(Today is also my mom’s birthday so Happy Birthday, Mom!)
Pentecost Sunday is the day we celebrate the Church’s birthday. On Pentecost, a chaotic wind blew through the lives of the disciples hidden in a room in Jerusalem and changed their lives forever. That wind filled the disciples with the flame of the Holy Spirit and they began preaching the good news of Jesus Christ in languages they’d rarely heard much less spoken. “In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…”
And suddenly everything is changed. There is a new normal, a new way of relating to God, a new way of being God’s community. Even though some people dismiss the birth of this new way of experiencing God as the slurred speech of men drunk on new wine at nine o’clock in the morning, the Spirit doesn’t care! The Church, Christ’s Church, the body of Christ in the world is born through the power of the Holy Spirit! And throughout the book of Acts we watch the Church grow from 11 men plus some women hiding in a room (Lk 24:33) to 120 people (Acts 1:15) to 3120 people (Acts 2:41) to 8120 (Acts 4:4) and beyond. All by the work of the Spirit!
Today, over 2000 years later, we find ourselves in a similar situation that those disciples were in -- in a world of change and chaos, of new normal and transformation, of unpredictability and the uncontrollable work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
No, the Church is not dead as some might suggest. Nor has the Church been closed during Covid as others might suggest. The Church is alive – for the Body of Christ is risen and will live eternally! But the Church is changing. Whether we want it to or not, whether we dismiss it as the work of drunkenness or see it as God’s possibilities being made real, the Church is becoming new. This was already happening pre-Covid; it’s just that the virus and its consequences have moved up the timetable a lot.
During the past 2000 years, Christ’s Church has looked and functioned in many and various ways in different times and different places. We as the body of Christ, gathered and empowered by the Spirit, have explored, experimented with, even rejected different ways of being Church. Some of those ways needed to be rejected and buried for they were (and are) not images of Christ in the world. Other ways simply morphed into a new way of being Christ’s Church that was more able to fulfill its mission in the world.
The question before us today yet again is: What does it mean to be Church, the body of Christ? For the past weeks, we have been discussing this question publicly and privately (whether we knew it or not) as we struggled to determine how we were/are going to open the doors to our worship spaces. Even the president weighed into this conversation.
But as many Christians across the denominations have pointed out, Christ’s Church never closed. Church has been open and fulfilling its mission the whole time. Church has been worshiping and hearing the Word differently and serving others differently and helping the Spirit form faith differently and supporting and loving one another differently, but the Church never closed! Because Christ’s Church never closes! The Church lives as Christ lives!
What does it mean to be the Church, Christ’s body in the world, during and post-Covid? I think it is time we revisit this question as congregations as well as synods, as laity as well as clergy. We need to ask hard questions about things like: Where is the Spirit moving in the Church? How do we follow Christ as the Church? What is the role of our buildings and property as we live as Church? Is the church a place/space or is the Church a community empowered by a Spirit that blows us out of our doors like a chaotic wind so that we can proclaim Christ in word and deed?
One thing for sure is that the Church isn’t going to be God’s community in the same way as we were pre-Covid. The Spirit is working among us and yes, its frightening, uncertain, and uncontrollable, the same way it was for those disciples in that room 2000 years ago. But we do have choice in the transformation that the Spirit is bringing among us. We can choose to resist the Spirit’s work, putting up road blocks at every turn to hang onto what has always been done before. We can choose to leave or hide, pretending this isn’t happening. Or we can take faithful risks, stepping out little by little (or sometimes a lot) to explore and experiment with what God might be doing with Christ’s Church in 2020 and beyond.
Over the next week as you celebrate Pentecost (and search through your drawers for something red to wear that day), I’d like you to ponder and pray about what it means to be Christ’s Church in the world? And try to remove the building from the center of your definition. For the Church is not a place or a space. The Church is a community, the community of Christ through which we hear and (hopefully) experience how much God loves us and then in turn, loves God’s love into the world around us.
Happy Birthday Church! Come, Holy Spirit, Come! Bishop Laurie
What do we have to be grateful for right now?
For some of us, the answer to this question may sound like “not much.” We’re being attacked by a virus we can’t see, and some days it feels like the cure of staying distant from one another is worse than the disease. Our lives – economic, social, recreational, mental, and spiritual – have been disrupted to the point of not knowing what normal is anymore. We’re worried, afraid, and angry at the loss of freedoms we feel we’re experiencing. We’re sad at having to let go of our expectations and hopes for the spring and summer. We miss church and worship the way it used to be. And we’re sick of being told we have to innovate, to try something different, to change. What in that is there to be grateful for?
And yet gratitude lies at the heart of our faith in God. As Paul writes, “Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart.” (2 Cor 4:15-16)
We do not lose heart. Instead, we live in our trust in the God who saves us. Grace -- the free gift of God’s unconditional love for you and for the whole world in Jesus Christ -- creates faith which grows gratitude in us like a seed in springtime soil. To follow Christ in faith is to live life in the Spirit’s gratitude. This a gratitude that remembers the deep and rich blessing we’ve received in Christ and the power of the Spirit always working in our lives.
But this gratitude is hard to do when it feels like we’re being threatened at every turn.
So what does living in the Spirit’s gratitude look like even in the tough times? Well, it pays attention to what it does have or can do rather than what we don’t have or can’t do. The Spirit’s gratitude sees problems we face not as roadblocks but as opportunities to find other ways of living out the mission of the gospel that God calls us to fulfill. The Spirit’s gratitude gives thanks for the positives that can come even out of the toughest experiences. The Spirit’s gratitude sees everything as a possibility because nothing, even life out of death, is impossible with God. For in Christ, the glass is neither half-empty nor half-full; the glass is always overflowing with the abundant love of God and the power of new life that God shares with us every day.
In the Spirit’s gratitude, we see the world and the difficulties of life differently. No, our problems don’t go away, but we see them through Spirit-lenses rather than fear-lenses, through Jesus-lenses rather than anxiety-lenses, as “having enough in God” lenses rather than scarcity lenses. “If you’re grateful, you’re not fearful, and if you’re not fearful, you’re not violent. If you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share. If you’re grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people and you are respectful to everybody…” (David Steindl-Rast)
But more than just changing our view of the world and those around us, the Spirit’s gratitude leads and empowers us to act on that gratitude. A thankful church and its grateful followers of Christ looks at the many gifts and assets of the community and then asks, what can we do to serve God’s kingdom with the abundance we DO have?
Ultimately service to others is an act of gratitude. As Henri Nouwen proclaims, “We are so full of God’s presence, we are so aware of God’s promise, that we don’t want to hold it back. We want to share it…it is freeing to know that the presence of God is practiced by acts of grateful service.” And we want to do so with those who are most in need.
And you all have done that! I am grateful to you and to God for all that you have given for the sake of the ministry of the gospel, not only in and around the Montana Synod and your communities but also for the people of Bolivia. I am grateful for the monetary gifts you’ve given to your congregations, the synod, and around the world, but also for your kindness, patience and support you’ve given to your pastor, the synod staff and your bishop. I’m grateful for the many ways you have stepped up or stayed home to take on the responsibility of protecting your church and your community. I’m grateful for your wisdom, gentleness, and faithfulness in these times when too many are choosing to express their fears and frustrations through angry demands and hateful speech. Your generosity humbles me as you share your gratitude for all God has done with the world around you. Thank you for living out the Spirit of gratitude in everything you do and say.
I close with this reminder from Paul as we seek to follow Jesus during this time: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
· Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
· Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the
Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
· Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
· And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.
· And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all
wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
· And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to
God the Father through him.” (Col 3:12-17)
In gratitude, Bishop Laurie
 Henri Nouwen, “Following Jesus: Finding our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety, p. 130, 131.
“And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” This is the question Jesus asks his disciples in his Sermon on the Mount in a lengthy section about worry. (Mt 6:27) As I hear this question, Jesus seems to be asking an ancient form of Dr. Phil’s famous question: “So how’s that workin’ for ya?”
During these days of Covid19 and all the changes it is bringing, we spend a lot of time, energy, and resources on our worry, reacting to it, fearing it, managing it. But too easily anxiety can spiral us into hard places, leaving us feeling exhausted and out of control. The more anxious we are, the more we tend to react in ways that end up increasing our anxiety which in turn causes more unhelpful reaction which increases our anxiety…
Anxiety does strange things to human beings, especially if it’s chronic. When we’re faced with an immediate threat, anxiety can prepare us to meet that threat. In that way, it’s a helpful part of being human.
However, over time even a low-grade anxiety, such as wondering about the economy, worrying about getting Covid, planning ways to do safe worship, etc, can build up in our bodies, our minds and our spirits and start manifesting itself in harmful ways to ourselves and others.
When we’re in anxiety mode, our amygdala kicks into gear and it’s easy to panic. We act in fight, flight, or freeze mode, trapped in emotions of fear or rage, not able to think clearly if at all. High anxiety constricts us, arousing feelings of helplessness, decreasing our ability to learn, and simplifying our thinking into only “yes” or “no” reactions. Then, as we desire to ease our anxiety using certainty, we try to control others by criticizing and blaming them for all our problems. In these anxious states, we tend to demand quick fixes and become defensive, fast to stand against and over anyone who disagrees with us.
As the storm descended on their boat, Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” (Mt 8:26) It doesn’t seem fair, does it? Asking human beings created with a built-in panic button to “be not afraid?”
Yet God continually calls us not to fear or worry. “Therefore do not worry…” Jesus says in his Sermon. (Mt 6:31, 34) In fact, again and again throughout scripture we are reminded not to fear, not to be afraid, not to worry or be anxious. “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God,” God says through the prophet Isaiah (41:10). “Do not worry about anything,” Paul tells the Philippians. (4:6) “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you…do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid,” Jesus says to his disciples. (Jn 14:27) In fact, God comforts us over 60 times in scripture with calls to “be not afraid.”
But how can we not worry in this uncertain and frightening time? Is God asking the impossible of us?
Kind of, but not really. “Kind of” in the sense that we can never completely get rid of our anxiety; it is part of our human make-up. God understands that. That’s why in Matthew 6:31 and 34, Jesus offers not a command to stop worrying but rather a promised-based challenge: “Don’t worry because you have no need to. Instead have faith in the kingdom of God and God’s deep relationship with you, and all that you need will be given unto you. After all, God knows that you need these things.” (Mt 6:31-34, paraphrase)
But there’s a “not really” here too. God isn’t asking the impossible of us because in faith and with healthy self-management skills, we have the ability through the power of the Spirit and the guidance of spiritual and mental health leaders to manage our anxiety through Christ rather than through our human abilities which by themselves will too often lead us into unhealthy places.
When we live through our faith in Christ, the “image of God” part of our brain is invoked: the neo-cortex and empathy centers. Empowered by the Spirit, we can take deep breaths wrapped in God’s grace when we feel anxious and think more clearly, respecting others and learning patiently through our faith. Living in the peace of Christ, we can listen to our neighbors and better practice love, kindness, and self-control. Filled with the wisdom of the Spirit, we can be curious, flexible, and open to alternative God-fed responses. Brimming with the words of God’s never-ending love and acceptance, we can talk sense and good news to ourselves, reminding ourselves and others that God is with us no matter what. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it’s your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Lk 12:32)
Anxiety, worry, fear – these will never work to save us from anything. Only Christ can do that. So as 1Peter 5:7 proclaims, “Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you.”
Always and forever! In Christ’s promise,
 I know it doesn’t read like that in the NRSV but it’s an ancient Greek thing.
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod