Sermon: Apostle to the Apostles

Sunday 15 July 2018
Commemoration of Mary Magdalene, Apostle

John 20:1-2, 11-18

imageMary Magdalene is one the best known and most misunderstood characters in the gospels. It’s not that we don’t know stories about Mary Magdalene. It’s that some of the stories we know about Mary Magdalene aren’t true. So what can we say about her, and how can we separate the fact from the fiction? And what sources can we consult to try to sort it all out?

Well, we have the four canonical gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and all four of them tell stories about Mary. We also have several other early Christian writings that did not make it into the bible, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Pistis Sophia. We also have the later tradition of the church. And of course we have Dan Brown.

It’s been 15 years now since the release of his wildly successful novel, The Da Vinci Code. It was very popular while I was in seminary. In it, Mary is portrayed as the wife of Jesus, the mother of his secret child, the holy grail because she was the vessel for his holy bloodline, a secret that has been guarded through the centuries by a series of secret societies. The novel captivated the world and spurred all kinds of conversations about Mary, her role among the early disciples, and the sacred feminine. Of course, it didn’t take long for everyone to figure out that Dan Brown was rather loose with the things he portrayed as fact, preferring to tell a good story. That is, after all, what we would expect from any good novelist.

Dan Brown was wrong about a lot of things, but one thing he had right is that as the early church became more and more male-dominated, it became more and more afraid of Mary Magdalene. They didn’t like the idea of any woman being that close to Jesus, and so they portrayed her as a prostitute, a crazy person, an unstable woman who was just lucky to be hanger-on of Jesus.  None of that is supported by the witness we have in the bible.

One of the most commonly held beliefs people have about Mary is that she was a reformed prostitute. That is total fiction, but it is a fiction that was actively promoted by the church for more than a millennium. In art, she is often depicted naked and as a repentant prostitute. She is the patron saint of “wayward women,” and so-called Magdalene asylums were established to help save women from prostitution. The same characterization holds true in popular culture ranging from The Last Temptation of Christ to Jesus Christ Superstar to Lady Gaga’s 2011 song “Judas.” None of it’s true.

We can blame it on Pope Gregory the Great and a sermon he gave around 591. He conflated Mary Magdalene with two other biblical characters. One of them was Mary of Bethany, the Mary who was the sister of Martha. The other was an unnamed woman in Luke 7:36-50. She is the woman who washes Jesus’s feet with her tears and wipes them down with her hair. In the same story, this unnamed woman is described as being sinful. Luke never says what the sin is. But Gregory the Great takes the story of the sinful woman who washes Jesus’s feet, incorrectly identifies it with Mary, and supplies the completely made up detail that her sin was prostitution. So was Mary a prostitute. No! That’s a story about an entirely different woman and it never even says that that woman was a prostitute. But the church assigned that reading on Mary’s feast day and convinced billions of people from then until today that she was. (She wasn’t a prostitute!)

Okay, so who was she? Let’s go to our earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark. Mary is introduced along with another Mary and Salome in Mark 15:40. We are told that they were patrons of Jesus. They traveled with him everywhere, and they bankrolled his ministry. It’s a little strange that Mark waits until almost the end of the story to tell us this, but there you are. These women see Jesus being crucified. The two Marys also see where Jesus was laid after he was taken down from the cross. They come back on Sunday morning, once the Sabbath is over, and find the tomb open, the body missing, and a young man dressed in white who tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead. The strange figure tells them to go tell disciples the good news, but the gospel abruptly ends with the disturbing words “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they didn’t say nothing to nobody, because they were afraid.”

The Gospel of Matthew gives a very similar story about Mary Magdalene. She’s a follower and patron of Jesus. She’s there at the cross. She goes to the tomb. She gets the message from an angel to go tell the disciples that Jesus is risen. But then the story changes. On their way back to tell the disciples, the women encounter the risen Jesus himself. He tells them himself: “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” In Matthew, the first people to see the risen Jesus are Mary and her companions, and he gives them a mission to go and share the word.

The Gospel of Luke is not so generous. Luke is a really big fan of Peter and really doesn’t seem to like Mary at all. He can’t write her out of the story altogether, so he seems to do just about everything he can to discredit her. First of all, when Luke introduces Mary, the first thing he says about her is that Jesus cast seven demons out of her. No explanation. No supporting details. No other gospel says anything about Mary being possessed by demons, but Luke puts it in there. Worse than that, though, Luke removes the story about Jesus appearing to Mary. In Luke, Jesus doesn’t appear to the women. Instead he appears to Peter. Like I said, Luke seems to be trying very hard to give more authority to Peter and to take away authority from Mary.

The Gospel of John is perhaps the most favorable to Mary. In John, all of the other women are cut out of the story. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb all by herself. She finds the tomb empty, so she runs back and tells Peter and another disciple. They run to the tomb and also find it empty, except for Jesus’s grave clothes that had been left behind. The men leave, but Mary sticks around. It’s the story we read a few minutes ago. She’s as the tomb weeping when she sees two angels. They ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?” and she explains that the body is missing and she doesn’t know where it is. Just then, Jesus appears himself and asks the same question. For some reason, Mary doesn’t recognize him, but when he speaks her name, she does. Jesus sends her to go tell the other disciples, and she does: “I have seen the Lord!”

So those are the four canonical gospels. About the only thing they agree on is that Mary is the first to see the empty tomb. Three gospels tell us that she was with Jesus throughout his ministry and provided for him monetarily. Two say that she was the first to see the risen Jesus. They all say that she was sent to tell the other disciples the good news that Jesus is alive.

There’s good reason to believe that all four canonical gospels understate Mary’s role among Jesus’s disciples. I know it’s a shocker, but they were all written by men, men who had a vested interest in suppressing the voices and authority of women. That’s just a given.

But we can see some hints of the controversy in some other early Christian writings. One of the earliest of these is the Gospel of Thomas, which may well be as old as our four canonical gospels. It’s not a narrative, it’s sayings of Jesus with occasional interruptions from other speakers. Many of the sayings are the same or similar to the sayings we have recorded in other gospels. Whether or not Jesus actually said these things, the Gospel of Thomas does give us a clue into what some early Christians thought about Jesus.

Mary gets a speaking line in verse 21. It reads “Mary said to Jesus, ‘What are your disciples like?’” Which sets up Jesus’s response.

But more interesting for us is verse 114. It says, “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.’” There it is, right there. That is the attitude we know must have been very common in early Christianity.

For the most part, the ancients didn’t believe that women were fully human. I should say, the ancients who did most of the writing—well-to-do ancient men—they didn’t believe that women were fully human. The prevailing theory was that women were underdeveloped men. They were imperfect men. Because if they were perfect, they would obviously be men, right? Which helps to explain Jesus’s response to Peter in this verse of the Gospel of Thomas.

Listen to this: “Jesus said, ‘Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of heaven.’” Okay, that’s pretty messed up. But for the first century, it’s downright feminist. Don’t worry, ladies, Jesus can make you male so that you’ll be fit for heaven. Isn’t that good news?

So why am I bothering you with the Gospel of Thomas? Well there are lots of early Christian texts that have stories about Mary; Thomas is just one of them. I’m not going to go through them all here—if you want to know more, there is an excellent book by Ann Graham Brock—but here are some of the highlights. They often portray Mary as one of Jesus’s closest disciples, often his very closest disciple. She’s often the only one who really understands what he’s talking about. Sometimes she has to explain Jesus’s sayings to the men because they don’t get it. And in almost every one of them, guess who is upset that Mary has authority. It’s Peter. Mary and Peter have rival claims to authority.

We have evidence that different groups of early Christians disagreed about who had more authority in the wake of Jesus’s death and resurrection. And part of the way that disagreement played out was in who was credited with seeing the risen Jesus first. We can see evidence of the disagreement right in the bible. Most of the gospels say that Mary was the first to see. One of them, takes that distinction away from Mary and gives it to Peter. And that was just the first of many actions that the church took to minimize Mary. Make her a prostitute. Make her crazy. Anything that makes it so that she doesn’t have authority or honor. That’s the part Dan Brown got right. There has been a 2000-year campaign to discredit Mary and her role in the Jesus Movement.

Okay, let’s put away all that other stuff and go back to the bible. What can we say about Mary Magdalene based on the bible? 1) She was a close disciple of Jesus who was with him throughout his earthly ministry. 2) She provided for his ministry financially. 3) She was with him at the cross, when all of the male disciples had run away in fear. 4) She was first there at the tomb on Easter morning. 5) She was the first to see the risen Jesus. And finally, 6) she was the first apostle. And let me close by explaining that last one.

Apostle isn’t just a fancy name for Jesus’s twelve closest disciples; it has a specific meaning. It’s from the Greek verb αποστελλω, I send. An apostle is someone who is sent out. And that’s precisely what Mary is. She sees the risen Jesus, and he sends her out. “Go, tell the others what you’ve seen.” And that’s what she does. She goes and tells Peter and the others. She is the apostola apostolorum, the Apostle to the Apostles. Generations of insecure men can try to discredit her and write her out of the story, but they can’t take that away. Mary Magdalene is the first apostle. She is the first one ever to preach the good news that Jesus Christ is risen. Let me say that again. The first person ever to preach the good news that Jesus Christ is risen is Mary Magdalene. And that is why we remember her today: the Apostle Mary Magdalene. And perhaps her story can be a warning to us. When we fail to listen to the voices of women, we fail to hear the voice of God.

Sermon: How Can We Know the Way?

Sunday 8 July 2018
Commemoration of St. Thomas, Apostle

John 14:1-7

imageThomas is one of my favorite saints. Most people know only one thing about Thomas: that he doubted. In fact, Thomas is considered so synonymous with doubt that it has essentially become part of his name. Who is he? Doubting Thomas. But that is such a narrow and distorted view of this interesting apostle.

So what do we know about Thomas. Well, let’s start in the bible. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all say that Thomas was one of the twelve, an inner circle of disciples Jesus set apart and sent out two-by-two into the world as apostles. But in all three gospels, Thomas is just a name on a list. There are no stories about him, no speaking lines. It’s the same in the Book of Acts. Thomas is listed as one of the apostles, but we get no information about him. Peter, James, and John are the most significant of the twelve in the three synoptic gospels, and we don’t hear much detail about anyone else.

However, the Gospel of John is a different story altogether. John’s gospel tends to marginalize Peter and lift up other, less remembered characters, like Thomas.

Thomas first takes the stage in John 11:16. Jesus has been informed that his friend, Lazarus, is sick. Jesus wants to go visit him, but the other disciples are arguing against it. Jesus has already stirred up trouble for himself in Judea; if he goes back there now, he might be killed. But when Jesus insists, it is Thomas who speaks up. He says, “Let us go also so that we may die with Jesus.” That doesn’t sound much like doubt to me. That is extreme faith. He seems to know that Jesus is going to die, and he follow him anyway, even if he himself dies. It’s Thomas who convinces the other disciples to go back into dangerous Judea with Jesus.

Thomas’s next appearance is in the gospel lesson we read this morning. Jesus is toward the beginning of his farewell discourse. They are at their final meal, and Jesus spends about five chapters just monologuing. This is the second chapter. In any case, Jesus is speaking those familiar words that we often read at funeral services: In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” At this point, Thomas interrupts. He says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” He asks a question. And his question leads to faith. Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

As we often find in the Gospel of John, Jesus uses a series of mixed metaphors to describe himself and what he is about. It often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense grammatically. In this case, we are told that Jesus will lead the disciples to Jesus so that they can be with Jesus and the way that they will get there is by Jesus. Jesus is the guide, Jesus is the destination, and Jesus is the route. How exactly Jesus can travel along Jesus in order to get to Jesus is not something that John seems very concerned with untangling.

In any case, the important point here is that Thomas’s question leads to a profound statement of faith: I am the way and the truth and the life.” We could, if we wanted to, say that Thomas is doubting here. “We don’t even know where you’re going, how can we know the way?” Why is he second-guessing Jesus? Why can’t he just trust Jesus that Jesus know’s what he’s talking about?

But the truth is, Thomas doesn’t know what Jesus is talking about. And in the face of not knowing, Thomas does the brave thing: he admits that he doesn’t know. He asks for clarification. The other disciples don’t know what Jesus is talking about either, but it is Thomas who is brave enough to ask.

The third appearance of Thomas in the Gospel of John is the one we know the best. It is Easter evening. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors. They are terrified as Jesus mysteriously appears in the room. He sends them out into the world. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And they are all amazed. But of course, Thomas wasn’t there in the room when the risen Lord appeared. They tell him, but he replies, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” There we have it, right? Doubting Thomas. Why wouldn’t he believe?

One week later, there are all the disciples, still hiding away in a locked room. But Thomas is with them this time. And Jesus mysteriously appears again, despite the locked doors. And Jesus speaks to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” Why is it that Thomas needs more proof than all of the other disciples? Why does he need to touch the wounds before he will believe?

Well, he doesn’t. It’s not actually true that Thomas needs extra proof in order to believe. The other disciples see Jesus appear in front of them, and they believe. That’s exactly the same thing that Thomas requires. He sees Jesus appear, and he believes. Thomas says after the first appearance that he won’t believe unless he touches the wounds. And when he appears the second time, Jesus invites him to touch the wounds. But he never actually does. Jesus invites Thomas to touch, but he doesn’t. When it comes down to it, Thomas sees and hears Jesus, and without touching the wounds, he declares, “My Lord and my God!”

That, by the way, is the fullest confession of faith in the entire gospel. No one else in the gospel says something as powerful about Jesus’s identity than Thomas’s words here: my Lord and my God.

Thomas does ask questions. But his questions don’t lead to doubt. They lead to faith. In fact, they lead to some of the strongest faith in the Gospel. It is Thomas who declares, “My Lord and my God!” It is Thomas who elicits Jesus’s words, “I am the ways and the truth and the life. It is Thomas who is willing to go with Jesus to Judea, even if it means he would have to die with Jesus.

And I think that’s something we can learn from. Some of us were taught that faith is about unquestioning belief. Don’t ask questions, don’t stir up trouble—that can only lead to evil. That can only draw you away from God.

But I don’t think that’s true. If we never ask questions, never express doubt, then we are left with an infantile faith. We are left regurgitating whatever our first Sunday school teacher taught us just because that is what we heard first. And our faith never engages with the real world, never engages with what is happening here and now.

But God gave us brains. God gave us intellect and curiosity and imagination. And God intends for us to use them.

That’s what Martin Luther was on about when he talked about sola scriptura, scripture alone. He said, don’t trust whatever your pastor or teacher tells you. Check it for yourself in the scriptures. See what they have to say. Make your own interpretation. Ask questions of the world. Ask questions of your faith. Ask questions of the bible. Think about it.

And our Methodist tradition gives us something called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It suggests that when you have a question of faith, you should consult four sources. First, scripture: what does the Bible have to say? Next, tradition: what has the church said over time? Third, reason: what does your mind tell you? What makes sense? And finally, experience: what does your spirit tell you? Faith isn’t always simple. It requires thought, work, struggle to discern God’s will.

It is part of our religious DNA to ask questions, to think things through, to be skeptical, even. And it is not unfaithful to do those things. It is essential to our faith. If we are going to have a faith that makes any difference in our lives, it must be a faith that is tested, a faith that has gotten dirty in the experience of real life. Otherwise it is just hypothetical assertions. Our questions don’t make us lose our faith. Questions are essential to our faith.

And Thomas is our example of that. His questions lead to faith. According to Christian tradition, Thomas went east after Jesus’s resurrection, through Parthia to India, where he evangelized, built a church, and was martyred. His symbol is the spear and square—the square for his building and the spear for his manner of death. When Portuguese sailors landed in southwest India, they were surprised to find that there were already Christians there, Christians who worshipped in Syriac and traced their foundation to Thomas. Even now, there are St. Thomas Christians in India who believe themselves to be in an unbroken tradition that leads back to Thomas. That is quite a legacy for someone who is most known for doubt.

Questions don’t have to destroy our faith. Questions can lead to faith. Let us, like Thomas, bring our whole selves to Jesus, questions and all, so that we too might be sent out into the world in faith.

Sermon: Peter and Paul

Sunday 1 July 2018
Commemoration of Peter and Paul

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18John 21:15-19

sts-peter-and-paulToday we are commemorating the lives and ministry of two of the great apostles of the church: Peter and Paul. In fact, these two may be the most known, most respected, most noteworthy saints in the history of the church. Consequently, the very fact that they share a day for commemoration seams somehow strange. Why would we celebrate two such noteworthy figures with one commemoration?

Peter and Paul both lived in the time of Jesus, and they were both apostles, but they were very different from one another, and they do not seem to have spent a tremendous amount of time together. Let’s take a moment to sketch out their lives.

Peter is known for being the most prominent of the inner circle of Jesus’s disciples known as the Twelve. According the Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he was the first one to be called by Jesus, along with his brother Andrew. With James and John, He is also a part of an inner inner circle of three disciples whom Jesus frequently brings with him when he leaves all of the other disciples behind. He is often portrayed as the spokesman of the disciples. He’s very enthusiastic, perhaps a bit reckless. After Jesus death and resurrection, Peter is one of the first disciples to see the risen Christ. The Acts of the Apostles portrays him as the de facto leader of the early Jesus movement in Jerusalem, until Jesus’s brother James ascends to that role. According to later tradition, Peter traveled to Rome and was martyred there by being crucified upside-down. He is considered to be the first bishop of Rome, and therefore the first pope. The Roman Catholic Church rests the authority of the pope on the former authority of Peter. There are two epistles in the New Testament bearing his name, but scholars tend to believe that both letters were written after his death. Peter has a few different names, so it can get a little confusing. His given name is Simon, but Jesus gave him a nickname: Rock. The Greek version of Rock is Peter, like petroglyph, and that’s the name we usually know him by. But Jesus probably used the Aramaic word for Rock, Cephas, and that’s what Paul calls Peter in his letters. So three names for the same person: Simon, Peter, and Cephas.

Paul also has multiple names. The Greek version of his name is Paul, but the Aramaic version is Saul, and he gets referred to by both at various times. He was not a follower of the earthly Jesus, and he did not come from Galilee, like Jesus and most of his disciples. Paul was a well-educated Pharisee from Tarsus, in modern Turkey. According to Acts, he studied in Jerusalem with the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder. Paul enters the biblical story as a pious Jew who persecutes the church. He is at the scene when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is stoned to death. He receives orders from the temple to go root out Jesus-followers in the Syrian capital of Damascus. But on the way, he has a vision of the risen Christ that will change his life forever. He stops persecuting the church and becomes one of it’s most persuasive missionaries. More than any other single person, it is Paul who is responsible for spread of Christianity among Gentiles. He styles himself as Apostle to the Gentiles. It is Paul who changes Christianity from being a sect of Judaism to being an international movement. About half of the Book of Acts is concerned with the life and ministry of Paul. Thirteen letters in the New Testament claim to be written by Paul. Scholars agree that seven of them actually are written by Paul: Romans, 1st & 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1st Thessalonians, and Philemon. Most scholars think that at least four of the others were written after Paul’s death. The biblical narrative of Paul’s life ends with him under house arrest in Rome, waiting to have his legal appeal heard by the emperor. According to later sources, he was beheaded in Rome in the time of Nero.

We know that the Jesus Movement started out as a movement of Jews. Jesus and all of his early disciples were Jews. Not long after his death, though, the movement grew to include Gentiles as well. Before long, the Gentile followers of Jesus would greatly outnumber the Jews. We know that this transition also involved the loosening of biblical rules and expectations. Gentiles were not required to be circumcised, to follow the Jewish dietary laws, or even to observe the Sabbath.

What we don’t know is exactly how this happened, or who was mostly responsible for this change. The bible tells us at least two different stories about how the church was opened up to Gentiles. The Acts of the Apostles tells us one story, and the letters of Paul tell us another story.

According to the Book of Acts, it is Peter who is responsible for this change. Peter has a vision from God that convinces him to eat with Gentiles. When he does, the Holy Spirit comes on them, which convinces Peter to baptize them. He is called before James and the rest of the Jerusalem apostles to explain himself. He convinces them that God is doing a new thing among the Gentiles. It’s only later that Paul gets started. And Paul enters the ministry by being mentored by Peter and Barnabas. According to this version, Paul is important for covering so much ground and making so many converts, but he always works under the authority of the already existing apostles, like Peter and James.

But Paul tells a very different story in his letters. Most of it is found in Galatians 1-2. Paul is at pains to argue that he is not subject to Peter or James. He got his call to be an apostle directly from Jesus. And Paul feels no ambiguity about whom he is sent to, either. He is the apostle to the Gentiles. His mission is to Gentiles, not to Jews. Peter is apostle to the Jews, but Paul is sent to Gentiles. He writes, “James, Cephas, and John, who are considered to be pillars, shook hands with me and Barnabas as equals when they recognized the grace that was given to me. So it was agreed that we would go to the Gentiles, while they continue to go to the people who were circumcised” (Gal 2:8-9). But that agreement didn’t last. Paul says that when Peter came to Antioch, “I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong. He had been eating with the Gentiles before certain people came from James. But when they came, he began to back out and separate himself, because he was afraid of the people who promoted circumcision…. But when I saw they weren’t acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of everyone, ‘If you, though you’re a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews?” According to Paul, Peter was no hero of the Gentile movement. It was Paul himself who did the heavy lifting of opening the church up to Gentiles.

Celebrating Peter and Paul together on the same day is about trying to tidy up the story of the early church. It’s about brushing aside the conflict between Peter and Paul. And it’s about making sure that Paul’s movement is not seen as a separate movement, but is rather under the authority and direction of pillar apostles, like Peter, James, and John.

And it’s not so hard to figure out why someone would want to clean up the story. For one thing, it’s not a good look to have the major figures of your religion in open conflict with each other. Better to present a unified front.

But even more dangerous than disunity is the story of Paul himself, and his claim to authority. Remember that Paul never met the earthly Jesus. And yet, he claims authority directly from Jesus, through a mystical experience. He refuses to submit to Peter and James. He refuses to admit that he is any way dependent on them. And that is scary for the established authorities.

Think about it. There at least a hundred people in the Jesus movement who actually met the earthly Jesus. And they have been him through the whole ordeal. They have heard him preach. They have seen him heal. They have listen to him in his conflicts with the scribes and Pharisees. They have seen him arrest and crucified and risen. And then, out of nowhere, comes this Paul, who had been harassing them. And he says that he has had a revelation from Jesus. And he says that all of Jesus’s earthly disciples have got it wrong. And he says that he doesn’t need permission from them, that he has authority directly from God. And why should they believe him? Just because he says so. Why should they open the church to Gentiles? Just because he says so. Why should they put aside all of the laws and traditions of the Hebrew Bible? Just because he says so.

It’s no wonder that someone wanted to clean that story up. There is nothing more dangerous to the religious establishment than someone who claims they get their authority directly from God. They cannot have it out there that some outsider came in, and on his own authority, radically changed the early Christian movement. That is a dangerous story. What would keep some new outsider with their new and crazy ideas from coming in and doing the same thing, making some radical change that didn’t quite square with the established powers and the accepted way of doing things?

And you know, we need those people who work within the establishment. We need people like Peter who know the history, who have been there from the beginning, who have gotten their authority by the book, through the recognized means. We need that kind of stability. We need people who can guide us in a new direction because they have built up trust and respect over time.

But we also need disruptors. We need people who come in from outside with crazy new ideas. We need people who have not taken the time to check all of the boxes. We need people who get their authority from the power of their ideas, not from the established structures. We need people who have that direct word from God.

Celebrating Peter and Paul together might have been a way of tidying up Paul’s story. But it is also an important reminder. We need them both. If we don’t have Peter, we lose our grounding, our history, our sense of continuity. But if we don’t have Paul, we lose the ability to change and grow, to adapt to new times and circumstances. We have an easier time accepting a Peter in our midst. But in this time of change, we need to have our eyes and ears open for prophets like Paul. On this day, let us ask for God’s guidance, that we might hear and respond to God’s prompting in our lives, no matter who it comes from.

Welcoming New Members and Newly Baptized

20180625_111743 20180625_111229June 24th we were happy to celebrate the baptism of Summer Millicent Sibley and welcome six new members into the congregation.

Summer, born 21 January 2018, is the daughter of Tyler and Michele Sibley and the younger sister of Piper.

Those joining as adults were Kathleen and Kenneth Kliewer (pronounced cleaver), Sharon Poyter, Leslie Bartlett, and Lynn and Jack Meads.

We are very excited to welcome all of these folks into a deeper relationship in this congregation.

Sermon: His Name Is John

Sunday 24 June 2018
Nativity of John the Baptist

Luke 1:57-80

Today is June 24th, which is half-Christmas. It’s exactly six months after last Christmas and six months before next Christmas. The Gospel of Luke tells us that John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus was, so if it’s six months before Christmas, it must the be the birth of John the Baptist.

John is an undeniably important part of the early Jesus movement. He appears prominently at the beginning of all four gospels. And while, outside of Christian writings, we have no records of the life of Jesus, John the Baptist is attested even in non-Christian writings.

John is undoubtedly important, and yet he is shrouded in mystery. What is his relationship to Jesus? Luke says that they are relatives, that they mother’s knew each, but Mark suggests that John has no idea who Jesus is when he comes for baptism. Was Jesus a part of John’s movement before he struck out on his own? How many of his early disciples started out as disciples of John? John says that he is preparing the way for someone more powerful who will come after him, but both Matthew and Luke tells us that even after Jesus’s ministry is well underway, John sends messengers to ask he if he really is the one everyone is expecting, if he really is the Messiah, or if they should be looking for someone else. John doesn’t seem to think that Jesus is living up to the task.

John’s message is a message of repentance. God’s Kingdom is coming into the world. It’s time to turn away from sin and turn toward God. Make your lives fruitful for God’s mission or you’ll be chopped down like a fruit tree that bears no fruit.

When the people ask him what he means by that, he says, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the say.” God’s Empire is about reversing the desperation of poverty, about making life livable for even the most marginalized in society. The tax collectors ask him what to do, and he says “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.” That would mean they would make no money at all. Roman tax collectors paid in advance for the right to collect taxes in a particular region, and their profit was whatever they collected over the authorized amount. Soldiers also ask him what to do to prepare for God’s Empire, and he replies, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.” It was standard practice for the military to extort money from the people whose land they occupied. John says that all that must end. There must be justice for the poor and the marginalized.

Come to the water. Be transformed. Reject evil. Return to God. Come to the water. Be baptized. Die to sin and become alive to God. Come to the water.

All week I’ve been putting off writing this sermon. All week I’ve been putting it off because I knew that I would have to say something about the news. And I don’t want to talk about the news this week. I don’t want to have to face it. And yet I can hardly think of anything else.

In politics, sometimes we use the metaphor of hostage-taking to talk about a particular political strategy. That’s when one party knows that there is something the other party cannot do without and so they refuse to give that thing unless they get something else that they want. We don’t use this phrase to talk about regular compromise or negotiation. Political hostage-taking means withholding something that if it isn’t given will cause pain, will cause harm. Politicians can hold the debt ceiling hostage. They can hold the federal budget hostage and force a government shutdown. Or they can hold veterans benefits hostage, or medicare. The idea is that it’s something that is usually fairly uncontroversial, but one side refuses to act on it unless they get certain concessions, and the consequences of not acting are highly disruptive. That is what we usually mean when we talk about hostage-taking in the context of US politics.

I am beside myself today to say that hostage-taking is no longer a metaphor. Our government has literally taken hostages, apparently for political purposes. And those hostages are children.

The Trump administration was not the first to implement widespread detainment of unauthorized border-crossers. The Obama administration, particularly during the refugee crisis of 2014, detained huge numbers of people, many of whom were eventually deported. In fact, the Obama administration still holds the record for deporting more people than any other in history, a fact that earned President Obama the nickname “deporter-in-chief.” Families who crossed the southern border without authorization, whether they were asylum-seekers or otherwise, were often detained in makeshift shelters while their cases for entry were considered. And that could sometimes take months.

In July 2015, the Ninth US Circuit Court ruled that ICE could not, as a standard practice, hold children more than 20 days while their cases were being reviewed, whether those minors entered the US on their own or with a parent. In addition, they ruled that a child’s accompanying parent must also be released after 20 days “as long as doing so would not create a flight risk or a safety risk.” ICE would then use other means, besides detention, to make sure these families appeared for their day in court. Electronic monitoring is one of those methods.

What has changed recently, with this administration’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy, is that children entering with their parents have routinely been separated from their parents, put into separate facilities, often without warning or the chance to say goodbye. This includes several so-called ‘tender age’ detention facilities, for children five-years-old and younger. At the beginning of June, at least 2300 children had been separated from their parents and placed in facilities all over the country. An unknown number of children have been taken from their parents since then.

The administration has said this is necessary because entering the United States without authorization is a crime that must be prosecuted. This is partially true. While it is legal for asylum-seekers to enter the US at a designated port of entry, entering between ports of entry is a violation of US Code, Title 8, paragraph 1325, a misdemeanor that is punishable by a fine not less than $50 and nor more than $250 for the first offense.

Our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions—who by the way is a United Methodist Christian—has publicly defended the policy of routine family separation using the words of Romans 13, Paul’s advice to obey the ruling authorities because they are ordained by God to bring God’s wrath. I would argue that Paul is being more than a little sarcastic here; it would have been plain to any of his early Christian readers that the Roman Empire was not enacting the will of God. But under Mr. Session’s interpretation, literally anything that the government might do would be by definition just and moral. The same verses were used to justify American slavery. Martin Luther used them to justify the slaughter of peasants by German princes. Christian leaders from all over the world have condemned this most recent perversion of the gospel. In fact, there is a movement in The UMC to have Mr. Sessions censured for his actions.

President Trump’s recent executive order has been described by many as a reversal of policy. It is not. What it actually says is that the administration wants the previous court ruling overturned so that it can detain children indefinitely so long as they are detained with their parents. Late last night the administration released an initial plan for reuniting children with their parents. The plan is that so long as parents are still in custody pending their immigration cases, they cannot be reunited with their children. If their case is deemed worthy and they are allowed to enter the US, they can then apply to the department of Health and Human Services to become their own child’s foster parent, a process that can take weeks. However, as one news outlet reports: “It’s still unclear who will take responsibility for linking parents with children. Policies to date have put the onus on parents to track their children down using an HHS hotline, which parents and the lawyers and case workers working with them described as confusing and often ineffective.” The administration says that if parents are deported they can take their children with them, but many have already been deported without access to or information about their children.

In the mean time, we have all seen the images and heard the sounds of wailing children in cages.

I don’t want to talk about this today. I don’t. But I can’t not talk about it.

John the Baptist warns us that how we relate to God is defined in no small part by how we relate to the most vulnerable among us. Regardless of what we may think about immigration policy and who should be allowed to enter this country, there can be no doubt that poor people who have fled thousands of miles on foot to escape deadly violence in their home countries are vulnerable. When they are also children, so much the more. The response of our own government to that vulnerability is to take children away from their parents and shuttle them to undisclosed locations. And that is because that is what some significant percentage of us wants to have happen. It is because some significant percentage of us see some people as less than human, as the President has explicitly said, “These aren’t people, these are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.”

John calls across the ages: Come to the water. Be transformed. Reject evil. Return to God. Come to the water. Be baptized. Die to sin and become alive to God. Come to the water.

Baptism is a sacrament that binds us together. It tells us something about our relationship to God; we are God’s beloved children. It also tells us something about our relationship to one another, our fellow human beings. The commandments tell us that every person is our neighbor, and that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Baptism tells us that even that is not enough. Baptism doesn’t say that we are all neighbors. Baptism says that we are all family. We are all brothers and sisters. We are all children of one God. We are all bound together as kin of Christ.

And as John’s preaching suggests, we are called to continually push out our definition of those we consider one with ourselves. John says, treat a poor person like you would treat your family; help them have clothes and food. Treat them fairly. Don’t cheat them. Don’t extort them. Treat them humanely. Treat them as your own.

This is at the core of who we are as Christians. How do we treat our neighbors? How do we treat our enemies? How do we treat those whom God calls daughter, son? These are the questions that we must struggle with in every aspect of our lives, not just in politics. We are always learning how to love more fully, to love with that boundary-breaking agape love that God showers on us.

And there are always those whom we will find hard to love. Sometimes we find it hard to love the foreigner. Sometimes we find it hard to love the stranger. Sometimes we find it hard to love the other, the outcast. But sometimes it’s the colleague at work we find hard to love. Sometimes it’s the classmate we find hard to love. Sometimes we find it hard to love our own friends. Sometimes it’s a person in our own family we struggle to love. And sometimes the hardest person to love is ourself. Wherever we find our love insufficient, we can rest assured that God’s love abounds.

Will you pray with me? Most gracious God, you have made us all of one blood. Through our baptism you name each of us children and call us to love one another as sisters and brothers. O God, we ask that you would pour out your spirit on all your children, all across this world. Soften hearts that have become hard. Inspire us to share in your love. Allow us to live both in justice and in peace. Let your Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us courage to do our part to make your reign a reality. Give strength to all of your followers, that we might walk in your way. Amen.

Sermon: BLOOM

Sunday 17 June 2018
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Melissa Mimier King, guest preacher

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

2 Corinthians 5:6-17

Mark 4:26-34

16178875898_41618fb774_bI am an awfully passionate person. This is the correct intensifier by the way, “awfully” but we’ll get to that later. I was taught to “Bloom where you’re planted,” like the 16th Century Bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Sales said. In spite of the lack of sun, or water, or healthy soil, I was taught to grow. I was taught to be cheerful. I was taught to notice the good in the world and point it out to others. I have learned, as a teacher and mother that feelings will make themselves known somehow, intentionally or otherwise. It’s best to just be honest about them.

This past month I’ve been claiming that “I feel all of the feels very feelingly” in an attempt to put into words all of the emotions I keenly experience on a daily basis. I am the healthiest when I am joyful, and grateful, and exuberant, and happy. And remarkably, my feelings of optimism thanks to gratitude are backed up by research! Ahhh, I love research.

“Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.

One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.” (Harvard Health Publishing Nov. 2011). And since we always use the Harvard Medical School’s advice for planning our family conversations. Ahhh, I love sarcasm.

We say our gratitudes as a family each evening during “check-in.” It’s evolved over the past two years since the girls came home, but the idea is the same. “I am grateful to blank for blank.” Each family member gets to voice one of our blessings each day, and it makes us all feel better. It makes us focus on the positives. It helps us to see the bright side of things. It helps us be joyful. I am grateful to this church family for putting up with my loosely Biblical-based ramblings in David’s absence.

As I mentioned before, I am awfully passionate. My blessings and gratitudes are super-charged. This is fine with my friends, they get me, and none of them is put off my my enthusiasm. I learned last week, however, that this super-power of optimism is not fine all of the time. Sometimes it comes across as fake, or inauthentic.

This feedback obviously reminded me of a camp song…because most lessons do. Shall I sing it for you? OK. “Love, Love, Love…That’s what it’s all about…’Cuz God loves us we love each other… Mother, Father, Sister, Brother… Everybody scream and shout! LOVE! ‘Cuz that’s what it’s all about, it’s about Love, Love, Love… It’s about Love, Love, Love.” Ahhh, I love camp songs.

But did you catch those words? Everybody scream and shout? That’s not toned down. That’s not “even.” That’s not balanced! That’s passion.

2 Corinthians 5:6-7 says, “That’s why we live with such good cheer. You won’t see us drooping our heads or dragging our feet! Cramped conditions here don’t get us down. This sounds like a “bloom where you’re planted” message to me. It sounds like noticing that I’m able to love others, because God loves me, is something to be grateful and joyful and exuberant about.

My friends get that being awfully passionate is me, and they don’t even think it’s that awful. Neither does God. In fact, God’s going to need that passion.

2 Corinthians 5:19-20 tells us, “God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking of Christ himself now: Become friends with God; God’s already a friend with you.”

Be there for God. Remember that God’s already there for you. So in order to BLOOM. First Become friends with God. Ahhh, I love mnemonic devices.

  • Become friends with God
  • Leave the judging to God
  • avoid the Only trap
  • One act
  • Miracles

The second step in Blooming? Leave the judging to God.

When we judge, what are we measuring against? What is the benchmark? Is there a rubric for who is more or less loved by the creator? I know I feel pretty uncomfortable trying to come up with success criteria for “worthy of God’s love.” In addition, then don’t I need to use the same yardstick for myself? Yikes!

The story of 1 Samuel 16 shows a family trying to read God’s mind. The story is one of the great metaphors for availability being more important to God than ability. It’s like we contemplated earlier, being there, showing up, noticing the blessings, being a friend, these aren’t rankable, but they are what matters. When God tells Samuel in verse 7, “Looks aren’t everything. Don’t be impressed by his looks and stature. God judges persons differently than humans do.” Ahhh, I love that I don’t have to give grades to others. Frankly, judging others…and yourself, is exhausting.

Have you ever noticed how God seems to use the most unlikely people to teach lessons and move mountains? The stories from the Bible about these people are numerous. Moses, David, Paul and even Jesus himself had doubts about their gifts and callings. “But I am “Only” a regular person. But I am “only” the runt of the family. But I am “only” a servant. But I am “only” here for a short time.” I can’t possibly be the person you need for this job, I can’t possibly do the thing that you need.

This faulty thinking seems to indicate that I know better than God. When I got the feedback that my enthusiasm for teaching was inauthentic, I started to believe that I was “only” fluffy happiness, fake fluffy happiness, and not a teacher. That I was only fake.

But, “Consider a mustard seed.” It is only a mustard seed. It’s pretty tiny. No one would notice it lying on the ground, but when it blooms, it can’t be missed.

This was one of my mom’s favorite parables, and she shared it with me a lot growing up. She, in high school, had had a bracelet with a small, sealed compartment containing a mustard seed. Over time and wear, some water got to the seed and it sprouted. The strength in the tiny seed shattered the capsule and could no longer be contained.

So on our way to BLOOMing, we should consider the mustard seed. And notice the “only’ trap. Remember Jesus’ parable in Mark 4: 31-32. “Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”

There are modern day parables too.

[Read The Wonderful Happens]

Ahh, I love picture books.

So while we ourselves are a miracle, so can our actions be miracles that make a difference. Sometimes principals send out a book in the summer for their staff to read and learn from in anticipation of the upcoming year. Celi, one of my 21 principals (did I mention that I Bloom Where I’m Planted?) did this with a book by Andy Andrews. He wrote The Noticer, that the women’s ministry team used so effectively at a retreat a few years back, but this summer reading book was The Butterfly Effect. It traces One act through a chain of events to the food solution to famine.

Norman Borlaug hybridized high yield, disease resistant corn and wheat for arid climates in the 1940s and saved billions of lives. But, Henry Wallace was Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president and created a place for this purpose and hired the young scientist Norman Borlaug to run it. Without that post, he never would have saved billions from hunger and earned a Presidential Medal of Freedom. But George Washington Carver had an impact too.

You see, Henry Wallace got to attend botanical expeditions with the brilliant 19 year-old when he was only 6. It was George Washington Carver that pointed out the miracles of botany. But baby George wouldn’t have survived a fire and kidnapping as an infant if not for the love of his adoptive parents Moses and Susan Carver. Ahh, I love adoption.

So… smile. Listen. Offer a glass of water. Be kind. Pay the expired parking meter. Teach the child. Learn. Because while we’re blooming… One act is all it takes to make a major difference in this world.

And so we come to my favorite. Miracles everywhere.

When I start to get overwhelmed with the icky, yucky, miserable parts of our world, I head to the massive amounts of metaphors in nature to try to make sense of it all. The book Lab Girl by Hope Jahren points out the miracles of trees…which are pretty easy to set eyes on in this neck of the woods. Ahhh, I love puns.

Here’s a quote from the beginning. “Do you see something green? If you did, you saw one of the few things left in the world that people cannot make. What you saw was invented more than four hundred million years ago near the equator. Perhaps you were lucky enough to see a tree.

“That tree was designed about three hundred million years ago. The mining of the atmosphere, the cell-laying, the wax-spackling, plumbing, and pigmentation took a few months at most, giving rise to nothing more or less perfect than a leaf. There are about as many leaves on one tree as there are hairs on your head. It’s really impressive.” It’s a miracle. We just have to notice it.

This happens to me all….of…..the……time. I often joke that it’s my great liberal arts education that can connect anything to anything, but I think it’s more than that.

There’s a possible explanation in Mark 4:33-34. “With many stories like these, he presented his message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. He was never without a story when he spoke. When he was alone with his disciples, he went over everything, sorting out the tangles, untying the knots.”

Have you ever experienced one of these miracles yourself? Just when you needed that advice, that reminder, that metaphor, that parable, it showed up in your inbox. You saw it on a friend’s facebook wall? You read it in a novel? You heard it on the radio? You saw it on a hike? Ahh, I love hiking.

This happened to me after my awfully passionate,“enthusiasm comes across as inauthentic” feedback. I wallowed in it for a while. I tried to not smile at anyone, for fear of making them uncomfortable with my friendliness. I even tried to not connect gratitudes with happiness, and failed pretty miserably.

God sent me a message though. When I say “God sent me a message” I actually mean a friend posted a facebook meme on their wall that reminded me that I am a learner, and passion for learning is as perfectly authentic as I can be.

The meme said, “Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.” I didn’t know that people could be uncomfortable with my enthusiasm. I hadn’t contemplated that being a friend sometimes requires a calm presence. I wasn’t aware of differing views on the impact of a single lesson, a single conversation, a single celebration. I wasn’t ready to give up my passion in order to fit in. If I’m going to bloom where I’m planted, I probably needed to plant myself somewhere else. Ahhh, I love being ok with the outcome.

I am enthusiastically grateful to God for the stories and people and miracles planted in our lives each day.

Sermon: Son of Encouragement

Sunday 10 June 2018
Commemoration of the Apostle Barnabas

imageThis morning we are continuing our summer sermon series on saints with the Apostle Barnabas. Barnabas is not as well known as some other apostles—like Peter, Paul, James, or John—but he has a very interesting story and a message for us today.

Barnabas is introduced to us at the end of Acts chapter 4: “There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’)” (Acts 4:36). So Barnabas is a Jew, but he was born on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. Joseph is his given name, but, even though we haven’t heard anything about him before now, the apostles have already given him the nickname “Son of Encouragement.” As we’ll see, it is quite an apt name. According to tradition, Barnabas was one of the larger crowd of disciples who followed Jesus around and was one of the seventy missionary Jesus sent out in Luke 10. So perhaps Barnabas picked up his nickname while following Jesus in Galilee and Judea.

The next thing we are told is that Barnabas “sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37). This is during the time of that early Jesus community in Jerusalem, when they were all sharing their possessions with one another and living together in unity. Barnabas is the prime example Luke gives us of someone who sold his property in order to have the money distributed to the poor by the apostles.

We don’t hear any more from Barnabas until Acts chapter 9. Saul has been persecuting the church, but then he has an experience on the road to Damascus, and he changes from being a persecutor of the church to being a proclaimer of Jesus. He comes to Jerusalem to try to talk with the leaders of the church there, but no one will see him. They don’t trust him. They remember that he is one of the people who has been trying to out them to the authorities and destroy them. No one will speak to him. No one, that is, except Barnabas.

We aren’t told all of the details of how it happened, how Barnabas met Saul, or how Barnabas decided that Saul really had been reformed. Luke just says, “Barnabas brought Saul to the apostles and told them the story about how Saul saw the Lord on the way and that the Lord had spoken to Saul. He also told them about the confidence with which Saul had preached in the name of Jesus in Damascus. After this, Saul moved freely among the disciples in Jerusalem and was speaking with confidence in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:27-28). Barnabas vouches for Saul, puts his own name on the line. It’s a big risk, but it pays off. Without Barnabas, Saul is never accepted by the Christian community, and his mission never gets off the ground.

The next time Barnabas shows up in the narrative is in the passage we read this morning. After Stephen the Deacon has been stoned to death in Jerusalem, many early Christians flee the holy city, and they end up preaching message of good news in Jesus Christ in the places where they go. Most of them only preach in Aramaic. But a few of these refugee preachers offer the message to Jews in Antioch who only speak Greek, not Aramaic. When word of this reaches Jerusalem, they send Barnabas as their representative to see what is going on. When he finds a new community growing, he goes to find Saul in Tarsus. They stay in Antioch together for a year, preaching and teaching, and growing the church. Luke also gives us the detail that it is in Antioch in this time when the followers of Jesus are first called by the name Christians. We also learn that when there was a famine, it was Barnabas and Saul that took a special offering from the church in Antioch for the benefit of the poor Christians in Jerusalem.

After they have gotten back from their mission of mercy, bringing with them a new missionary named John Mark, Barnabas and Saul and the other prophets are worshipping and they have an experience of the Holy Spirit. They hear the Spirit saying that God has a special task for Barnabas and Saul. So they gather together, and they lay their hands on Barnabas and Saul, prayed over them, and sent them out, along with John Mark. This begins what is generally called Paul’s first missionary journey. However, you’ll notice that at this point in the story, it’s always Barnabas who seems to be leading the way. And you’ll notice that we haven’t heard the name Paul yet. It’s Barnabas and Saul wherever they go.

But that’s about to change. As they continue their ministry in Cyprus, Luke tells us abruptly, and with no further explanation, “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Saul, also known as Paul…,” and from then on it’s not Barnabas and Saul, it’s Paul and Barnabas. We generally have the impression that Saul has his named changed to Paul when he has his conversion experience on the Road to Damascus, but that’s not what actually happens. Saul sees Jesus on the road in chapter 9, but it’s not until chapter 13 that he starts being called Paul. Scholars think it’s just that Saul is the Aramaic pronunciation and Paul is the Greek pronunciation, like the difference between John in English and Juan in Spanish.

In any case, Barnabas and Paul make their way across Cyprus. Wherever they go, they preach, they attract followers, and then they get chased out of town by people who are upset that they are stirring up the people, disrupting the natural order of things. They go through the same pattern in town after town. When Paul and Barnabas take a boat over to what is now Turkey, their companion, John Mark heads back home to Jerusalem.

In Lystra, Paul heals a disabled man who couldn’t walk. The people think that he and Barnabas are gods in the flesh. They say that Barnabas must be Zeus, the king of the gods, and Paul must be Hermes, the messenger of the gods. It takes all of their powers of oratory to keep the people from sacrificing animals to them.

After visiting many towns, setting up many churches, and ordaining many elders, they return to their base in Antioch. While they are there, some other missionaries come from Judea saying that Gentiles need to be circumcised if they’re going to become Christians. Both Barnabas and Paul argue against this, saying that Christ’s grace is sufficient for Gentiles. And they point to their own ministry with Gentiles as proof that God’s Spirit is doing a new thing.

They end up being called to a council in Jerusalem to settle the matter. Interestingly, while it was always Paul and Barnabas out in the mission field, when they come before the leaders of the Jerusalem church, it’s Barnabas and Paul. It’s Barnabas who has credibility with the apostles, and it’s Barnabas who takes the lead. The leader of the Jerusalem church, Jesus’s brother James, ends up siding with Barnabas and Paul, and the church is opened up to Gentiles. Barnabas and Paul return to their base in Antioch with the news.

Much, but not all, of the story of Barnabas has been bound up with the story of Paul. But they are about to go their separate ways. Paul suggests to Barnabas that they go back and visit all the places they had been on their first epic trip. Barnabas is keen to go too, and he wants to take John Mark along with them, the same companion who had accompanied them on the first part of their earlier trip.

But Paul will have none of it. He feels that John Mark had abandoned them on the first trip, and he is not willing to give him another chance. Even though they have been through so much together, they are not able to resolve this conflict. Luke says, “Their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and left, entrusted by the brothers and sisters to the Lord’s grace” (Acts 15:39-40). After years of working together, they split up. So far as we know, they never get back together again.

It fits with what we know of Barnabas’s character. He is the son of encouragement. He is the one who offers second chances, who mends divisions. It was Barnabas who convinced the Jerusalem church to give Paul a second chance after he had been a persecutor of the church. It was Barnabas who supported Paul in his missionary travels. It was Barnabas who defended Paul and his acceptance of Gentiles before the council in Jerusalem. It seems only natural that Barnabas would be the one who would want to give John Mark a second chance. He wants to give a second chance, and it’s Paul who is unwilling to do so. It’s interesting. Paul is known to us as the apostle of grace. And yet, his bitter disagreement and break from his close friend and partner comes because he is unwilling to offer the same grace that Barnabas offers.

It a good reminder that even the saints don’t always act like saints. Even the closest followers of Jesus aren’t perfect. They have arguments, fights, fallings out. They let their egos get the better of themselves at times. Paul and Barnabas are different, and at a certain point they are no longer able to work with each other. But they are both still strong apostles. They both continue their ministry in Jesus Christ even if they can’t agree on exactly how to do it together.

Barnabas is worthy of imitation. He was never the rock star of the early church. He doesn’t have the fame or name recognition of Paul. Even though he is the one who brought Paul into the fold, he often ends up playing second to Paul. And he seems to do so happily and faithfully. He continues to support and defend Paul, even when Paul’s actions have made him unpopular. He remains faithful. And yet, he is willing to stand up to Paul in the name of grace. He remains that son of encouragement who is always more ready than those around him to offer a second chance.

May we learn from Barnabas that kind of compassion. May we learn to error on the side of grace. May we be willing to take the supporting role when we are called to do so, and to boldly speak our truth when the spirit compels us to. May we be generous with our possessions and generous with our hearts. May we become sources of encouragement, willing to reconcile, willing to forgive, willing to offer another chance to those who ask for it. For we know that we are all here because we have been forgiven, because we have been offered grace. May we be just as willing to offer grace to sisters, brothers, and neighbors. Amen.

Sermon: Highly Favored Lady

Sunday 3 June 2018
Commemoration of the Visitation

Luke 1:39-57

janknegt-james-b-_visitationWe’re doing something a little different this Summer. I’m calling it a Summer of Saints. We usually follow a scheduled set of bible readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. But in the background, there’s also another calendar of days and readings that we usually don’t pay as much attention to. It’s a calendar of saints’ days and holy days. It’s a bit more common in the Lutheran tradition than in the Methodist tradition, but there are calendars of saints’ days and holy days for both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and for The United Methodist Church. The Lutheran ones appear in a book called More Days for Praise: Festivals and Commemorations in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, and the Methodist ones are in a book called For All the Saints: A Calendar of Commemorations for United Methodists. During this summer, we’re going to be drawing on those resources in order to explore some characters that we don’t often pay much attention to. Most of the saints we’ll be meeting are biblical saints, but we’ll also have the chance to get to know a few figures from later in the Christian story.

The commemoration we are marking today is called The Visitation, and it’s the story we read from the Gospel of Luke. When Mary is pregnant with Jesus, she travels to Judea to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. You may be thinking that this sounds like a Christmas story. But if you do the math, John the Baptist is supposed to have been born about six months before Jesus, so that’s June 24th. Then Mary must have visited about a month before that, and here we are.

Some of you have probably heard of the Bechdel test. It’s usually applied to movies, but sometimes to other kinds of storytelling. The Bechdel test has three parts. First, does the story have at least two women? Second, do the two women talk to each other? Third, do they talk to each other about something other than a man? Sometimes there is an additional requirement that the two female characters are actually given names. Only about half of Hollywood films pass the Bechdel test.

As you think through all the bible stories you know, you might notice that they have a significantly worse track record on the Bechdel test. The bible is not very strong on female characters. When they do appear, they are often not named. They only rarely talk to each other, and then almost exclusively about men, usually husbands, sometimes sons. According to one accounting, only three books of the Bible even come close to passing the Bechdel test: Ruth, Mark, and Luke. Ruth and Naomi have a complex relationship and wide-ranging conversations, though Naomi does keep trying to bring things back to finding a husband for Ruth. In the final scene of the Gospel of Mark, the women who go to the tomb murmur to each other “Who will roll the stone away?” Though, that’s hardly voluminous dialogue, and they are talking about the stone that bars the tomb of a man: Jesus.

The third example is right here, with Mary and Elizabeth talking to each other about their pregnancies. This episode, like the other two, is questionable, though. On the one hand, Mary and Elizabeth have not a word to say about their husbands, Joseph and Zechariah. On the other hand, they are talking about their male babies, and even when they’re talking about God, there is the strange sense that they’re talking about Mary’s man. Even so, though, I think there’s the sense that something special is happening here, that we’re getting a focus on the voices of women that we don’t often see in the bible.

Both Elizabeth and Mary function as prophets in this passage. Luke tells us explicitly that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit before she says what she has to say. Mary not only speaks, she breaks into poetry. Both of them utter God-speech—inspired words.

Those of you who have a Roman Catholic background will know Elizabeth’s words better than the rest of us do. Much of the Hail Mary prayer comes from Elizabeth’s words here. Hail Mary, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. That’s all cribbed from the KJV of Elizabeth’s speech. “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry.”

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, they call Mary the Theotokos (Θεοτόκος). Sometimes it’s translated as the Mother of God, but more literally, it means “the God-bearer.” That’s what Elizabeth is trying to say about Mary, that she has been chosen to bear the incarnate God into the world. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Why do have this honor that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Now that is prophecy! The mother of my Lord should come to me!

It isn’t mentioned in the part we read this morning, but by all outward appearances, it’s Elizabeth who has the miraculous pregnancy. To the world’s eyes, Mary is just another unwed mother, but we were told that Elizabeth is well past child-bearing years when she becomes pregnant with her son, John. But like Sarah in the Book of Genesis, she becomes pregnant in her old age, a miracle for all to see. And yet, she somehow recognizes that it is not her pregnancy, but Mary’s that is the greater miracle.

She even says that the child in her womb leaps when it heard Mary’s voice. Sometimes in icons and paintings of this scene, the artists will show a little miniature John in Elizabeth’s belly, leaping, and a little miniature Jesus in Mary’s belly, usually with his hand up in a sign of benediction. In any case, Luke tells us that even the fetal John knows that something important is happening here.

Elizabeth closes her words with this: “Blessed is she who believes that the things God had spoken to her will be fulfilled.” The grammar is a little strange. We’d expect, “Blessed is she who believed that the things God spoke to her would be fulfilled.” That would be a sort of congratulation to Mary for having believed in the past and her belief has been born out in the present. But it’s stranger than that. Blessed is she who believes (in the present) that what God said (in the past) will be fulfilled (in the future). There’s a tension there. The trust in the God is right now, and it’s based on what God said in the past, but it hasn’t been fulfilled yet. We haven’t seen the end yet. There is no guarantee that God will fulfill, that God will be trustworthy. There is only trust now that God will do what God promises in time.

And isn’t that where we find ourselves much of the time? We have these promises from God. We have these words, but they have yet to be fulfilled. There are the big ones, of course: peace, justice. And there is that tension between the good that we can clearly see God doing, and yet the imperfection of our human condition, the not yet complete of God’s invasive kingdom.

But there are also the smaller, but more immediate promises. God’s words spoken especially to me, especially to you. They’re not always as clear as words, of course. Not everyone is visited by the angel Gabriel. But there is that feeling, that sense of calling or purpose, that sense that God has a plan for me, that sense that God is concerned with my life, as small as my life may be. And yet that is often in tension with the not yet of what we sense God has in store for us.

No matter how strong that moment of clarity may have been, no matter how sure we may have felt of God’s calling, no matter how strongly our hearts may have burned, most of our life is spent in the time between those moments of clarity. Most of our life is spent not on  the mountaintop, but in the valley. Most of our life is spent in the vagueness, and obscurity, and blurriness, and murkiness, and opacity of our everyday living. When we can’t see the end. When we question if we ever heard anything in the beginning. When we doubt ourselves, and our choices and wonder at all the ways our lives might have played out differently.

And yet Elizabeth’s prophecy suggests that there is blessing in that tension. There is blessing for the one who puts her trust in God even when the future has not yet been revealed, even when the promise has not yet been fulfilled.

Mary doesn’t know, in that moment, what is going to happen. Her immediate concerns—how she is going to explain this baby, whether she will become a social pariah, whether Joseph or any other man will have her now—she doesn’t know the answers to those questions. But she trusts God and the promise that God has made. The promise she has received from Gabriel is that she will conceive by God’s Spirit and that she will give birth to God’s Son and that he will rule on David’s throne forever. That is the promise that she trusts.

But even with those words, she does not know what is coming. She does not know that her son won’t begin his mission until he has turned thirty, an astonishingly advanced age to be beginning in the ancient world. She does not know that he will upset the Jewish religious authorities. She does not know that he will reject the family of his birth as he builds a new community. She does not know that he will create a scene in the temple. She does not know that one of his closest followers will betray him. She does not know that he will be captured and beaten and put on trial before the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, and their puppet, King Herod. She does not know that his male disciples will abandon him. She does not know that she will stand there with Mary Magdalene and the other women and watch as he is tortured and killed on a Roman cross on a hill called Golgatha. None of that is spelled out in the promise from Gabriel. And even after he is raised from the dead, she does not know that he will be taken away forty days later. She does not know that she will be among those in the room when the Spirit comes on Pentecost, that she will be among those who are visited with a tongue of fire, who will proclaim the good news of God in other languages.

None of that is remotely imaginable when Mary visits Elizabeth. Mary has heard the words of God straight from the mouth of an angel, and yet even so, they could not have prepared her for the turns her life would take, for the many twists and detours before God’s words might be fulfilled.

And yet Elizabeth prophesies, “Blessed is she who trusts that what God has said will be fulfilled.” Blessed is she who trusts.

It is Mary’s trust in God that inspires her to open her mouth in prophecy. She may not know all that is to come, but she knows that she is poor, that she is thought to be insignificant, and that all the same, God has chosen her for this special role. She echos the words of Hannah from centuries before, the words we heard read from 1 Samuel today. That God drags the mighty off their thrones and lifts up the lowly. That God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.

These are radical words that Mary speaks. Some of the most radical words in the gospel. But it is her words that set the stage for Jesus’s ministry. Before John utters a single word, before he is even born, Mary is the prophet of the coming Messiah. Mary is the one who proclaims God’s gospel of liberation. Even today, her words echo a call for justice. A little later in the service, we’ll have the chance to sing Mary’s words for ourselves, to hear them speak to our world in the words of the hymn, and I pray that they will move us today as they moved so many other in the past.

On this Sunday, we commemorate two of God’s many faithful women: Mary and Elizabeth. They heard God’s word, and they prophesied. They trusted in what God had promised. Their words and their examples call us still to trust in the one who has promised and to join in the work of God’s Kingdom. Thanks be to God!

Sermon: Signs on the Earth Below

Sunday 20 May 2018
The Feast of Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

GeneralMHFactsToday is the Feast of Pentecost. It is the fiftieth and final day of the Season of Easter. Fifty days. A week of weeks. During this season we have been spending our time with the Book of Acts, the story of the formation of the early church in the wake of Jesus’s death and resurrection. We have heard about the early church sharing its possessions so that no one was in need. We have heard about the controversy Peter and John created by using the name of Jesus to heal a disabled man in the court of the Jerusalem temple. We have heard about Philip having a theological conversation with a high-ranking Ethiopian official, a conversation that opened him to the life-giving grace of Jesus. We have heard how Peter broke the biblical rules by consorting with Gentiles because the Holy Spirit told him not to exclude people who have been included by God. And last week we rewound back to the beginning of Acts to hear how Matthias was appointed as an apostle to replace Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus.

Pentecost is the next story after that. It’s been fifty days since Jesus’s resurrection. It’s a major religious festival in Jerusalem. For hundreds of years, Judea has been conquered by every new empire that rose up: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Ptolemys, the Romans. And each time a new army marched in, Jews were displaced. Now they’re scattered all over the known world. They have made new lives for themselves. They have settled into their communities. Generations have passed. They don’t speak Hebrew any more: they speak all of the different languages of the world.

But on important festival days, Jews from all over the world make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship at the temple. Most wouldn’t come every year. But, if they could afford to, most would try to make the journey at least once in their lifetime. Pentecost is one of those festivals, and Jews from everywhere are gathered to worship.

And on this particular Pentecost, as Jews from all over the world are gathered, something remarkable happens. The Spirit of God comes in the form of flames of fire, and the disciples speak the word of the gospel, and everyone is able to hear in their own language.

That’s quite an impressive miracle. And there are a variety of responses to it. Luke tells us that some were surprised. Others were amazed. Still others were bewildered or perplexed.

But not everyone. Some jeered. Some were detractors. Who do these Galileans think they are, anyway? Their probably just drunk, or crazy. Drunk or crazy, and therefore not to be trusted, not to be believed. The power of stigma kept those jeering persons from seeing the power of God’s Spirit at work among them.

I’ve been spending a lot of time telling you about the liturgical calendar lately. But there are things happening in the secular calendar, as well. This month is Mental Health Awareness Month. I was at Pacific Lutheran University last weekend, at the conference of the Society of Biblical Literature, and as I was walking around campus between sessions, I saw several signs highlighting the importance of mental health as a part of overall health and trying to educate students and staff about mental illness and how to seek treatment.

In our public discourse, mental health often comes up in the context of mass shootings, like the one two days ago in a high school in Santa Fe, Texas. Keeping guns out of the hands of people with mental illness seems to be a common suggestion for preventing such tragedies. People with mental illness are thought to be more prone to violence than the general population, and people who are violent are thought to be mentally ill.

But it’s not actually true. It’s a myth. The truth is that people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than any other person. Let me say that again. People with mental illnesses are not more violent than people without mental illnesses. It is stigma that tells us otherwise. But that does not mean that mental illness has no correlation with violence. People with mental illness are not more violent than anyone else, but they are four times more likely to be victims of violence. Having a mental illness does not mean that you will be more violent, but it does mean that you are more likely to suffer violence. People tend to be scared of those who are mentally ill, but it isn’t a fear based in reality, it is a fear born of stigma.

So let’s address a few more myths. Here’s one: mental health conditions are fairly rare. The truth is that 1 in 5 Americans experiences mental illness, and in any given year, 1 in 25 Americans experiences severe mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits major life activities. Here’s another myth: mental illness is caused by personal weakness. The truth is that mental illness is an actual, biological condition that can be effected by biological, genetic, and environmental factors. Having a mental illness does not mean that you are weak, and it does not mean that you just need to be tougher. What you need is treatment and support. Another myth: you’re just sad, you’re not depressed. The truth is that depression is not something that can be willed away. You can’t just cheer up or shake it off. It effects the biological functioning of our bodies. But there are many forms of effective treatment for depression. Another myth: people with mental illness can’t handle work or school. The truth is that with effective treatment, people with mental illnesses have jobs, go to school, and are active members of their communities. Myths like these contribute to the stigma and exclusion that alienates people experiencing mental illness and their families.

And too often, the church has been a source of that stigma. We have associated mental illness with sin, piling guilt on to the heavy load that persons with mental illness already bear. We have cultivated a culture of shame around mental illness, in which people are afraid to reveal their struggles, afraid to seek help, afraid to do all the things that might lead to healing because acknowledging that they have a mental illness is shameful. It leads to exclusion, alienation, a lack of trust—when what the person desperately needs is inclusion, caring support, and a spirit of honesty.

Despite the prevalence of mental illness, its presence frequently is a shame-filled secret, left unacknowledged and often untreated. Or its exposure to daylight leads to isolation and alienation of everyone affected…Without human connection and communal support, an alienated person is subject to further assaults on dignity. Unique and gifted people are reduced to ‘patients,’ whose only identity is an illness. Instead of honest appraisal of the complex causes of mental illness, which leads to a deeper understanding of the person, social categorization leads to identifying the alienated person simply as ‘mentally ill.’ Their families often are blamed.”

We didn’t learn that kind of stigma from Jesus. Jesus cared for the whole health of the people he met. “All aspects of health—physical, mental, and spiritual—were of equal concern to Jesus Christ, whose healing touch reached out to mend broken bodies, minds, and spirits with one common purpose: the restoration of well-being and renewed communion with God and neighbor.” (United Methodist Book of Resolutions, ❡3303)

Both of our denominations have strong social statements about mental illness and our obligation as Christians to be agents of understanding, care, and treatment. I’ve been quoting from them a bit already. But here are a few more words on the subject from the official doctrinal statements of The United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“The body of Christ is incomplete if people experiencing mental illness are not integrated as a visible part of the whole. The call challenges the ELCA to be a community seeking understanding that encourages individuals to pursue treatment, comforts them in their suffering, and supports them in their treatment and recovery.” “John Wesley’s ministry was grounded in the redemptive ministry of Christ with its focus on healing that involved spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical aspects… His witness of love to those in need of healing is our model for ministry to those suffering from mental illness.” “Seeking help should be encouraged, and not seen as a sign of weakness.” “No one can weather mental illness alone, whether that be the person diagnosed, the family member, or the practitioner. This church is called to challenge outdated views of mental illness and foster loving practices within our communities. In a society that stresses self-sufficient individualism and is ashamed of vulnerability, congregations and other ministry sites can be communities where illness and living with limitations are simply part of our communal reality. Jesus’ ministry and that of the earliest Christian communities exemplify this communal response.” “As Christ was not afraid to be vulnerable, or to show his wounds, the church when living faithfully as the body of Christ is not afraid to be vulnerable and wounded. When people with mental illness are present as full members, as their true selves, the church as the body of Christ is both wounded and authentic. Their willingness to be present as vulnerable is a gift and is itself a form of service, 42 and a reminder to the church that true freedom is found in service.” “Science uncovers more every day about the causes of mental illness, yet sufferers and their families still experience the dis-grace of encountering mental illness myths and misconceptions. Though research shows genetic and biological causes are at the root of mental illnesses, many still believe sufferers just need to “think positive” or work harder to “snap out of it” when what they really need is treatment, therapy and support.” “The church as the body of Christ, is called to a ministry of salvation in its broadest understanding, which includes both healing and reconciliation, or restoring wholeness both at the individual and communal levels.”

Two thousand years ago at Pentecost, stigma prevented people from seeing the movement and gifts of the Holy Spirit. They saw people that seemed to be strange, acting in a way that they did not understand, and so they marginalized them, discounted them, treated them like they were crazy. Stigma of another kind alienates us from the movement of God’s Spirit today. It creates a veil of shame and silence that quite literally costs lives.

There is power in breaking the silence, though there is also risk. A study conducted by the ELCA showed that about 20% of clergy suffer from depression. I know of many of my colleagues who do. I am among them. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 25 and in seminary, though the signs were there at least ten years before then. It’s funny, I never thought twice about going to a doctor for a routine colds, even though the prescription was always the same: you probably don’t need antibiotics, just rest and plenty of fluids. But there was no shame in asking for help. But the idea of seeking help for feelings of overwhelming despair—it would have never occurred to me.

For me, it was wrapped up in feelings of unworthiness, sinfulness, and shame. And that feeling of shame, that sense that there was something deeply wrong with me, it created a kind of feedback loop that pushed me lower and lower. At its worst, I was certain that my very existence was harmful to the people around me, that the world would be noticeably better off without me.

Fortunately, Melissa was there to pick me up, to get me the help I needed when I wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own. Those of you who have experienced it know that depression hurts. It physically hurts. And the simplest of tasks can seem completely overwhelming. I couldn’t have faced it alone. And I didn’t. I had family and friends who supported me, encouraged me, had patience with me. I had a pastoral supervisor who offered me nothing but grace and compassion. I had professors and school administrators who found a way to ease my load while I focussed on getting better. I had people who surrounded me in prayer. And I had the help of excellent mental health professionals who provided me the care I needed to heal.

I share this with you today in the hope that my story will in some small way break the power of shame and stigma that surrounds mental illness. I want you to know—for yourselves, for your families, for your friends—that there is no shame in mental illness and there is no shame in asking for help. It is not a sign of weakness. In fact, seeking treatment can be a tremendous act of courage.

Modern health care, including mental health care, is a gift of God. We would never say that getting surgery for a clogged artery is a sign of weakness. We would never say that taking insulin for diabetes demonstrates a lack of faith. Neither should we say that seeing a counsellor or a psychologist or psychiatrist is a sign of weakness, or that taking medication for a mental illness demonstrates a lack of faith.

We are all God’s children. And like our brother, Jesus, we all have wounds. Some wounds are visible, and some are not. But we all, in our brokenness, deserve respect, care, grace, and love. We all, in our brokenness, shine forth a part of God’s power. Let us not suffer in silence. Let us not be peddlers of stigma and shame. Instead, let us bear one another’s burdens. Let us be the community of understanding, grace, and love that God calls us to be. Let us be agents of God’s Holy Spirit, which moves among us and binds us together, so that we never face our struggles alone. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: The Lot Fell on Matthias

Sunday 13 May 2018
Feast of Matthias, Seventh Sunday of Easter

Acts 1:15-26

St Matthias, apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot, who defected : the axe he holds is the one which was used to remove his head

St Matthias, apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot, who defected : the axe he holds is the one which was used to remove his head

We are almost at the end of our seven-week Eastertide journey through Acts. So it is a little strange that this morning we’re jumping back to the beginning. Out of all of the readings we will touch this season, the one this morning comes earliest. It comes even before the Pentecost, which we will celebrate next Sunday. It’s only 40 or 50 days after Easter Sunday. The disciples have seen Jesus appear to them in his resurrected form several times. On the last time, they saw him ascend into heaven. Then they return to Jerusalem, to an upper room, and devote themselves to prayer. Luke tells us that eleven remaining apostles are there—Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, the other James, Simon the zealot, and Judas, not the Judas who betrayed him—along with several of Jesus’s female disciples, his mother Mary, and his four brothers: James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. It can be a little confusing because there are lots of people with he same names. Gathered in the upper room, there are at least three Simons, three James’s, and two Judas’s: but neither of those Judas’s is the Judas who betrayed Jesus. And there are probably at least three Marys.

That’s where we pick up with the reading this morning. As in nearly every passage that we’ve read in Acts this season, the action starts when Peter stands up and starts to speak. You can say what you want about Peter, but one thing he is not is shy. Peter knows that he and the rest of the disciples have been ordered to wait in Jerusalem until the coming the Holy Spirit. That’s what’s going to happen next in the story, and it’s what we’ll read next Sunday. But before they can get to Pentecost, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Early in his ministry Jesus had appointed twelve of his disciples to be a part of a special group, the Twelve, who were going to be apostles. They were to be sent out to the twelve tribes of Israel.

But there is a problem. There are only eleven of them left. Judas has betrayed Jesus, sold him out for a bag of silver. And Luke tells us just what happened to Judas and the money he was paid for Jesus’s blood. Judas has created a problem not just for himself, but also for the Twelve. How can they inaugurate the New Israel if the Twelve is now only the Eleven. The optics are all wrong. They’ll have to find someone to replace Judas.

And here’s the part that I find fascinating. Peter says they need to choose someone who has been with them and witnessed everything that Jesus has done from the beginning when John the Baptist was still on the scene until the present, just after Jesus has been taken away into heaven at his ascension. Doesn’t that seem a little strange? Who could possibly have been with them all that time? Wouldn’t we have heard of them before this point in the story?

But not only are they able to find one extra man who has been with Jesus from the beginning, they are able to find two. Which implies that there must have been even more than that around. How many unnamed disciples have been with Jesus this entire time but we never hear them named at all or their stories told?

So two of these hitherto unknown disciples are put forward for the position: replacement twelfth apostle. The first candidate is Joseph. He’s also called Barsabbas. And he has a second nickname: Justus. The other candidate for the job is Matthias.

And then, like any good human resources team, the two candidates submit their resumés and cover letters, they go through a series of interviews, they each give a model sermon for everyone to compare, and then they all vote on who should be the next apostle. Oh wait, no, that’s not what happens. No, they leave it up to chance. They cast lots. That’s like rolling dice or drawing straws. The ancients did this as a kind of divination, a way of determining the will of God. They could just have easily read tea leaves to make the choice, or studied the entrails of a goat. The decision for who is going to be the next apostle is left up to a coin toss.

The coin toss favors the second candidate, Matthias, and he becomes one of the twelve. And then, of course, he becomes an integral part of the expanding Jesus Movement, and we hear about his missionary trips. Oh wait, that doesn’t happen either.

What actually happens is that we never hear another word about Matthias again, or about Justus, for that matter. He completely falls out of the narrative. He is never mentioned before this passage, and he is never mentioned after this passage. His job is just to get the apostles up to the required number, twelve, and that’s all. Interestingly, when another of the apostles is killed ten chapters later in Acts, James the son of Zebedee, no effort is made to replace him. But it is important somehow that Matthias replaces Judas.

Even our sources outside the Bible aren’t very clear about Matthias’s life. Maybe he went to the region of modern Georgia, maybe he stayed in Jerusalem. Maybe he was stoned to death and then beheaded, maybe he lived into old age. He is usually pictured with an axe, which seems strange if he was supposed to be killed by stoning. His story is almost entirely clouded to us, except for this brief passage in which he is chosen by chance to become the thirteenth apostle, his only qualification being that he seems to have been hanging around for a while now, and then he is never heard from again. His full story is never told, and the one thing that makes him famous happens only by chance.

In our modern world, we don’t tend to give much credit to chance. In the post-Enlightenment world of science, democracy, and capitalism, I am the hero of my own story. I make the choices about my own life. I set my own goals, and then I work hard and achieve those goals. If I have something, it’s because I earned it. If I do something, it’s because I chose it. If I end up in a certain place, it’s because that’s where I took myself. Follow your dreams! You can do anything you put your mind to, right? But, truth be told, there is quite a lot more chance in our stories than we might want to admit.

When I was in high school, jazz choir was a really big deal. That was the elite singing group at every school. And my high school, South Salem, had one of the best. I remember the first time I saw them. Most jazz choirs would stand on risers like any other choir, and there would be area microphones that covered the whole choir. But not with the Southernaires. Sixteen singers, and every single one of them had their own mic. The piano player might take a four-minute solo at the beginning of a particularly heart-wrenching ballad. To a seventh-grade musician, they were like Olympian gods up on the stage, like nothing I had ever seen before. Even when I was a freshman and in the JV jazz choir, they seemed like immortals. At the fall jazz festival that they hosted, the Southernaires gave roses to every member of our underclassman jazz choir. I got mine from the bass player, Andy Turnbough. Of course, I pressed it, put it in a frame, and hung it in my room like some kind of holy relic. I’m pretty sure it’s still hanging there at my parents house.

It was only a few months after that when I got called into Mr. Wenz’s office. Pete Lamb, the Southernaires piano player had dropped in the middle of the year, which was absolutely unheard of. It was scandalous, a betrayal. He got a retroactive F for the first semester. But now there was an opening in the rhythm section of Southernaires. Someone had to fill it. And the lot had fallen on me. They were playing a festival in two weeks, and now I was the one who was going to play the four-minute piano solo. I was only the second freshman ever in Southernaires, and I was so not prepared for it. I remember I got assigned the only remaining Southernaire t-shirt, which was a men’s XL. I think I weighed about 96 pounds at the time. Wearing it seemed like the perfect visualization of how I felt: completely overwhelmed and not nearly big enough for the task. But what was I going to do? The spot had to be filled. So there I was, completely, as it seemed, by chance.

I’m sure I am not the only one here who has felt like that. I’ll bet every one of could tell a story about when you were faced with a role or a task that you were not expecting, that you were not prepared for, that you did not feel equal to. But you know what, someone had to do it, and this time it was going to be you.

[In fact, why don’t you take a moment to tell someone near you that story.]

It happens to us over and over. Who ever feels prepared to pass from elementary school to middle school, or from middle school to high school, or from high school to college? Who is ever prepared for intertwining your life with someone else’s in marriage. Who is ever prepared to be parent? Who ever feels ready to pray in public for the first time? I know I was terrified. Starting a new job, leading a meeting, organizing a fundraiser. Caring for a sick family member, facing a chronic illness, living in the wake of death. Going to a protest for the first time, sharing your story of faith, apologizing and seeking forgiveness when you have wronged another, opening yourself up to a stranger. It’s not easy. But sometimes the lot falls to you—sometimes by chance, sometimes by God’s calling—and you just have to do the task that has been set before you, whether you feel ready for it or not.

Most of the time it won’t make the papers. We don’t know anything about what Matthias did as an apostle when he found himself dropped unceremoniously into the role. We don’t know the stories of most of the people who have struggle in faith. In fact, we probably don’t know most of the stories of struggle of the people who are here in this room today. That doesn’t make them less real, nor the struggle less important.

We will all face those times when the road ahead seems too difficult, or too scary, or too unpredictable. But we have the example of Matthias, who answered when he was called. Even more importantly, we have the companionship of Jesus, who knows us and loves us and walks with us every step of the way. Even if nobody knows the trouble you’ve seem, nobody knows… but Jesus. You may not feel ready, but he is. You may not feel up to the task, but he is. There is no load too heavy for him, no road too long. And just as he has done for his disciples in every age, no matter what it is you are facing, Jesus will never leave your side. Glory, Hallelujah.