Sunday, May 30, 2010

We've Forgotten How To Dance!

The full text of the poem I quote at the end of my sermon is found here.

As usual, comments and constructive criticism is welcome.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: "To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.

The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth-when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world's first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Romans 5:1-5
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

John 16:12-15
"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I want to let you in on a little secret. It’s something that pastors and preachers are never, ever supposed to let their congregations know. So, please, remember that you didn’t hear it from me! Ready?

Most pastors and preachers that I have spoken to, and have read on the Internet, agree that preaching on this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, more than any other Sunday on the calendar, scares them to death! Some preachers are concentrating on the reading from the Book of Proverbs. Others, who usually preach from outlines or notes, are preaching from a full manuscript. I heard about one preacher who is going to end her sermon by, and no, I’m not kidding, juggling.

At issue is the fact that, honestly, no one really understands the doctrine of the Trinity, and when you try to explain it, it’s too easy to get so bogged down that it becomes incomprehensible, or else to try so hard to come up with an effective simile or metaphor that it could become, well, heretical.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fascinating discussion – you can use everything from circles to candles to shamrocks to illustrate the Trinity, and every metaphor from eggs to cherry pie to dance to try and explain how three Persons can be one God. In the end, though, every illustration, every metaphor, every eighteen-syllable theological word, comes up short.

Once, St. Augustine was walking on the beach, contemplating this mystery of the Trinity. He came across a boy who had dug a hole in the sand. The boy was going out to the sea again and again and bringing some water to pour into the hole. When Augustine asked him what he was doing, the youngster replied, “I’m going to pour the entire ocean into this hole.” Augustine replied, “That’s impossible! The whole ocean will not fit in the hole you have made!” The boy replied, “And you cannot fit the Trinity in your tiny little brain.”

The doctrine of the Trinity is not so much about what God is – rather, it is an attempt to explain how God works, and more precisely, how God works in relation with God’s creation.

We make a mistake when we picture God as a kind of three-person hierarchy: God the Father, like a boss or a senior manager, calling the shots, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit acting, like employees, only on the Father’s orders. We make a mistake when we think that God the Father is steaming in anger over a sin we (or someone else) committed, and the only thing that’s keeping the Father from flinging lightning bolts at the offending human is Jesus’ intercession on their behalf.

On the contrary, as Shirley Guthrie writes, the Triune God is fully at work in all of the acts of God – every move of God, whether the creation of the world, the advent of Jesus Christ, the Resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and on and on throughout history and in our lives today, is an act not of an independent Person of the Trinity, but of the One Triune God!

One of the ways we understand the Trinity is through what the Eastern Orthodox Church calls the perichoresis. It’s a Greek word, and, depending on who you ask, it means either “dwelling around” or “dancing around.” The idea is this: the relationship of the three Persons of the Trinity is one of constant, intimate community, of intimate interconnection and active unity. Thus when Jesus says things like “I and the Father are One,” and “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” this is not hyperbole, but a statement of fact.

Christ’s words and actions are a mirror of the Father’s words and actions, and the leading and teaching of the Holy Spirit are the leading and teaching of God the Father and Jesus Christ. Precisely, inseparably, perfectly.

And here’s where it gets a little scary: in light of this idea of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one God, a perichoresis of love, mercy, grace and truth, in John 17 Jesus prays these words for his followers – all of his followers throughout eternity, including you and I: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

It doesn’t take a doctorate in theology or sociology to see that the church today is most certainly not dwelling in the perichoresis which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit embody. We’ve forgotten how to dance!

There are, in fact, over 30,000 denominations under the broad heading of the Christian faith. In our city alone, it’s hard to go a block without seeing a church, and there are places where churches of different denominations sit next door to one another!

Somewhere along the way, we decided that the only way to be in one accord was to agree with the way “I” think. We decided that doctrine was more important than community, that mental assertions could take the place of loving one another as proof that we belong to Jesus. Where once we would have been followers of “The Way,” or “Christians,” we are now “Protestants” as opposed to “Catholics.” We are “Presbyterians” as opposed to “Baptists” or “Methodists” or “Pentecostals” or “Episcopalians” or… you get the picture.

We’ve forgotten how to dance.

But even now, it’s not too late. We can acknowledge where we differ, and still celebrate that which makes us alike. We can celebrate the unique perspectives of each Christian denomination without allowing those labels to serve as dividing lines. It cannot happen quickly, granted, and it probably won’t be perfect, but no one learns to waltz or tango in an instant, do they? We stumble, misstep, and try again, finding the rhythm, feeling the music, remembering how to dance.

It has to start sometime. Let that time be now.

It has to start somewhere. Let that place be here.

Let’s join with the poet, Andrew Stephen Damick, in saying,

O elegant and gentle Leader of the dance,
we do not know the meaning of each step
nor how to rightly turn this way or hold this pose.
Each spinning step or angled movement's twist
does sometimes give us vertigo here where we stand;
this mystery of how the rhythm's pulse
and how the music's lilt are tuned to only You
has caught us up, and we are overwhelmed.
O grace-filled, grace-bestowing Leader of the dance,
please teach me how to twirl and how to move;
please teach me how the song pervades each dancer's form,
these dancers who have learned to dance with You
throughout the ages of the song, the holy song
You sang in ages past to Abraham,
to Isaac and to Jacob and his Hebrew seed:
Now sing to me and give me, too, this life.
O Leader of the dance, this perfect partnership
of Leader and of led, of God and man,
this Incarnation's holy dance we see in You,
You now invite us to accompany.
This awesome dance, a truly cosmic synergy,
the interpenetration of us men
with Deity -- with Trinity! -- the universe
beholds and stands amazed and bows its head.

Come join the perichoresis. Let’s remember how to dance.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

...And Nothing's Been the Same Since!

Quotes in this sermon, as well as the closing poem, are from's "How The Holy Spirit Moves Today (In 100 Words Or Less. Also, please visit the Outlaw Preachers search page on Twitter, and my friends Brandon Mouser, Jay Bakker, Vince Anderson, Pastor Nar Martinez, and Phil Shepherd. Their ministries are mentioned in the following sermon.

Genesis 11:1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."

The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

John 14:8-17 (25-27)

Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This 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.

"I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; 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."

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked,

"Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'"

This is the Word of the Lord.

I need to mention at the outset, because there’s no real way to include this at the end, that I’ll be closing with a poem by Callid Keefe-Perry, co-convener of the Emergent Cohort in Rochester, NY.

The Feast of Pentecost was, in part, a commemoration of the day that Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments – the day that the Hebrews ceased being escaped slaves, following a pillar of cloud and flame, and became a cohesive people, dedicated to the worship of the one true and living God, guided by stringent communal and sacerdotal laws.

Moses came down from the mountain, and nothing would ever be the same. From that moment the Hebrew people would go on to found a great nation, respected and feared for its valiant warriors and famous for its wise kings.

But those days, glorious as they were, were gone. Now Judea was nothing more than a province of the Roman Empire, buckling under the weight of corrupt rulers and outrageous taxes.
The great things God had done were legends, stories, memories, written in great scrolls that the priests read from, that the scribes debated over, that the children learned to read. They were holy scrolls, yes, the very Words of God… but when viewed in the harsh, biting reality of dusty, malnourished, thirsty, conquered and subservient Judea, they were just words.

There was reason for hope, of course. One could not be Jewish and not have hope. God had promised a Messiah, one who would re-establish David’s throne and return Israel to its former glory. Yet as the years rolled by, a person would pop up over there, claim to be the Messiah, would gather up a band of followers, would end up getting himself killed, and the followers would scatter. Theudas was one name, and Judas the Galilean another, according to Gamaleil, a teacher quoted in the Book of Acts.

There had been another one recently, another fellow from Galilee; he had died just like the rest of them. And Judea, less than a shadow of its former glory, stubbornly went on with life, stubbornly went on with the feast of Pentecost, packing pilgrims in from all across the globe to once again remember the day that Moses came down the mountain with the tablets of stone.

None of them really had a clue what was going on in that little two-story house right over there.

Not quite two months ago, you see, in the big room on the second floor, the people who had followed that Galilean fellow, the one who had gotten crucified, had seen, spoken with, and touched that Galilean. Seen, spoken with, and touched him because he had risen from the dead. And not more than ten days ago, they had watched as that same crucified-and-risen Galilean ascended into the clouds to sit at the right hand of God.

And even now, if you listened real hard, you could begin to hear a noise – the sound of rushing wind.

When the Law was delivered, Moses came down from the mountain, and it could be inferred that God went back up, to heaven. ‘Way up there somewhere… distant, removed, out of reach except through the rituals, sacrifices, and instruments of worship.

On that Pentecost day, God came down, with the sound of a rushing, mighty wind, with tongues of flame and a message in all languages for all people, and nothing would ever be the same.

Peter’s message, shorter than any I have ever heard or preached, started a firestorm that, to this day, burns unabated. Three thousand that first day responded to God’s grace; in the months and years that followed, God continued to move in directions that no one could anticipate, and at a speed that very nearly left the Apostles in the dust. People who would never have been allowed in the Temple courts came joyfully into relationship with their Creator: eunuchs and Samaritans and even Gentiles!

And God still moves today. God has not gone back to heaven, up there, in the distance, removed and remote, no. The Holy Spirit is still active, still moving in directions no one can anticipate, and at a speed that leaves us breathless in its wake. Maybe the noise isn’t like the wind, and perhaps we don’t see many tongues of fire, but the Spirit still falls today.

The Holy Spirit falls across the globe, in countries where being a Christian will still get you imprisoned and killed, as well as in our own country, where in many areas it seems you can find a church on every corner. The Holy Spirit falls in cathedrals, and it falls in storefront churches. The Holy Spirit falls in suburban America and in the tent cities of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

God’s Spirit moves in traditional denominational circles, and in new and growing fellowships outside of traditional church models and boundaries. Places like “Ink,” in West Virginia, a small discussion group officiated by Brandon Mouser, which meets at a local Books-A-Million. Places like Pete’s Candy Store, a bar in Brooklyn, where Jay Bakker and Vince Anderson’s “Revolution New York City” meets every Sunday afternoon. God’s Spirit still inspires and supports people like Pastor Nar Martinez, who has spent a lifetime mentoring young people, or Phil and Stephanie Shepherd, who reach out to the marginalized and forgotten through their church, “The Eucatastrophe,” in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Holy Spirit still moves, still falls, still empowers, in ways we cannot recognize… but move and fall and empower it does.

The website challenged a variety of theologians, speakers, and writers to tell, in 100 words or less, how the Holy Spirit moves today. Their responses were both interesting and challenging. For example, Sam Hamilton-Poore, Adjunct Professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary, wrote, “Closer to us than our own breath and breathing, the Risen Christ fills us with his own Spirit – quietly, intimately. With this breath, this power, we then go about the everyday, unspectacular, grubby work of forgiveness. Breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive. Although we often long for the dazzling or spectacular, we live in a time, a world, in need of people who breathe in, regularly, the quiet power and grace of Christ's Spirit – and people who, likewise, breathe out, regularly, the power and grace of forgiveness. Our world – so spectacularly broken and burning – needs people for whom reconciliation is as normal and natural as breathing.”

Author and speaker Brian McLaren wrote, “On the grass-roots level, there are tens of thousands of Christians who aren't waiting for denominational leaders to fix things. They're just getting on with it. They're doing it, living it, making it real in their lives, in their neighborhoods, through small groups and mission trips and so on. When you have leaders at the top working for needed change, and people at the grass roots doing the same, and when you're confident that the Holy Spirit is behind it all, eventually the tide will turn and a new day will come.”
God is still here, the Holy Spirit still active, alive, vibrant…

“My God is in the next room,
cooking unseen feasts
and humming;
moments of ache before rain
when the whole June cloud
is ready to burst through
though no drop has yet fallen;
dandelion blades that insist
adamantly they must reside directly
in the middle of your neighbor's
blacktopped suburban driveway;
sights of the shadow of a bird flitting
by the sill near the bed of an aging Grace,
who can no longer move but counts herself
lucky because at least she can still see.
This is my God:
expectant and grinning
wild and near.”

Let us pray.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Apostle and the Slave Girl...

I'm glad I had an opportunity to reflect on the slave girl in this week's reading. I have no conclusion to what happened to her, but to ignore a troublesome piece of Scripture is to be unfaithful to that Scripture. If one is to preach and believe what's written, one must not ignore the difficult bits. Those parts are where we learn.

As usual, comments and constructive criticism is appreciated.

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

"See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."
"Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates."
"It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star." The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

John 17:20-26

"I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
"Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."

Acts 16:16-34

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

This is the Word of the Lord.

This account of Paul, the slave girl, and the jailer is remarkable in a lot of respects – both for what it says, and for what it leaves unresolved. There’s something fairly unique about the exorcism that Paul performs on the slave girl. If you compare it with the Gospel accounts of Jesus healing and casting demons out of people, they’re in the midst of torment, most of the time they, or someone responsible for them, requests healing or exorcism, and that healing brings joy and peace and restoration to them, and they almost always leave praising God, or at least in a better place than they were when Jesus met them.

Now, Paul is in Phillipi, staying with his fellow missionaries in the home of Lydia. Phillipi was a Roman city, populated by descendants of Roman soldiers, veterans of the civil war that sprang up following the assassination of Julius Caesar. There were very few Jews in that city, and apparently no synagogue; the “place of prayer” appears to have been a spot at a river west of the city. Within that population, people like this slave girl, diviners or, as they were also called, “mantics,” were thought to be able to predict the future, and were sought after for that quality. According to Paul Walaskay, this girl “would have been accepted as a more or less ordinary member of society serving a useful function for people in that culture.” She was a possession of men who stood to make a lot of money from her divinations; and while she was also possessed by an evil spirit, she was not particularly tormented.

What she was, apparently, was annoying. She followed Paul and the others around, repeating the same phrase: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” That’s all well and good, because it was a true statement, but the repetition, and very likely the volume at which she said it, got in the way of Paul’s praying and teaching and everything else. Eventually Paul had had enough of it and cast the demon out of her: an act she hadn’t requested, and which rendered her – a slave and thus dependent in large degree for her very life upon her ability to serve her masters effectively – useless. Being set free from one thing and not the other – free of the demon but still the property of others – is not really being set free, is it? Walter Cronkite once said, “There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.”

In any case, we never read another word about her.
I have to be honest, even though I know that, given the location and the age in which this happened, there is little Paul could have done to set the girl free from her physical slavery, when I read this account I want Paul to have set her completely free, not only spiritually but physically as well.

It may be, as Reverend Laura Becker suggests, that the slave girl’s purpose in this narrative is simply to serve as an explanation for why Paul and Silas are in jail. To be sure, the fury that erupts around the incident drowns out any opportunity for follow-up with the girl, who was nothing more than a cash cow to her owners, but we see in very short order that there are a lot of people in this narrative that need to be set free, and in a big way.

Ron Hansen and Kate Huey note that the owners of this slave girl don’t want to recover the money they lost with the slave girl, they want revenge. They want retribution, but what they need is to be set free from the slavery of financial idolatry… and the gathering crowds need to be set free from the slavery of xenophobia and anti-Semitism… and the magistrates need to be set free from slavery to the of fear of public opinion…

In fact, isn’t it fascinating that, even in the agony that followed the beating, bleeding and bruised, with horrible muscle cramps from hours in the stocks, and locked tightly in a prison cell, the only people in the entire account who really are free at all are Paul and Silas! The night wears on, and Paul and Silas pray and sing hymns, and while you might expect the other prisoners to hurl insults at them and demand peace and quiet, they are listening to every word. They are apparently so enthralled by Paul and Silas that, even when the earth shakes and the doors fly open and the chains fall off no one moves!

Yet there is one more person in the narrative that needs to be set free: the jailer needs to be set free from slavery to the system… and out of everyone we meet in this narrative, from the slave girl to the owners to the raging crowd to the magistrates, the one person who receives the freedom he so desperately needs is that one jailer! And that is simply because instead of accusations and demands and declarations and condemnations, he asks the most important question in all of Scripture – in all of life: “…what must I do to be saved?”

Ronald Cole-Turner poses this question for each one of us, personally: “What must I do,” he asks, “to be saved from what destroys me? What must I do to be saved from my particular bondage, my oppressive addiction, emptiness, or boredom? There are countless ways to lose our way in this world or to be in bondage, just as there are many different threats from which we need to be saved.” Kate Huey notes that “one of the most powerful captivities of our age… is the way fear can imprison us in our convictions and our desire for security, making us unable to open our hearts and minds to others, to events, to the God who still speaks through them.

“How amazed the jailer must be, just as he's about to kill himself, to see that the prisoners are still there! Fear almost leads to death, but compassion leads to his life, and his family's life, being transformed.”

Notice that there’s no requirement that the jailer give up his service to the Roman Empire; there is no expectation that he’ll let Paul and Silas go, although, and make no mistake about this, in that day and age what is required of him may well cost him everything. All they tell him is this: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

We could spend a lot of time this morning reflecting on what that word, “believe,” really means. Certainly, it implies more than simply agreeing to a set of doctrines, adhering to mental assertions, saying and thinking and doing only those things which will make us look like proper Christians. In twenty-first century America, saying “Jesus is Lord” won’t get you anything; in the Roman Empire before 312AD, it might well have gotten you tortured and killed. Belief speaks against the slavery to financial idolatry, to xenophobia, to classism, to racism, to popular opinion, and to the system. In Galatians, the Apostle Paul writes that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

While this is not at all a complete description, Cole-Turner writes that “Believing….means becoming decisively aware that our small lives are swept up into a great drama, God's story line. God is indeed reaching out to us in Jesus Christ, taking our lives into the gospel story of transformation and redemption.”

There, after all, is where true freedom is found.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Man Who Didn't Deserve To Be Healed

As always, comments and constructive criticism welcome.

Acts 16:9-15
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

Revelation 21:10, 21:22-22:5
And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day-and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

John 5:1-9
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids-blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me."Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath.

This is the Word of the Lord.

You know, just when you think you’ve got this whole thing figured out – I mean this Gospel message thing, maybe not explaining miracles but certainly categorizing them, putting them in neat little packages that can be used to highlight another aspect of the divinity of Jesus, or the love of God, or the efficacy of prayer – along comes a passage of Scripture that turns it all on its head.
Our Gospel reading today has been called “the strangest miracle,” and there is good reason for that.

There’s some festival going on in Jerusalem; we don’t know which one, and I guess it doesn’t matter, but there’s really no good reason for Jesus to be down by that pool of Bethesda, or “Beth-zatha,” as our translation puts it. Though there are apparently lots of sick people around, none of them seems to have noticed or called out to or cared at all that Jesus was there. They were too busy watching the water intently, as if it were the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl. You see, every so often, the water in that pool would bubble up. The belief was that an angel stirred it up, and when that happened, the first person to get in the pool got healed of whatever ailment they had! Can you imagine?

One of the things I am terrible at is fishing. My problem isn’t that I’m afraid of fish, or can’t put a worm on a hook, my problem is that bobber thing. I’ll put the line in, and that red-and-white bobber will be floating on the surface, and I get tensed up waiting on it to move… was that a nibble? Ooh, quick, hook it! Oh, that was nothing, oh, well… wait, did it… by the time something actually takes the bait, I’ve zoned out completely staring at that bobber and I nearly always miss it!

But even as bad as I am, I occasionally catch a fish. This guy, the one Jesus talks to, has been trying to catch that bubbly water for thirty-eight years. You’d think there was some kind of seniority, that over the years he would have at least gotten his mat put down closer to the water, so if nothing else he could roll in when the time came, but no. He just lay there, day after day and year after year. I think that at some point, maybe years ago, he gave up. Oh, he still went through the motions, after all, what else could he do? Most likely someone, maybe his family, brought him there every morning, and took him home every night. But as far as anything ever changing? No. Never had, never will, and he had several very good excuses all rehearsed and ready when and if he was asked why he had been there so long.

But that’s not the only thing that makes this miracle strange. So often in the Gospels, we read where people come to Jesus looking for a miracle: the leper who confronts Jesus in the village, blind Bartimaeus crying out for Jesus as he passes by on the road, the man who interrupts Jesus’ dinner to come and raise his child from the dead, the woman with the issue of blood who pushes through the crowd and strains just to get her fingertips to brush the fringe of Jesus’ robe, and on and on… this guy doesn’t ask Jesus for a thing. In fact, when Jesus asks him, directly, “Do you want to be made well?” he really doesn’t answer the question! He simply rehearses his list of excellent excuses.

But the strangeness doesn’t even stop there! (I feel like Vince, trying to get you to buy a ShamWow, “but wait, there’s more!”) So often, when you read of Jesus performing a miracle, the one who is healed is thankful, the people around are amazed and glorify God, there is some kind of acknowledgment that something wonderful has happened! Not this time. The guy doesn’t ask for a miracle, and while I guess you’ve got to give him credit for doing what Jesus tells him to do, “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” there’s no mention of joy, or thankfulness, or any such thing from the man who is healed, or the people around Jesus, or anything like that!

What’s more, if we read further in the Gospel account, well, this guy who got healed, I mean, man, what a weasel! I’m sorry, that’s probably not a proper theological term, but come on! The prim and proper Jews, most likely the Pharisees, who were sticklers for every point of the Law, stopped the guy because it was against the religious law to carry something as large as a mat on the Sabbath. Not only does he immediately shift the blame to the person who made him well, he doesn’t even know who it is who healed him! And when Jesus finds the guy later in the Temple, does he take the opportunity to thank Jesus and glorify God for this miracle, this healing, this restoration of wholeness and health? No, not even close! He immediately runs off to rat out Jesus to the Temple authorities!

If there were ever anyone on earth more undeserving of help, undeserving of healing, undeserving of anything, it’s this guy! Jesus gives him his life back, after nearly forty years, and in return all Jesus gets is persecution!

Can I tell you this morning that this is, for us, good news? Because what we learn from this, among other things, is that in Jesus Christ, God reaches out to us and loves us and heals us and restores us based not upon how deserving or desiring or devoted or prepared or even how cognizant or thankful we are for that healing and love and restoration, not based at all upon who we are… but upon who God is.

And whenever we, in our brokenness and inhumanity toward one another, decide that someone or some group is undeserving of God’s love, especially God’s love as demonstrated in our own lives and actions, we miss the point – and not just the point of this passage of Scripture, but the point of the Gospel.

One of my favorite passages of Scripture is found in Romans 5, verse 8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

It could be argued that Jesus went looking for the most undeserving person he could find – someone so disengaged from life that he couldn’t even be bothered to mumble “thank you” when he was given his life back, who couldn’t muster the backbone to resist selling Jesus out to the authorities, who couldn’t see love and joy and freedom and forgiveness even after it found him again in the temple – just so God could restore him – heal him – love him anyway!

Because the Gospel has never been about who deserves God’s love, it’s never been about us, and it’s never been about “them,” whoever “them” may be. It has always been, and always will be, about who God is.

And for that, we must all say “Thanks be to God!”

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Is it REALLY a "New" Commandment?

Hint: If not, it'd be an even shorter sermon than usual.

Here it is; comments and constructive criticism welcome.

Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."

Revelation 21:1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life."

John 13:31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I wonder if it struck you like it struck me, the one word that seems to pop up in every one of our readings. Jesus gives us a new commandment. The One who is seated on the Throne says “See, I am making all things new.” Peter’s testimony is all about how God is doing a new thing among the Gentiles.

I talked a little last week about how advertising tries to make us believe that the same old thing is “new and improved,” how what we have isn’t good enough, and so on. And sure enough, this week we are confronted with God’s version of “new and improved!”

But, really, how new is all of this? We’ve had these words in our readings today for close to two thousand years. They’ve been translated, commentated, pontificated, evaluated, argued over, and put on plaques and sold in Christian bookstores. Is the commandment, is what God is doing – is what Peter experienced – really “new?”

I want to submit to you this morning that, in fact, it is. It’s new because even now, with all of these millenia of understanding and all these generations of experience, we still don’t really understand it.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you,” and I think that this is where we miss it so often; we really don’t understand the breadth and depth and intensity with which God in Christ Jesus loves us.

When we say that Jesus loves us, do we really understand what this means? Looking in the Gospels, who did Jesus show God’s love to? The Jewish people, certainly, but also to the Samaritans, a people at theological and cultural odds to the Jews. There were also the Gentiles, both those who lived on the borders of Judea and those who were part of the occupying forces of Rome. There were rich people and those who lived in poverty, and even the lepers – people feared and loathed because of a disease. The love of God in Jesus Christ knew no limitations – no borders – no qualifications – no prerequisites.

It is that kind of extravagant, unrestrained love that Peter saw when he visited the Gentiles. Now, we may have forgotten, in our day and age, just how big a step this was for Peter, and how shocking and confusing such a thing would have been for the believers in Judea. After all, things were happening very fast. Not only were thousands of Jewish people responding to God’s grace, but now there was news out of Samaria that even Samaritans were coming to the faith, and sure enough, Peter and John had confirmed it. Follow that with Philip bringing a eunuch to the faith, a eunuch! For these believers whose whole understanding of God was defined by the culture that had lived in all of their lives, the ground was shifting beneath their feet. They must have thought, even with all of these new things happening, at least Samaritans follow the Books of Moses, at least they understand the Law and don’t eat unclean things. At least the Ethiopian was a Jewish eunuch.

Then Peter goes and sits on the roof in Joppa while they’re making lunch, and everything changes yet again! And once they hear Peter’s testimony, and comprehend Peter’s evidence – because, make no mistake, Peter is indeed on trial here – they have no choice but to agree that God’s love in Jesus Christ extends even farther than they could have ever imagined. God’s love doesn’t look like they want it to look, and God’s beloved don’t look like they want God’s beloved to look. Left to their own devices, the disciples would have been quite happy to let the Good News stop at the borders of Judea and Samaria… but in Peter’s testimony they begin to see that God’s love truly is unstoppable!

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

To love like Jesus loved is to love without reservation. To love like Jesus loved is to love friends and enemies. To love without hesitation and without limitation. It is a radical, unheard-of love, and yes, even in this day and age, it is new. It is love lived not in thought or emotion or in words, but as a verb – as an act of the will, deliberate, direct, and in spite of the consequences.

Our reading from the Book of Revelation, like last week’s 23rd Psalm, it’s one we hear most often at funerals, and rightly so, because the words bring comfort and assurance. But we also read something amazing in that passage – God is no longer in heaven, up there, out there, away somewhere we do not and cannot know. Quite the contrary: God, who has made all things new, comes to dwell with mortals! How amazing that, even in the end, when all of God’s enemies have been defeated, even when there are no more victories to be won, we do not go to where God is, God comes to us!

The kind of love that imitates Jesus recognizes that God living with humankind is not just something for the unknown future, not something simply for the end of the twilight. The kind of love that imitates Jesus recognizes that, in the Holy Spirit, God is already present with humankind, and responds in the only appropriate way: by loving, actively and deliberately, with extravagant abandon.

If you’re waiting on me to define what that kind of active, unbridled love looks like for you, I can’t do that. We are individuals, with our own histories and unique experiences, and what love looks like will be as personal and unique as each of us are. But think of the person or people you find least loveable. The ones who disgust you, or frighten you, or who seem not worth the effort. Oh, and don’t forget the ones you find most loveable – the ones who bring you joy, comfort, who energize you. Oh, yeah, and everyone in between. All of them.

Love them. Find a way. That’s what Jesus did.