Poem for a Tuesday — “Alone at Night” by Kwon P’il
The way of the world as it is,
What can I do about the fleeting time?
As a few chrysanthemums shiver in the late autumn,
Cricket chirps grow louder as the night deepens.
The sad moon throws its beams on the windowpanes;
And the wind shakes the rustling branches.
Recalling what has happened over the last ten years,
I sit before a lamp, counting the moths flying into it.
translated from the Chinese by Sung-Il Lee
in The Gift of Tongues (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press), 1996, page 168.
Kwon P’il (1569-1612) was a classical Korean poet of the early Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910). Although Korea has had its own language for several thousand years, it has had a writing system only since the mid-15th century when Hangul was invented. As a result, early Korean literary activity was in Chinese characters and was heavily influenced by Chinese intellectual thought. Kwon P’il was among the first poets to work in both Chinese and the newly developed Hangul. His poetry reflects an attempt to cultivate an authentically Korean voice and shake off the traditional social norms and standards of Chinese literature.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Many Gifts” 1 Cor. 12:4-13
“Doesn’t it sound just like angel voices?” Selena shouted above the sound of the praise band. The opening song had been going on for about fifteen minutes when I noticed that the language emerging from the mouths of those who worshipped around me bore little resemblance to the lyrics projected on the screen at the front of the church. I wasn’t sure that “angel voices” would be my first choice to describe what I was hearing. A few minutes later, a woman a couple of rows in front of me slumped to the floor in an ecstasy of joy and was gently carted away by the ushers. No one seemed concerned, so I just kept singing. When the music finally faded amid cries of “Thank you, Jesus” and “Alleluia,” I sat down, questioning my choice to worship with my Pentecostal friend.
I don’t remember a word of the sermon preached that morning, but I do remember the Prayers of the People. Pastor Mike, who did double duty as preacher and bass player in the worship band, cast an appraising eye over the congregation and asked if anyone needed prayer. I instinctively avoided all eye contact and tried to make myself as small as possible, but a moment later I sensed someone looming over me. “Sister, the Lord wants us to pray for you.” How do you say “no” to that? Pastor Mike and Selena shepherded me to the front of the storefront church where I was quickly surrounded by a bevy of prayer partners who laid their hands on me and began to speak in other languages. My silent prayers began with something like, “Lord, let this be over soon.”
I can’t say how long they prayed for me, but at some point, I began to feel less anxious and maybe even a little happy. In fact, it was as if a little fountain of joy began to bubble inside me, a giddiness that welled up with giggles and perhaps a few tears. With their work done, my prayer partners moved on to their next victim while I hurried back to my folding chair. All that joy should have come with a warning label, “Do not operate heavy machinery while under the influence” because I got hopelessly lost on the way home, driving the streets of the city with a smile on my face and not a care in the world.
Paul’s church in Corinth was experiencing a surge of Pentecostal gifts. The Holy Spirit, first poured out upon the disciples at Pentecost, was at work among the Corinthians. Indeed, behind the words of today’s epistle reading was a dispute about spiritual gifts. Some worshipers had been exhibiting gifts for ecstatic language and prophetic utterance that they believed entitled them to a special place of privilege in the congregation. The division over spiritual gifts must have been significant, because Chloe’s people had written Paul a letter about it and sent a delegation to Paul in Ephesus, hoping that he would resolve their dispute and heal their divide.
Paul responded to the crisis in his Corinthian flock by affirming the work of the Holy Spirit there. He named the spiritual gifts that he had seen in abundance: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, ecstatic language, and the interpretation of those ecstatic prayers. Paul acknowledged that the Spirit of Jesus was still at work in the faithful people of Corinth in many gifts, all necessary, all valuable for the health of the church, the body of Christ.
Paul wrote that the Holy Spirit is at work in all people, activating gifts in each of us. There is no room for hierarchy or privilege in the Spirit’s work. The Greek word for gifts, charismata, is derived from charis, which means grace. So, spiritual gifts are a way that God’s grace continues to reach out to the world. God’s grace abounds when faithful people bless their neighbors with their God-given abilities. Paul also wrote that, although our Spiritual gifts are individually given, they are meant to be beneficial to all, to serve the “common good.” When that happens, a remarkable community is forged. It’s a place where every manmade divide is overcome. All those false and artificial dichotomies of male/female, slave/free, Jew/Gentile, rich/poor, Pentecostal/Presbyterian, legal/illegal, black/white are transcended. I like to think that Paul’s inspired epistle bridged the Corinthian divides and healed the church.
We can affirm that the Spirit is still at work in the church today. In teaching young people about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, I have a favorite exercise that I like to share. I give each youth a piece of 8 ½’ x 11” paper and ask them to write their names in the middle. Next, we place our papers on a couple of long tables, and I parcel out big, bright magic markers. Then, I invite the kids to write on one another’s papers the spiritual gifts that they notice in one another. At first, we stand around, looking uncomfortable. But then someone will feel brave enough to record a spiritual gift, like kindness. Soon someone else follows suit, writing things like great sense of humor or hard working or super smart. Before we know it, we are rushing around the tables in a beautiful tumble of noticing and naming, eager to share what we see is special and God-given about our friends. Afterwards, as we collect our papers, we read what everyone had to say and we feel affirmed, sensing that God is at work in us in ways that are a blessing to all.
Jesus continues to send the Spirit to equip us for his purpose. It might alarm us to imagine the Spirit resting like tongues of fire among us, inspiring us to sing in angel voices, or causing us to swoon in a spiritual ecstasy, or propelling us to the front of the sanctuary for the laying on of hands. But the whole point of Pentecost is that each of us is uniquely gifted, not for our personal glory but for the common good. When we embody the gifts of the Spirit, we become Jesus for the world around us and his ministry continues to unfold in ways that bring healing, blessing, and miracles of new life. It takes all of us, committed to using our gifts to the best of our ability, to truly embody the fullness of Christ for our neighbors.
In his letters to Rome and Ephesus, Paul would expand his catalog of the gifts of the Spirit to include ministry, teaching, preaching, generosity, leadership, compassion, evangelism, pastoring, and training. For this congregation, we might have to expand Paul’s lists of spiritual gifts further to include some of the special qualities that we have here in abundance, abilities that are a blessing to all like music, helping, service, prayer, gardening, creativity, good cooking, handiness, financial oversight, and warm hospitality. What are the particular gifts that the Spirit has given to you, gifts that Jesus would have you use to bless your neighbors? Write those on your heart and resolve to go forth and look for ways to share those gifts.
And perhaps this morning we could learn a lesson from our youth. We could dare to affirm the spiritual gifts of one another. Take a look at your neighbors in the pews this morning. What are their gifts? How have they been a blessing? Take a moment to notice and to silently name. I won’t be handing out sheets of paper and bright markers to record those gifts, but later today or this week, let those people know the gifts you perceive. Perhaps you will visit with them in Coffee Hour, or pick up the phone and give them a call, dash off a text message or send them a note. Let’s be sure to do that.
At the start of this message, I was last sighted driving the streets of Medford, Oregon with a smile on my face and not a care in the world. My joy hangover faded as the week wore on. The following Saturday evening, when Selena called, eager to take me back to her storefront Pentecostal church, I declined the invitation. I had a fresh understanding of the power and diversity of the Holy Spirit’s work, but I was hopelessly Presbyterian. No amount of angel voices or the laying on of hands could change that. Come Sunday morning, it sure felt good to settle back into my usual pew and to appreciate the prolific, if more subtle, gifts of the Spirit that abounded among my Presbyterian friends and blessed us all. Amen.
Brian Peterson. “Commentary on 1 Cor. 12:3-13” in Preaching This Week, May 31, 2020. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Matt Skinner. “Commentary on 1 Cor. 12:3-13” in Preaching This Week, May 11, 2008. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Mary Hinkle Shore. “Commentary on 1 Cor. 12:3-13” in Preaching This Week, June 4, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
1 Cor. 12:4-13
4 Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit, 5 and there are varieties of services but the same Lord, 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of powerful deeds, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Farewell Blessing” Luke 24:44-53
The language of blessing is deeply ingrained in our culture. Even children who have never attended Sunday School learn from an early age that when someone sneezes, they should respond with a simple “Bless you.” In the Middle Ages, that blessing may have been shared to ward off the bubonic plague, but nowadays, those words have passed into the repertoire of polite things to say in company.
We may use the phrase “You have been blessed” as an acknowledgment of the good things in someone’s life, from good health to the birth of a grandchild. We raise a fiftieth anniversary glass to the celebration of a long and happy marriage with the words, “You have been blessed!” And in the world of professional basketball, whether the Celtics, Heat, Lakers or Nuggets win the championship, we’ll hear athletes rejoicing with the words, “We have been blessed.”
I have also noticed that we use the language of blessing when someone makes a well-intended effort that falls short. The late Dot Shene was visually impaired, but she never let that slow her down in the kitchen. One Christmas, she gave me a loaf of her famous (or should that be infamous) cheese bread. As Dot handed me the loaf, the late Norma Neese stood behind her, giving me a look that said, “Don’t eat it!” Sure enough, the well-intended loaf was a curious mix of gooey under-baking, caustic lumps of baking soda, and wads of cheese. Bless Dot’s little heart!
There was a lot of blessing going on in our reading from Luke’s gospel. First, the risen Lord revealed to his disciples how his ministry, death, and resurrection were anticipated in the Hebrew scriptures. Then, they journeyed outside Jerusalem and over the Mt. of Olives to Bethany. There Jesus took his leave, promising that, although he was returning to the Father, he would soon send a holy helper to be with them always. As Jesus ascended, he blessed his disciples. They responded by blessing God, praising and worshipping Jesus and God Almighty, right there in Bethany and in the coming days in the Jerusalem Temple.
The biblical understanding of blessing has nothing to do with sneezing, professional basketball, or good intentions. On the contrary, the Hebrew word for blessing—barak—is all about relationship. Blessing is a statement of favorable relationship between two parties. It could be two people, two nations, God and an individual (like Abraham), or God and a chosen people (like Israel). Blesing, barak, is found in the goodness and benefit that prospers when two parties come together with mutual concern and regard.
All blessing begins with God, who has chosen to be in relationship. God, who is sovereign and all-powerful, didn’t need to create the world, but God did. Genesis 1 wraps language around God’s choice for relationship. God spoke words that forged the earth and its creatures, from fish to birds to wild animals to humankind. After each act of creation, God proclaimed God’s work to be good—and then God blessed it. All creation was forged to be in relationship with the Creator.
In Genesis 12, God called Abraham and Sarah to leave their home in Haran and travel to a new land. God promised to bless them, to travel with them and be in relationship with them. God said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This is the pattern that God established in Genesis. God blesses us and sends us forth to bless others – to be in good, loving, mutual, beneficial relationship with the neighbors we meet on life’s journey.
Jesus’ parting blessing in our reading from Luke’s gospel was a reminder of the disciples’ relationship with God through him, yet it also brought to mind that charge to Abraham and Sarah—to be the blessing of others. Jesus didn’t call his followers to a Promised Land where only the children of Abraham would be welcomed and blessed. Rather, Jesus sent his followers from Jerusalem out to “all nations.” Blessing would be found in loving God and in loving neighbor. That’s the great commandment, and it is all about blessing. The Book of Acts reveals that many, who were once considered outsiders to God’s love, were blessed as the disciples went forth to “all nations.” Samaritans, Ethiopians, Romans, Syrians, Greeks, all would be welcomed, accepted, helped, healed, and fed.
This church takes seriously the calling to be a blessing to others, even as we are blessed by God’s love for us. One of the most gratifying ways that I have seen that blessing unfold in my time in Saranac Lake has been in our deepening relationship with the Food Pantry. We began with the pack basket at the side entrance and the invitation to donate canned- and dry goods. We expanded with the 2-cents-a-meal offering and the annual Souper Bowl Sunday that the kids lead. We have seen an increasing number of church members share their time and love at the Food Pantry, whether they are putting together food boxes on Saturday mornings, responding to emergency calls for food, or serving on the Board of Directors. Then, we got the bright idea to supplement the food that the pantry offers its patrons by providing fresh vegetables, and so our Jubilee Garden was born. Finally, when it was time to renovate the basement, we saw the unique opportunity to provide the Food Pantry with a new and improved permanent home in the heart of the village. Yesterday, as I visited with Anne Cooney at the pantry, she assured me that in the new location downstairs, the number of people who are coming to the pantry has doubled. Now, that is a blessing!
Jesus knew, as he sent his disciples forth to bless the world, that they themselves would be blessed. When the disciples reached out and shared God’s love, there would be goodness and joy for them, too. Strangers would become friends. Outsiders would be welcomed in. Church families would provide the nurture and support that were needed in times of rejection and persecution. There would be shared meals, helping hands, and plenty of laughter. Those blessed by their love of God would be a blessing to others and somehow find themselves feeling blessed more than they thought possible.
One of my seminary professors Claude-Marie called this phenomenon “Mission in Reverse.” As a young adult, Claude-Marie traveled from her native France to South Africa, where she served as a missionary in Lesotho and Soweto at the height of Apartheid. It was a daunting mission for the young French woman, but she found joy in meeting families, teaching children, and learning a strange new language that included clicks and pops. Her advocacy for her black parishioners led to her eventual arrest and torture by the powerful and secretive South African Bureau of State Security, yet even so decades later, Claude-Marie still rejoices in remembering the goodness of those relationships with the Sotho and Zulu people.
We have experienced this “mission in reverse,” finding blessing and delight as we reach out and bless others. Those among us who volunteer at the food pantry or grow vegetables at the garden can testify about that. In fact, I’d like to invite us to a little celebration of the blessings. I’ll share some of the ways that we have felt blessed in our ministry, and we’ll all respond with the words, “We are blessed.”
Our relationships with fellow volunteers have deepened, and we have found new appreciation for one another’s gifts. We are blessed!
We have made new friends on Saturday mornings among our neighbors in need, rejoicing together in the little victories and sorrowing together through times of hardship. We are blessed!
We have known the sweetness of working the earth. We are blessed!
We have celebrated the advent of earth worms and the texture of soil that is just right for planting—moist and cohesive, a little like good chocolate cake. We are blessed!
At the garden, we have gotten to know people of all ages, many of whom have never set foot in a church, and perhaps never will. We are blessed!
We have marveled at fiery radishes, prolific zucchini, an abundance of beans, and the treasure of Adirondack tomatoes. We are blessed!
Best of all, we have felt that we are living into God’s purpose, that the blessing we have found in God’s love for us shines through to the world around us. We are blessed!
On this Ascension Sunday, we are indeed blessed, my friends. Let us go forth to live as a blessing to others.
Kent Harold Richards. “Bless/Blessing” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1, New York: Doubleday, 1992. Pages 753-755.
Greg Carey. “Commentary on Luke 24:44-53” in Preaching This Week, May 18, 2023. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Jennifer Kaalund, “Commentary on Luke 24:44-53” in Preaching This Week, May 21, 2020. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Troy Troftgruben. “Commentary on Luke 24:44-53” in Preaching This Week, May 14, 2015. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Poem for a Tuesday — “Love Poem Earth” by Shu Ting
I love earth
Just as I love my wordless father
Earth breathing warmth with its rivers of blood
Earth fermenting with sweat, fertile with oil
Quickening slightly under the strong plow and bare feet
Rising and falling from heat at the heart’s core
You must shoulder bronze statues, monuments, museums
But sign the last judgment on the line of the fault.
My frost-crusted, mud-coated, sun-cracked earth
My stern, generous, indignant earth
Earth granting me skin color and language
Earth granting me wisdom and strength
I love earth
Just as I love my compassionate mother
Robust earth covered with kissprints from the sun’s lips
Collector of leaf-layers, of sprouts springing up after sprouts
Time and again abandoned by man, never abandoning man
Creating each sound, each color, each curse
And still you are called dirt.
My lead-lustred, red-pooled, white-spotted earth
My rough, lonely, untended earth
Earth granting me love and hate
Earth granting me pain and joy
Father grants me an infinite dream
Mother grants me a sensitive heart
The lines of my poems
are the sounds of the gramtree grove
Day and night sending out to the earth
its incessant shower of loveseed
— in Smoking People, chapbook 19. The Beloit Poetry Journal, vol. 39, no. 2, Winter 1988/1989, page 20.
Shu Ting is a modern Chinese poet associated with the Misty Poets, a group of 20th-century Chinese writers whose work speaks to the restrictions on art during the Cultural Revolution. After her father was accused of ideological aberrance, he moved the family to the countryside to avoid government scrutiny. She began writing poetry at age 27 and published in the underground journal Jīntiān. During the “anti-spiritual pollution” movement of the 1980s, Shu and other writers were deemed subversive and faced strong criticism from the state.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Spirit of Truth” John 14:15-21
Mother’s Day became a national holiday in 1914 after decades of advocacy and letter writing by West Virginian Anna Jarvis. Anna wanted to honor the unsung love and hard work of mothers everywhere. She was especially inspired by her own mother Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, a lifelong advocate for peace, healthcare, and compassion for vulnerable people.
Ann Maria had eleven children, but only four lived to adulthood. The others died of communicable diseases, like typhoid and scarlet fever, that were prevalent in her Appalachian homeland. In the mid-1850s, Ann Maria organized Mother’s Day Work Clubs to combat the unsanitary living conditions that bred disease. When the Civil War broke out, her community straddled the border of North and South, with local families supporting both the Union and Confederate causes. When solders at a nearby prisoner of war camp began to die from the same diseases that had taken the lives of her children, Jarvis and her volunteers took action. Work parties were organized to address the unsanitary conditions and women were urged to care for all prisoners, regardless of their national sympathies. After the war, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis’s work turned to peacemaking as she organized mothers of former Union and Confederate soldiers to celebrate “Mothers’ Friendship Day” to mollify ongoing Union-Confederate rivalries.
After Ann Maria’s death in 1907, her daughter Anna organized a campaign to establish a national day to honor mothers, like her own. She urged supporters to wear a white carnation (her mother’s favorite flower), dine with family, take their mothers to church, or write letters to their mothers. Anna launched the first Mother’s Day celebration on May 10, 1908 at the St. Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, WV. Within a few short years, many churches, towns, and even states had started celebrating Mother’s Day. Six years later, President Wilson signed a proclamation, establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day forever.
When it comes to God, we often refer to God as Father (like Jesus did) and we also refer to Jesus as the Son. Some people have long argued that the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is feminine. Indeed, faithful people have been debating the question of the gender of the Holy Spirit for eons.
Our Jewish ancestors in the faith used feminine language for the Spirit. The wind from God that hovered over the waters of chaos in creation—Ruach in Hebrew—is definitely feminine. So is the Spirit of Wisdom—Ruach Khodesh. She is described in Proverbs 3, standing in the marketplace and calling us to trust in the Lord with all our heart and lean not on our own understanding. Likewise, the Shekinah, the glory and presence of God that was seen in the Tabernacle and the Temple, is feminine.
The jury is out on whether Jesus characterized the Spirit as having gender. He sometimes used the male term Parakletos – meaning Advocate or Counselor – to describe the Spirit as he did in today’s scripture reading. But Jesus more often used the term Pneuma for Spirit, which is gender-neutral.
The earliest churches, the Eastern Orthodox and Syriac, taught that the Spirit is feminine. Early church fathers like Theophilus of Antioch and Irenaeus led that charge. The feminine understanding of the Spirit persists in those branches of Christianity today.
It wasn’t until relatively late, with the emergence of the Roman church, that the Holy Spirit became in their understanding, officially male, perhaps coinciding with the movement to limit the leadership of women as evangelists and pastors. The question seemed settled for the western church until the Reformation when our cousins in the Moravian Brethren, led by Count von Zinzendorf, reasserted the principle that the Spirit was decidedly feminine.
The debate rages on today. That titan of twentieth century biblical studies Jürgen Moltmann argued for the feminine Spirit. Messianic Jews, so well-grounded in the Hebrew scriptures, see the Spirit as their Jewish ancestors did—feminine. Our Presbyterian confessions use plenty of male language for that third person of the Trinity, yet our seminaries are always careful to point out the differing opinions of scripture and tradition. Even Vatican II couldn’t shift the Catholics away from their masculine understanding of the Spirit. And if you read William P. Young’s bestseller The Shack, or watched the blockbuster film version of the book, then you would have seen the Holy Spirit portrayed as a semi-transparent Asian woman named Sarayu, a Hindu name meaning refreshing wind. Lord, have mercy. What do you think about the Holy Spirit?
In our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus promised his friends that although he would soon be leaving them, he would send the Holy Spirit to abide with them always. It was the night of the Last Supper. Feet had been washed, the Passover supper dishes had been cleared away, and Judas had departed to betray his friend. Jesus shared a final discourse, speaking important words to help the disciples face the crisis that would soon be upon them. We, who know what it is like to lose a beloved parent or mentor or friend, can imagine the distress and worry that gripped Jesus’ listeners as they imagined a world without him in their midst.
Jesus assured his friends that they would not be orphaned. Another Advocate – the Holy Spirit – would come to lead them in understanding, obedience, and love. The Spirit would be the love and wisdom of Jesus that dwelled with them, helping them to obey his command to love God and one another. I would imagine that Jesus’ words sounded both consoling and puzzling to disciples who still struggled to understand that the Messiah would soon die.
In two weeks on Pentecost Sunday, we’ll gather before worship in the Great Hall to celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit. We’ll wear red and brandish our dry and brittle palms, left over from Palm Sunday. As our Pentecost fire consumes the palms, we’ll imagine the transformation of the disciples. Then we’ll process with singing into the sanctuary. It’s our Presbyterian nod to the Spirit, well-orchestrated and conducted decently and in order.
As Presbyterians, the Spirit may be our least-appreciated member of the Trinity. One Sunday while I was a seminarian, I was attending a Presbyterian church on the southside of Chicago that was experiencing an outpouring of the Spirit. I was intrigued to see what might transpire in worship until a young woman stood up in the middle of a good sermon and began to prophesy. Her eyes rolled back. She uttered strange words in a harsh voice and spoke in incomprehensible tongues until she fell over in the pew. I wasn’t sure if what I saw was the Spirit or mental illness. It was deeply uncomfortable, eerie, and puzzling. I suspect that the first disciples were equally ill-at-ease with this promise of a mysterious advocate that would come to them and live in them. Perhaps we share some of that discomfort this morning.
Jaime Clark-Soles, a New Testament scholar at the Perkins School of Theology, reminds us that Jesus’s words to his disciples regarding the coming Spirit were intended to be deeply pastoral and consoling—perhaps even a little bit mothering. She points out that Jesus calls the Spirit “another” Advocate. Implied in this statement is the fact that Jesus is the first Advocate, so filled with love for us that he was willing to suffer death to reconcile us to God. Because the Spirit is another Advocate, we can trust that the Spirit also comes with the love of Jesus, with gifts of healing and peace, forgiveness and mercy. Because the Spirit transcends the limits of time and physicality, the Spirit grants us the same advantages that it granted to those first disciples. They were able to live and learn from Jesus first hand. We, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are able to hear and know the will and the way of Christ, here and now.
Perhaps on this Mothers’ Day, some of our Presbyterian discomfort with the Holy Spirit can be bridged if we embrace the feminine. I’m with Jesus; I think God and the Holy Spirit are beyond gender. But I also think the Holy Spirit is a lot like a good mother. The disciples probably would have felt a lot less worried about this coming Spirit if their thoughts turned to their own mothers or to other women of their day who were a lot like Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, the inspiration for our first Mother’s Day.
We, too, can feel a little more at home with the Holy Spirit if we remember the love not only of Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis but also of the exceptional mothers that we have known. They have deeply loved their vulnerable children. They have worked for the health and wholeness of their local communities. They have reached out across social and political divides to simply help and heal and care. They have sought the peace and reconciliation of people alienated and estranged from one another. In the good mothering that we have known from our own mothers, grandmothers, big sisters, and those who have been like mothers to us, there is a taste of the Spirit’s work to bring blessing to our lives. Thank you, Jesus.
Maybe the Holy Spirit isn’t so scary after all. Happy Mother’s Day, my friends, Amen.
Craig R. Koester. “Commentary on John 14:15-21” in Preaching This Week, May 17, 2020. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Samuel Cruz. “Commentary on John 14:15-21” in Preaching This Week, May 21, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Jaime Clark-Soles. “Commentary on John 14:15-21” in Preaching This Week, May 27, 2008. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
15”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
The inspiration for the first Mother’s Day Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis.
Poem for a Tuesday — “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, New York: Random House, 2005, page 143.
Li-Young Lee is a poet, essayist and memoirist. His work is marked by the spare elegance of traditional Chinese poets and the mystical edge of Eliot, Keats, and Rilke. He thoughtfully and sensitively explores themes of family, spirituality, and belonging. Lee’s family fled political persecution in China and Indonesia before emigrating to the United States, where his father attended seminary and became a Presbyterian minister. As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, Lee began writing poetry and discovered his life’s work. He received the American Book Award for his lyrical memoir The Wingéd Seed: A Remembrance. In an interview with Tina Chang of the American Academy of Poets, Lee reflected, “If you rigorously dissect it, you realize that everything is a shape of the totality of causes. What’s another name for the totality of causes? The Cosmos. So, everything is a shape of Cosmos or God. It feels like something bigger than me—that I can’t possibly fathom but am embedded in.”
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “A Royal Priesthood” 1 Peter 2:2-10
There is a national clergy shortage. Some of that is attributable to COVID-19. The pandemic led religious leaders across the country to resign. Some may have been close enough to retirement to simply hang up their collars while others felt that the increased workload, frayed relationships, and political divisions brought on by the pandemic made ministry intolerable. They felt burned out, citing deteriorating spiritual, physical, emotional, and vocational health. The researchers at the Barna group found a 17% jump in clergy leaving full-time ministry, with half of pastors under forty-five considering a career change.
It is likely that the pandemic simply sped up changes that were already underway for churches. For a number of years now within mainline denominations, more pastors have been leaving or retiring from ministry than there are candidates under care. In other words, fewer young people are going to seminary and preparing to enter the ministry. The same is true for the Catholic church, and even for Jewish congregations. In Catholic dioceses like Buffalo, one priest serves as many as six parishes. Considering the lengthy investment of time, energy, and expense in pursuing graduate education, the clergy shortage is not likely to turn around any time soon.
Churches are seeking ways to function without a pastor, whether they are sharing clergy, turning to lay pastors, or relying on people in the pews. Even that has its challenges. Researchers at the Religious News Service have learned that the pandemic has had a significant negative affect on church volunteerism. Before the pandemic, about 40% of regular congregation members volunteered at church. Post-pandemic, that percentage has shrunk to a mere 15%. That’s true even for active churches like this one, where we currently have vacancies on session and deacons, and a handful of volunteers are doing yeoman’s work to make sure that we have Sunday School classes for the kids.
When the Apostle Peter wrote to those first churches in Asia Minor, they were in the midst of their own staffing crisis. There Peter was in Rome and there they were on the far side of the Aegean and Adriatic Seas without a professional clergy person in sight. For the Jewish Christians, their notion of leadership was dependent on rabbis and priests. These were teaching and sacramental professionals who served as mediators between God and the congregation. For the formerly pagan Christians, their notion of leadership was grounded in the priests and priestesses who presided at rites in local temples. Rabbis, priests, pagan priestesses, all were high status, affluent, and influential members of their communities. And the Christians? They were outsiders, ejected from synagogues, refugees from the pagan temples, and under suspicion as enemies of Rome. It sounds like they could have used a good pastor.
Peter told his listeners that God had done something new in Jesus, something that completely changed the very notion of spiritual leadership. Instead of the Temple in Jerusalem or the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, God was building a new temple, with Christ as the foundation stone and each Christian as a contributing stone in an entirely new structure. It would be a church, built not of bricks and mortar but of people, people who believed in Christ and found new life and purpose in his service. These living stones would respond to the love and grace of Jesus with spiritual worship: praising God, doing good works, and sharing generously (Heb. 13:15-16).
In this new temple, built on the rock of Jesus, every Christian was a priest, able to have a direct relationship with God. Collectively, they were a royal priesthood, faithful people intent on sharing God’s love with the world. Sure, they might need people like the Apostle Peter to provide training and direction and scriptural interpretation, but they knew and were known by God. They were loved by Jesus. This priesthood of all believers would unleash the greatest tide of church growth ever imagined, transforming Christianity from a marginal, persecuted sect of Judaism to an imperial religion within 300 years. Impressive!
Much later, in the 16th century, our ancestors in the faith would return to this understanding of the priesthood of all believers to reinvigorate and reform the church. By the 16th century, the church had again become dependent upon an elite class of clergy to mediate the people’s relationship with God – from forgiving sins to interpreting scripture. Pointing to Peter’s words, Martin Luther argued that Christians have access to God through faith without the need for earthly mediators. John Calvin went one step further, teaching that in response to God’s love and mercy, we are to be “living sacrifices,” dedicating our character, talent, and property in whatever way best served God. Calvin believed that each of us is particularly gifted for God’s service. When we join those gifts together in that priesthood of all believers, God is glorified and our neighbors are blessed. Luther, Calvin, and others, in reclaiming the royal priesthood of all believers, unleashed a second great tide of church growth, sending Protestantism to the new world and every corner of the globe.
The clergy crisis in American churches isn’t going anywhere. Pessimists see this post-COVID slump as further evidence of ongoing church decline in a world that is increasingly post-Christian. The naysayers see what is happening now as one more downward spiral in the inevitable collapse of denominations, the closing of churches, and the demise of personal belief. But me, I’m an optimist. What if the current circumstance is a calling and an opportunity? What if this is our big chance to be what Peter told those embattled Christians in Asia Minor they were? What if it’s our turn to be the royal priesthood of all believers?
I have reason to hope. Last year, while we were still slogging our way through quarantines and COVID bouts, this church began working with a consultant John Fong, whose services were paid for by a generous grant from the Synod. John, who has an infectious laugh and unbridled enthusiasm, believes that every church can grow. His formula is about as simple as it gets: church growth comes when members engage in simple acts of kindness in the name of Jesus and invite others to join them in that. We have put John’s theory to the test by inviting others to make Resurrection Gardens with us and to Grow a Row of vegetables for the Food Pantry. We have shared the simple kindness of summertime bouquets – fresh picked, beautiful, and ready for you to deliver to friends, family, and neighbors on Sunday mornings. Today, we’re giving the love of Jesus a tasty spin with cookies, sending packages of home-baked goodness out to bless our neighbors.
If you have joined us in these efforts, then you may have smiled at the abundance of fresh vegetables on summery Saturday mornings for our vulnerable neighbors at the Food Pantry. Or, you may have been tickled by the joy that your delivery of a simple bouquet of garden flowers brought to someone who needed it. If you haven’t joined us in reaching out, today is your big chance with the Cookie Bomb. Who doesn’t like cookies – and who wouldn’t like you for bringing them some on behalf of the church?
I trust that, as we take on the mantle of the priesthood of all believers, there will be growth. We’ll grow in faith and understanding as we employ our personal gifts in service to God. Volunteerism will grow – and that volunteer crisis that affects the post-pandemic church just may come to an end, at least in this church. We’ll grow closer to one another as we care and share and practice kindness together. We may even grow in numbers as we extend love and kindness in ways that give glory to God and blessing to neighbor. We are a royal priesthood, my friends. Let’s get busy. Amen.
Daniel Deffenbaugh. “Commentary on 1 Peter 2:2-10” in Preaching This Week, May 22, 2011. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Jeannine K. Brown. “Commentary on 1 Peter 2:2-10” in Preaching This Week, May 14, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Hans Vaatstra. “The Priesthood of All Believers” in Faith in Focus, 2003. Accessed online at christianstudylibrary.org.
Ian Lovett. “Houses of Worship Face Clergy Shortage as Many Resign During Pandemic” in the Wall Street Journal, Feb. 21, 2022. Accessed online at wsj.com.
1 Peter 2:2-10
2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5 like living stones let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
7 This honor, then, is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,”
“A stone that makes them stumble and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.