in a new and different way, that indeed Jesus had not left alone, that there would be some guide or at least a light on their path, that God would uphold and sustain them through whatever lay ahead.

What’s interesting, though, is the fact that much like David Brooks’ suggestion about a finding a meaningful life today, the Bible never tells us that the life of discipleship became easy, even after the gift of the Spirit. We don’t read that suddenly it all became clear and smooth or that there were no more bumps or potholes in their road. In fact, the Bible tells us just the opposite. We read that those who chose to follow Jesus faced many, many trials and challenges—people didn’t listen to them and held them up to ridicule, some were imprisoned, and some were even killed for their faith, just as Jesus himself had been.

The gift of the Spirit didn’t prevent any of these trials. Rather, what the Holy Spirit did was empower them to face the great challenges of life, confident in the power and promise of God to sustain them through anything the world might dole out. It doesn’t mean that life wasn’t still hard or that they didn’t have serious questions and doubts, because they surely did. But it does mean that when they stopped, when they prayed, when connected again with the Holy Spirit that lived and breathed in them, when they drank from the Spirit, to use the language of today’s readings, they realized that their strength was in God and not in their own ideas, their own plans, or their own accomplishments. They realized that whatever happened on the road they followed, God’s light would shine on them and through them. And that, for them, was enough.

And it’s enough for us, too. Because the same Spirit that the disciples received in such a dramatic fashion on that Day of Pentecost 2,000 years ago lives on still, in us, today. The Spirit empowers us to be who God created us to be and helps us to fulfill whatever dream God has in mind for us. Sometimes, the Spirit even encourages us to consider challenges and opportunities that don’t even seem possible. I think that’s why Paul’s writes, “To one is given the utterance of wisdom, to another knowledge, to another faith, to another gifts of healing, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.”

In this, Paul reminds us not only of the diverse gifts that God showers on us in the Holy Spirit, but also, and I think more importantly, of the power of those gifts to literally transform us from the inside out, helping us to be who we could never have imagined, to take on tasks that we could never have imagined, and in the process empowering us to transform the world, in big and small ways, into the kingdom that God is bringing into being through you, through us, together.

Whatever your gifts may be, whatever ours are together, God gives us the energy we need to take on life’s challenges, to see that each day is full of new promise and new possibility, to work for transformation, and to make all things new. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we won’t always succeed. We’ll stumble more often than we’d like. Sometimes, we’ll find ourselves on roads that seem like dead ends or that lead to nowhere good. But then, just as we throw up our hands in despair feeling like we can’t handle any more, we realize that we already have what we need to get us through--a spark, a flame, God’s spirit, burning within us, giving us courage and power to face another day, to take on another challenge, to embrace another opportunity.

That’s what this day, this Pentecost is all about. It’s our reminder that God is ever and always with us: guiding us, challenging us, shining light on our path and in our hearts, and opening to us new possibilities, new hope, and new life, each and every day.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell