Sent Out

Note: Today, Pentecost Sunday, was my last Sunday as pastor of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Long Beach. I am retiring. What follows is both my Pentecost and my farewell sermon.

Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”  Kind of like us.  Here.  Now.  Today.  They were all in one place and then all of a sudden a sound like a mighty blast of wind filled the place and tongues of fire appeared and came to rest on each of them.  And all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.

That’s how the book of Acts describes the Holy Spirit coming upon the followers of Jesus.  The writer of Luke, who was also the writer of Acts, really likes special effects, especially the ones that seem to pierce the boundary between heaven and earth.  Just look at his Christmas story.  

The description of Pentecost in Acts is dynamic and inspiring, and I know that the Spirit still does show up in some pretty remarkable and breathtaking ways sometimes.  I think we should always be open to that kind of energizing experience of the Spirit, always praying for the Spirit to fire us up with a passion to speak about what God has done and what God is doing among us and in the world.

The story of Pentecost in Acts is knock-your-socks-off inspiring and it can speak to us very powerfully of hope and empowerment and mission.  But there’s another story about the giving of the Holy Spirit that can speak to us just as powerfully even though it is a much quieter story.

The Gospel of John tells us that it was evening on the first day of the week when the disciples received the Spirit, evening on the day of the resurrection.  The Jews have always understood evening to be a transition time, a time when one day is ending and a new day is beginning.  For them the new day begins at sunset.  John tells us that it was evening.  An in-between time.  And the disciples were all together, except for Thomas.  

They were all together behind locked doors.  They were tense.  They were confused.  They were apprehensive.  Their future was uncertain.  Kind of like us.  Here.  Now.  Today.  They were all in one place, smothered under the weight of their anxiety, when suddenly Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

He showed them his wounds.  He spoke peace to them again.  And then he told them they were going to be sent out.  And then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness, it remains withheld.”

That’s how the disciples received the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John.  It may not seem as theatrical as the fire and wind of Pentecost in the book of Acts, but it is no less dramatic.  It’s just a different kind of drama—a quieter and more personal drama, but no less life-changing.

As much as we might long for a blast of wind and tongues of fire, it has been my experience that most of us have received the Holy Spirit more in a Gospel of John way than in a Book of Acts way.  Most of us, I think, have experienced the Spirit as the quiet but revitalizing breath of Christ shared among friends in the beloved community.  The Spirit has come to us in hearing, studying and sharing the Word of God, in sharing the bread and wine of the table and in a splash of water at the font.  The Spirit has come to us in conversation and companionship, in words of comfort and whispers of prayer.  The Spirit has come to us in laughter and in singing.  And sometimes in tears.  

As long as we have gathered together in the name and presence and love of Jesus, the Holy Spirit has never stopped filling us and renewing us in our life of ministry, worship and faith.  Together.

When Jesus breathes on his friends he reaffirms the promise of peace.  Shalom.  “Peace I leave with you,” he had told them earlier. “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”(John 14:27) And now as he fills the room with his breath, the breath of the Holy Spirit, he says to them once again, “Peace be with you.”

They needed that peace.  We need that peace, because to receive  the Holy Spirit also means receiving a mandate to pass it along.  It means being sent out to carry the love, grace and joy of Christ into the world to transform the world.  

Jesus sends us into the world, empowered by the Spirit, to forgive sins.  Immediately after saying “receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness of any, it remains withheld.”   Eugene Peterson in The Message said it this way, “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”

We have been given the power and authority and responsibility to free people from the burden of sin.  Or to bury them under that burden if we neglect or fail to free them.  We’ve been given the Spirit to make the love of God tangible, to make God’s grace visible in the world.

This is the news of Pentecost:  God has a whole new way of being in the world.  God has chosen to work in the world in us, with us, and through us.   We cannot be afraid of change—because God has called us and empowered us to be the change that all of creation has been longing for.  (Romans 8) 

God, through us, is transforming the world, and that can be daunting.  But God has shown us the Way, the Truth and the Life in Jesus and empowered us with the Holy Spirit so we can walk that Way, speak that truth and live that Life.

“Peace I leave you,” said Jesus.  “My peace I give you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” 

In his book, God’s Politics, Jim Wallis tells about the time he was attending worship in St. George’s cathedral in South Africa during the days of apartheid.  Bishop Desmond Tutu was preaching when suddenly the service was interrupted by South African security police who marched into the cathedral to intimidate Bishop Tutu so he would not speak out yet again against the apartheid government.  

When the Security Police filed into the building with weapons, tape recorders and cameras, Bishop Tutu stared them down then said to them, “You are powerful. Very powerful. But I serve a God who will not be mocked.” Then with a dazzling, warm smile he said to them, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to join the winning side.” 

Immediately the congregation was transformed.  The spell of fear that had gripped them was broken and the people began to dance.  They danced out into the streets where even more security forces were waiting to intimidate them, but the police ended up standing aside and letting the people dance in the joy of the Spirit.

When the forces of intimidation showed up at church, Bishop Tutu stared them down with a dazzling smile and the Fruit of the Spirit.  That’s our weapon.  That’s our most powerful tool in the God Family Business—the business of transforming the world:  a dazzling smile fully loaded with all the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control.  And also grace, which is often the same thing as forgiveness.  

And I would add one more characteristic of the Spirit: gratitude.

As I stand here this morning preaching my final sermon as pastor of the Little Church with a Big Heart, my heart is overflowing.  I am so grateful to God and to each and every one of you for the almost 12 years we’ve had together, for the love we’ve shared, for the joy we’ve shared, and even for the sorrows we’ve shared.  I am grateful for the way you have all been the Church.  I am grateful for your sense of mission that reaches far beyond this building.  I am grateful for your consistent stewardship of your time, treasures and talents.   I am grateful for the ways you have adapted to change. Most of all, though, I am grateful for the love you have given so freely to Meri and me as we have shared this life of faith together.

Thank you for calling me to be your pastor all those years ago.  

And now God is sending us out, me to retirement and you to continue being the Little Church with a Big Heart in new and different ways.  Be not afraid.  You have all the gifts you need.  You are the Body of Christ.  You are filled with the Holy Spirit.

God be with you.  As St. Paul said in Colossians: “Though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, and I rejoice to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ.”  Peace be with you.  In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

The Keys of Heaven

The Keys of Heaven

The body of the old man lay stretched out upon the table, prepared according to custom and covered with a shroud.  The priest, who had been gazing out the window, or perhaps deep into his own thoughts, broke from his reverie, stood up, and removed a papyrus scroll from the folds of his robe then moved to the body lying on the table and gently, reverently, lifted the edge of the shroud and took something from the right hand of the old man lying beneath it, and lifted it high in the lamplight for all to see.  Everyone reacted to the familiar object dangled before them.  Some smiled wistfully, a few nodded in recognition, one woman buried her face in her scarf and wept.  It was a plain thing, a simple leather thong suspending ten stones, seven smaller, three larger, each separated from the others by a knot in the leather.  They did not catch the light in any particular way.  They did not glow or sparkle.  There was no mystic aura about them.  But the faithful people in that gathering would not have traded those stones for rubies or diamonds or sapphires or pearls. “The Keys to Heaven,” said the priest.  With care bordering on ceremony he handed the odd artifact to the Deaconess who stood at the feet of the old man’s corpse.  She continued to cradle the leather strip and its stones in her hands so all could see it in the soft glow of the oil lamps.   The priest unrolled the scroll and began to read.

By vocation the priest was the chief reader at a busy scriptorium.  Six days of the week he would read aloud to a phalanx of copyists—reading slowly, distinctly, and loudly enough to be heard at the back of the room yet fast enough to keep up with the demands of the business, to meet its deadlines and keep it profitable.  The qualities that made him so very good at his job also made him an excellent public lector, a role which added to his income.  This talent also served him well, of course, in his role as priest in this small community of the faithful.  But now, as he began to read his dear friend’s last will and testament, he put aside his professional voice and tried to find in himself the deep wells of strength and gentleness that characterized his departed friend; he did his best to summon his friend’s voice for his friend’s words.  This is what he read:

My dear friends, my brothers and sisters, grace to you and peace in the name of the One we follow, who was, who is and who is to come.  Amen.  I pray you know how much you are loved.   I have so very little to leave to you in the way of earthly things.  My little house and my poor purse I entrust to this community.  Perhaps they may be used to benefit a widow or two.  Let the Deaconess administer these things as she is most capable.  Let the tools of my trade go Nathaniel, my apprentice.  I have no other possessions except the Keys to Heaven.  These I bequeath to you all for your common use and good, but I must tell you how I came to have them.

I think that almost every one of you, most when you were children, but some when you were older, have asked me, “Andreas, what are those stones hanging from your belt?” and I would say, “They are the Keys to Heaven and I am giving them to you.”  Then you would say, “When can I have them?”  And I would say, “When you can tell me how they are made!”  So now, I will tell you their story.

For all the years I have lived among you, you have known me as Andreas the Leatherworker.  That was not always my name.  For that matter, working leather was not always my trade, but that is of no importance.  When I was much younger and full of anger at the world I did some dangerous and stupid things.  One thing in particular was even evil, though I did not think so at the time.  As a consequence, I found myself on the run, hiding from the patrols of soldiers that seemed to be everywhere on the road.  I cut my hair and shaved my beard.  I stole the tunic, mantle and belt of a tradesman while he was bathing in the river and left my very fine and costly clothes in their place.  Then I fastened a sword to my belt and kept on running.

Three nights later, just at nightfall, I saw a man sitting by a campfire just to the side of the road.  Half mad with hunger and exhaustion, I moved toward him, drew my sword and said, “Give me your food and your money.”  I meant to growl it out in a menacing way but my throat was so parched I must have croaked like a raven.  “We will gladly share our food with you,” said the man, “but what money we have with us is not ours to give.”  I started to move toward him with my sword when his words pierced the fog of my hunger.  We.  He had said “we.”  I blinked, looked again, and could not believe I had not seen them the first time—four other men. Two of them were some small distance behind the man by the fire but were now walking briskly toward us.  Another man was emerging from the brush carrying an armload of wood for the fire, and another with a water skin was just coming up from the stream.  Five men altogether.  Even if I were not nearly dead from hunger and thirst I could never take on five men.  My head began to swim, my knees gave out and I fell, unconscious.

I awakened to find one of the men bathing my forehead with a cool, wet cloth while another was bandaging my arm.  Apparently I had cut it with my own sword when I fell.  The man I had first seen, the one I had threatened and tried to rob, lifted a cup of cool water to my lips but urged me to drink it slowly.  As soon as I was able to sit up one of the men gave me a piece of bread and a piece of dried fish which I devoured immediately without a word. 

I didn’t know what to expect next and I was too weak to try to run.  When the big man, the first man I had seen by the fire, picked up my sword I half expected him to kill me with it. Instead he laid it in front of me in the dirt.  “This is yours,” he said, “though I think you might be better off not to keep it.  That’s a Roman Gladius.  A soldier’s sword.  And you don’t strike me as a soldier. I think maybe that sword has already brought you trouble and if I were you I would just bury it here at the side of the road.”  

I was dumbstruck.  That sword had been nothing but trouble.  That sword and my hot temper were the whole reason I had had to flee for my life.  

I looked at the big man.  He was smiling at me, and I realized, looking at him, that there was no fear in him.  No anger.  “You must still be hungry,” he said.  “I tried to rob you!” I said, incredulous.  “I threatened you!”  “Yes.  You did,” he said.  “I forgive you.”  “But I…”  I started.  “Let it go,” he said, quietly.  “I have.  What you bind on earth is bound in heaven.  What you release on earth is released in heaven.  I release it.  I release you.  Let it go.”

I sat staring at the ground for a long time, confused, not knowing what to think.  

I heard him chuckle, looked up and saw him smiling at me.  He leaned over and picked up a smooth agate pebble from the ground, walked over and placed it in my hand.  “Here,” he said. “Keep this.  This is the first Key to Heaven.  Forgiveness.”  “I don’t know if I can be forgiven.” I said.  His expression became reflective and he gazed into the fire for a long moment. “I felt that way once,” he said at last. “I betrayed my best friend…my teacher…my master.  I betrayed him three times in one night to save my own skin.”  “What happened?” I asked.  “They crucified him,” he said simply.  “But I got away because I pretended that I didn’t know him. Three times in one night someone accused me of being one of his companions and three times I denied it.  And I didn’t think I would ever be forgiven for that.  But he forgave me.  And he helped me forgive myself.  He released me from my sin and he helped me let go of my sin—helped me to stop clinging to it..”  “Wait a minute,” I said, “I though you said they crucified him.”  “They did,” he said.  “Well then how…when did he forgive you?”  The way he looked at me I could tell he was trying to decide something and it was another very long moment before he said, “That’s another story and if you would like to travel with us I will gladly tell it another day.  For now,” and here he smiled again, “hold on to that little piece of forgiveness and let that be enough for today.”

And that, my beloved brothers and sisters is how I came to have the first of the Keys of Heaven, the Key of Forgiveness.  Having nowhere else to go and nothing to lose, I became a travelling companion of Petrus, the Fisherman, who taught me the ways of his Master and baptized me into a new life with a new name.  And along the way he gave me the Keys of Heaven and taught me how they are made, or where they can be discovered, so that each of us can have them and carry them with us and unlock Heaven around us wherever we are.  

The first key is Forgiveness.  The Second is Gratitude.  The third is Generosity.  The fourth is Compassion. These four open your heart to the world God made, the world God loves.  The fifth key is Integrity.  The Sixth is Thoughtfulness.  These two open the soul and mind to look beyond yourself and deal fairly with all others.  The seventh is Be Not Afraid.  This key gives you the presence of mind to remember that you have all the others at your command and it helps you to use them wisely.

Then there are the three larger keys.  These give the first keys their power.  At the same time, the first keys can unlock the power of these three.  They are Faith, Hope and Love.

So, my beloved friends, these are the Keys to Heaven.  I hope you can see that I spoke the truth all these years when I said, “I am giving them to you.”  I hope and pray that in my life you saw forgiveness, gratitude, generosity, compassion, integrity and thoughtfulness.  I hope you saw me live without fear.  I pray that you are gathering these keys for yourself by the example of our Master.  May you all continue to grow in Faith, Hope and Love until we are reunited in the Life to Come.

Peace be with you.

I am always your brother,


The small assembly sang a hymn.  The priest pronounced a benediction.  The Deaconess replaced the Keys of Heaven in the old man’s hand, and in the dim lamplight they reverently carried his body to its place of rest.  

Leaving Home/Going Home

            How lovely is your dwelling place,

                        O LORD of hosts!

            My soul longs, indeed it faints

                        for the courts of the LORD;

            my heart and my flesh sing for joy

                        to the living God. 

               Even the sparrow finds a home,

                        and the swallow a nest for herself,

                        where she may lay her young. —Psalm 84:1-3

I started to drive away but something moved me to pull over to the curb and stop.   I sat there in my car looking across the street at the house we had called home for the last seven years.  It didn’t feel right to just drive away.  After all, we had a relationship with this place, and you don’t just drive away from a relationship without a good goodbye. After a long look at the house, the words finally came.  “Thank you, house,” I said. “You kept us warm and dry in the winter and cool in the summer.  We had a few trials but much more joy within your walls and you held us together through all of it. You gave us a place to be family.  You gave us a place to be home.  I know you will do the same for your new owners.  Hold them and protect them.  I hope your walls will remember our love and laughter.  We will remember you with much fondness.”  I took a long last look at the pale yellow house on the corner lot then drove away for the last time. 

We are moving to live closer to our daughter and son-in-law and grandsons.  The new house has a pool which is a huge attraction for our water-loving grandsons.  We haven’t even moved our furniture in yet and they’ve already taken a swim there.  

It’s exciting to move into a different house.  It’s fun to do all the things that make it ours—choosing paint colors, taking out old carpet and putting in new flooring, planning where the furniture will go.  But there is also a kind of wistful sadness in leaving the old house behind.  It was more than just a house.  It was our home.

As I write this on All Saints Day, I am mindful of all the saints I’ve been at home with and all the places I’ve called home over the years.  All Saints Day is for me a kind of marker in the calendar, signaling a time of introspection, ingathering and family.  Thanksgiving lies just ahead.  Then Christmas.  These are times to be shared with family, whether the accidental family of your gene pool or your church family or the intentional family of like-minded friends that you’ve gathered around yourself.  These are times to remember and to make new memories.

This is also a time—and this day in particular—to be mindful of the “great cloud of witnesses,” those beloved people who have gone before us and whose presence we still carry in our hearts.  This is a day and a season to remember the faces that always warmed our hearts and reminded us that we are not alone in this world or the next.  This is a day, even, to remember the houses that held us, the places where we were at home.  This is also a day and a season to remember that someday we will move on.

Life is movement.   Some of us move many times.  Some put down roots in a place and stay there most of their lives.  But eventually everyone moves on to the great mystery, the great What Comes Next.  Eventually every one of us will move to the House with many dwelling places where a place for us has been prepared. 

In my work I have been privileged and blessed to be with many as they made that final move.  Some were mightily reluctant to go and approached it with anger or fear.  Most though, had made peace with the idea and were ready for the move.  Some even welcomed it joyfully.  When you know you’re going to move, it’s always best to make peace with the idea.  It’s even better when you can anticipate your new residence with joy.

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this world below
There’s no sickness, no toil or danger
In that bright land to which I go

I’m going there to see my father
And all my loved ones, who’ve gone on
I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home