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.

Sermon: Even on the Gentiles

Sunday 6 May 2018
The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 10:23b-35, 44-48

Baptism_of_corneliusWe’re continuing our Eastertide journey through the book of Acts. We haven’t read it yet this season, but one of the first things that happens in the Book of Acts is the Pentecost. This is when the Holy Spirit descends upon the apostles and they speak in tongues. That’s already a problem. What is this speaking in tongues thing? Most Methodists and Lutherans break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it. I had a professor who said that Methodists suffer from Pentecostaphobia—the fear of becoming Pentecostal. And I suspect Lutherans may suffer from the same malady. We’re afraid to put our hands up in the air for fear that they might get stuck there. And speaking in tongues, once you do that, its only a short step until you’re knocking people over at the altar, and there’s someone running up and down the aisle playing a tambourine with red streamers tied to it.

And the writer of Acts doesn’t help us much with the problem. We’re not even sure whether speaking tongues means speaking in foreign languages or speaking in other-worldly languages. All Luke tells us is that speaking in tongues is a sure sign of the Holy Spirit, and that when the apostles speak at Pentecost, all of the foreign Jews in Jerusalem can understand them in their own languages.

Notice that I said all the Jews in Jerusalem, because Jesus, and all of his disciples, and all of the members of the early of church are Jews. Gentiles were not allowed into the church unless they had first been circumcised and become Jews. The early Christian movement was a sect of Judaism, and Pentecost did not change that. Anyone who was not a good Jew was considered outside the realm of God.

So when Peter, a good Jesus-following Jew, receives a vision that he is to go out to the Gentiles, he has a hard time believing it. He doesn’t want to ruin his ritual purity by mixing with unclean Gentiles. But in Peter’s vision, the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  So when Peter is called to the house of Cornelius, a God-fearing, Roman centurion, he goes, even though it is a violation of the biblical purity laws.

When Peter gets to the house, along with his companions, Cornelius has assembled all of his friends and family to hear Peter’s message. So Peter begins to preach, and as he’s still speaking, the Holy Spirit comes upon the gentiles, and they begin to speak in tongues.

It’s a repeat of Pentecost, when Christians first experienced the Holy Spirit, but this time it is all wrong, at least as far as Peter’s companions are concerned. In fact, it just can’t happen. Doesn’t God understand that there is an order and a process to these sorts of things: first of all, the gentile must become a Jew by being circumcised and following the Kosher dietary laws, then after a period of study, they can become Christians by being baptized, and then, only if they’re lucky, maybe they can be filled with the Holy Spirit. I mean, it’s not like the Spirit descends on just anybody. So far in the story, it’s only happened twice: once on Jesus, after he was baptized by John and once at Pentecost. But this is just wrong. It’s like these gentiles have graduated with a PhD before they’ve even finished high school, and the other graduates just can’t understand it. And they’re bitter too. What is God doing?

Sometimes we have the same problem. We would prefer if God would only call those people that fit into our understanding of righteousness. We would prefer if God would be predictable and follow the rules that we have established. First they have to clean themselves up and learn how to act properly, and then we’ll consider letting them in.

There is perhaps no starker example of this in the American experience than the predicament of black Christians in white churches. Richard Allen recounts an incident that occurred as he and other black Christians attempted to go to an integrated church, where they were in fact members. He writes: “A number of us usually attended St. George’s church in Fourth Street; and when the colored people began to get numerous in attending the church, they moved us from the seats we usually sat on, and placed us all around the wall, and on Sabbath morning we went to church and the sexton stood at the door, and told us to go in the gallery. He told us to go, and we would see where to sit. We expected to take the seats over the ones we formerly occupied below, not knowing any better. We took those seats. Meeting had begun, and they were nearly done singing, and just as we got to our seats, the elder said, ‘Let us pray.’ We had not been long upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees, H——- M——–, having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him up off of his knees, and saying, ‘You must get up—you must not kneel here.’ Mr. Jones replied, ‘Wait until prayer is over.’  Mr. H—– M—– said ‘No, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and force you away.’ Mr. Jones said, ‘Wait until prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more.’ With that he beckoned to one of the other trustees, Mr. L—– S—– to come to his assistance. He came, and went to William White to pull him up. By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church.”

You might be thinking that this took place somewhere in the Deep South, probably in an especially conservative denomination. It did not. It took place in Philadelphia, the birthplace of American Democracy, and it took place in a Methodist Church. The African Americans who were thrown out went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, because the white Methodist church could not and would not recognize the gifts that they possessed. They were too caught in their own societal rules of right and wrong, in and out. This story is a part of our heritage, a sad chapter when we did not think of a black person as worthy even to kneel in prayer to the creator.

And this is not a problem that is limited only to 1st century Palestine and 18th century Philadelphia. Throughout history, we Christians have had a hard time comprehending that God pours out blessing “even on the Gentiles.” We have too often closed the doors of the church to anyone outside the elite: to slaves, to the poor, to African Americans, to women we have kept the door closed, to Hispanics, to the LGBTQ community, to Native Americans, to disabled persons, to aboriginal peoples, to the meek, to Arabs, to teenagers, to anyone that we label “sinner”, to the dirty, the homeless, the mentally ill…. We say, “How could God work through someone like that?  How could God possibly work through them?”

Fortunately for us, Peter sets a good example. He recognizes God’s actions, even in such an unexpected place as among the Gentiles. He is able to overcome his upbringing and his training and his fear just long enough to see God’s face in those supposedly unclean faces. He sees God out front leading the way and decides to get into line. He takes the step of baptizing Gentiles, for the first time ever, because God has left him no other choice. God has already conferred a doctoral degree on the Gentiles, and the least Peter can do is hand out High School diplomas.

But it isn’t an easy road for Peter. When the other disciples find out what he’s done, they are more than a little concerned, and they chastise him for even eating with Gentiles, let alone baptizing them. What kind of riffraff is he bringing in? But Peter doesn’t give up. He sticks to his principles and argues his case before the whole church. And… his voice eventually carries the day, though not without some grumbling. Peter’s testimony opens the mind and doors of the church to Gentiles for the first time.

Why is that important? If Peter had not stood up for the outsiders, against the objections of the believers, then Christianity would have remained a Jewish sect. The church would never have been opened up to the likes of you and me. You see, you and I would have been far too unclean to even be considered for membership in the pure church. If it were not for Peter, breaking both the rules and the law to open up the church to the unclean, then the Gospel of Jesus Christ would never have been preached to us, the love of God never offered.

Fortunately for us as well, God continues to lead the way. God persists in showing up where we least expect, choosing people we would not choose. It happens over and over again in the Bible, and it happens over and over again in our world.

I’ve been struggling all this week to think about how to talk about this next part. Because the question I have to answer is Who are today’s gentiles? Who are the people we would never expect to see God working among? Who are the people we would consider Godless. Maybe we wouldn’t call them Godless, but we would think that God was not on their side. Who would those people be that would make us surprised that God’s Spirit had been poured out “even on the….”?

And the truth is, that’s a hard question to answer. It depends on how we define “we.” And it forces us to consider marks of identity that are much deeper than our conscious thought.

You all know we live in a time of political polarization. And people often ask why that is. Why are we so divided? And science is starting to give us answers about that. Studies show that we as humans are incredibly strongly motivated by the desire for our group to win. One experiment showed that if people are divided into two teams—it doesn’t matter how you divide them, so long as they know that they are on two different teams—and then you make them choose between two options. In option A, everyone on both teams gets $5. In option B, everyone on my team gets $4 and everyone on the other team gets $2—do you know which option people tend to choose. They choose option B. They are willing to give up the gains of a mutually beneficial situation if it means that their team gets to win. Even if I am better off personally with a solution that helps everyone, I will tend to prefer a situation in which I get less as long as it means that my side wins

And, it turns out, no matter what the political issue is, people are more motivated by their team identity than they are by the merits of the issue itself. If you tell people about an imaginary policy question, and you say that Democrats say Yes and Republicans say No, guess what people will choose? They will choose with their party identity. And if you take another group of people, give them the same issue, but flip it around, say that Democrats say No and Republicans say Yes, people will still choose with their party identity. The team loyalty is more powerful than the actual merits of the issue. And, as it turns out, the more engaged someone is politically, the more this is true. People who are more informed are less likely to take the other side’s argument seriously, are more likely to just side with their own team regardless of the specifics.

And it’s not just in politics. It happens with every kind of group and every identity marker. If being rural is important to me, I’m likely to think that city people are the enemy. If being educated is important to me, then I’m likely to think that uneducated people are too stupid to have good ideas. And yes, if being Christian is important to me, then I’m likely to think of non-Christians are evil. If, however, being an open-minded, ecumenical Christian is important to me, then I’m likely to think of other Christians, the one’s who are uncomfortable with inter-religious dialog, I’m likely to think of them as the enemy. We want our team to win, and we want the other team to fail. The impulse is unavoidable.

But God doesn’t care about which teams we say we’re on. Race doesn’t keep God from being present. Gender doesn’t keep God from being present. Sexual orientation doesn’t keep God from being present. Political party, class, nationality, immigration status, age, health status, disability, intelligence, wealth, occupation, religion, denomination—none of them determine whether or not God is present. Ralph Vaughn Williams was an atheist for most of his life, but that didn’t stop God from using him to write some of the most beautiful church music we have. Choose a group, whoever you think the enemy is—God is there in the midst of them somewhere. The Holy Spirit is poured even on the Gentiles.

Which even includes us, thanks be to God. The truth is, we all feel inadequate to be in God’s presence. Inside each of us is that voice that reminds us of all things we’ve done wrong, all the ways we aren’t good enough. “Who do you think you are to call yourself a Christian? What makes you think you’re so worthy and righteous?” That voice keeps us away. Whether it is spoken out loud or whether it simply echoes in the back of our minds, it keeps us away.

But God has a different idea. God loves each of us with an unconditional love, a love that sees beyond the things that we have done wrong, or which team we are on, to the possibilities that we have. By God’s grace, even the outcast, even the lonely, even the hurting, even the sinners, even the Democrats, even the Republicans, even those who don’t claim the name Christian, even the Gentiles… even these can become vessels for the Holy Spirit. May God work within us to open our hearts, minds, and doors to the surprising and unexpected actions of God in the world and in all the people around us. Amen.

Sermon: How Can I Understand?

Sunday 29 April 2018
The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 8:26-40

Acts_128All through the seven weeks of the Easter Season we are focusing on the fifth book of the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. We’ve heard about the early church sharing their possessions so that no one was in need. We’ve heard about the apostles Peter and John getting into trouble with the religious authorities for healing and teaching in the name of Jesus. Now we are going to jump ahead several chapters to hear the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

Philip, a Greek-speaking Jew, had been named along with Stephen and five others as deacons of the church, in charge of distributing food and resources to the needy members of the community. But shortly after that, everything changed. The Jewish authorities lost their patience with the growing Jesus Movement. You might remember from last week that Peter and John had been imprisoned and chastised for preaching in the name of Jesus. But when Stephen the Deacon began to preach, they didn’t just chastise him, they stoned him to death. And Saul was there with the crowd who stoned him. The church that had been growing in Jerusalem was scattered. New Christians fled persecution in Jerusalem, and among the people who fled was our hero, Philip the Deacon.

After a time evangelizing in Samaria, Philip finds himself in the story we read this morning. He hears a message from the Holy Spirit, telling him to go down to the desert road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. And when he is there, he sees a very unusual sight:

Philip sees a man, traveling in a grand chariot, reading a scroll. Like nearly all readers in the ancient world, he was reading out loud. Philip could hear that he was reading from the Greek translation of the Prophet Isaiah. The narrator tells us that the man was from Ethiopia, that he was the queen’s chancellor, that he was returning home after worshipping at the temple in Jerusalem, and that he was a eunuch.

Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge how weird that is. Ethiopia was well outside the sphere a Roman influence. It was not unknown to Jews and Romans, but it was far off and exotic. He likely would have stood out simply on account of his dark skin color.

Second, we are told he is a eunuch. Jews were especially repelled by something they considered genital mutilation. Castration was not normally practiced in the Roman world, either. Again, it sets this man off as been foreign and exotic. He would have been considered neither male nor female, but a third and different gender.

The fact that he was a eunuch tells us that he was most likely a slave. We tend to associate slavery were backbreaking work in fields. But even in the practice of American slavery, there were slaves who served in the house in some kind of specialized service. In the ancient world, slaves were used for all kinds of specialized purposes: as tutors, scholars, managers, actors. Some slaves wielded a tremendous amount of power. That is the case with this Ethiopian man. He is one of the queen’s chief officers, in charge of overseeing the finances of her kingdom and able to represent the queen of Ethiopia on a mission to a foreign nation. Slaves were sometimes made eunuchs so that they would have no family to divide their loyalty or so that they could be trusted to work in the presence of women. This particular slave can also read Greek, which was not the native language of Ethiopia. Significant investment must have been made in his education. He is highly placed, highly educated, and highly powerful.

But one of the stranger things about the appearance of this man in the story is that he is returning from worshipping in the temple in Jerusalem. Why is this foreigner worshipping at the Jewish temple? Is he a convert to Judaism, what we would call a proselyte? Would he even be allowed to convert since he is a eunuch? Or is he what we would a God-fearer, a gentile who follows the ways of the Jewish God, worships in or supports a synagogue, but does not take the final step of converting to Judaism? Or is it possibly that he visits Jerusalem on a diplomatic or economic mission, and while he is there he visits the temple out of curiosity? The Jerusalem temple was known at the time for being an impressive sight to behold. And there would be nothing keeping a pagan from visiting in the court of the Gentiles or even from making a sacrifice to the Jewish God. The temple regularly made sacrifices to God on behalf of the Roman Emperor, for example.

The truth is, we don’t quite know. What we do know is that this character is supposed to strike us a very strange, very out of the ordinary. He comes from what might as well be the ends of the earth, he is very powerful, and yet a slave, everything about him testifies to his exotic character, and yet here he is reading a Greek translation of the Book of Isaiah, which he may have picked up during his trip to Jerusalem.

Philip runs up alongside the carriage and asks this man if he understands what he is reading. And this is the part of the story that I want to focus on this morning. “Do you really understand what you are reading?” Philip asks. And the Ethiopian chancellor replies, “How can I understand without someone to guide me?” Without someone to guide me, how could I understand?

Now, at first this might sound like it speaks against Protestant theology. Martin Luther, John Wesley, and many others insisted that the scriptures should be made available directly to the common people. They did not need a priest as an intermediary between them and the scriptures. Is this passage suggesting the opposite, that the Ethiopian chancellor cannot understand the scriptures without the help of a specialist, a deacon, who has been taught how to understand them?

I don’t think so. Anyone who has spent any time reading the Bible knows that it can be hard to understand. It is very old, it was written in different languages than we speak now, and it comes from a culture very different than our own. And it can be helpful to understand something about that different time, different language, different culture in order to understand what is happening in the Bible. But that isn’t the main thing to get from this passage. Philip isn’t helpful because he is a Hebrew scholar. Far from it.

What we see in this passage is that scripture is always in need of interpretation. It is not enough just to read it. It is not enough just to study it, either. It must be reinterpreted over and over for the present time. If we just read it as a history text, then it is dead, unable to speak to us today. In order for the Bible to be alive today, we have to listen for what the Holy Spirit is saying through it in our own time and place.

Reading more deeply into the Bible starts with asking questions. That’s what the Ethiopian eunuch does. He reads the passage, and then he asks, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?” He asks questions. He interrogates the text. He considers that there might be more than one possible meaning to this text.

And that is important to remember. Too often when we read the Bible we don’t have enough courage to ask it questions. We assume that it says one thing and one thing only, and we assume that it is somehow irreverent to point out the strangeness in the story or wonder about the things that don’t make sense. But asking questions of the text is essential. Asking questions means that we are taking the text seriously, that we don’t just assume that whatever some Sunday school teacher or pastor told us about it is everything that could ever be known. Asking questions means that we are taking the text seriously enough to pay close attention to it, in all of its weirdness. If you’ve been listening to me for long, you know that I love to get in there and explore the weirdness in the text.

But I also want you to notice how Philip responds. He doesn’t do what I do. He doesn’t say, “Well, what you need to know about Isaiah is that it was written in the time of the Babylonian Captivity…” He doesn’t do that. I have a tendency to get stuck in that part of the interpretation, digging into the text and its background. And then I end up missing the more important step of listening for what the text has to say today.

Philip does not feel confined by what the biblical text has meant in the past. He does not give the standard interpretation. He reinterprets the text for his time, he listens to what it has to say in the context of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, for what it has to say to his people in his time.

And we should not be afraid to listen for the continuing revelation of the Holy Spirit as we read the Bible today. If the Word of God is alive, it will continue to speak to us today, in our own time, in our own circumstances. We can read something anew and feel like it is speaking directly to us today, even though it may have meant something different in the past. And that is due to the work of the Holy Spirit and Jesus’s continuing life as the Word of God.

I’d like to take a moment to have you share with someone near you. I have two different questions for you to consider, and you can choose one that speaks to you this morning.

1. Is there a passage that you keep coming back to? What makes it important for you?

2. Can you remember a time when you heard someone interpret scripture, and you just had the sense, “No, this can’t be right”?

The Bible is a marvelous gift to God’s people. It gives us a glimpse of how people have experienced God in the distant past. But it also continues to speak to us today in a new and different world. The Bible needs interpretation, it requires our attention, our struggle and conversation. Taking the Bible seriously means reading it closely and asking it questions, just like the eunuch from Ethiopia. But it also means listening for the continuing voice of the Holy Spirit and its message for us today, just like Philip did on that desert road centuries ago. By using our minds and our hearts as we read, and by sharing in holy conversation with our sisters and brothers in the faith, we become witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, the Word of God.

Sermon: The Name of Jesus

Sunday 22 April 2018
The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 4:1-20

JESUS_HOLY NAME 122616We are in the third week of our Eastertide journey through the Book of Acts, which is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Two weeks ago, we heard from the end of chapter four about how the early church in Jerusalem shared their possessions so that no one was in need. Then last week we  turned back to chapter three to hear the story of how Peter and John healed a paralytic man in the name of Jesus. Our reading this morning continues the story of Peter and John and the consequences of their apostolic ministry.

Peter and John had been on their way into the temple for afternoon prayers when they encountered a paralytic man in front of one of the gates, begging. Peter had no money to give him, but he said, “In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk.” Then he reached out and lifted the man up, and he began to walk and dance and leap. A crowd gathered, right there in the temple courtyard, and Peter began to preach to them, saying that this man had been healed in the name of Jesus. The story of Jesus had not ended on the cross. He had been raised by God. He really was the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed. Jesus had been vindicated by God, and the sign of his vindication was the healing of this man who had been disabled from birth.

And that’s right where we pick up the story this morning, in the middle of Peter’s sermon to his fellow Jews in the temple. “While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead.”

They were much annoyed. And why wouldn’t they be? Imagine if a bunch of Latter-Day Saints missionaries were greeting people outside the door of the church on Sunday morning telling them that salvation is found only in their church. It’s rather bad form, isn’t it?

But that’s not all of it, either. Luke tells us that there are three groups of people upset at what Peter and John are doing. One group is the priests. They are in charge of running the temple. So they would be upset that Peter and John are disturbing the worshippers who are coming in for afternoon prayers. They are disrupting the regular order of the worship. In addition, they would be upset that Peter and John are teaching on the temple grounds without the proper authority. We would be upset if people from another church just showed up and started a Sunday school class in one of our classrooms, right? And we’d be especially upset if they were teaching something that was very different from what we thought was right. They think that Jesus is a rabble-rousing country preacher who was executed by the Roman government for insurrection. But here are Peter and John telling everyone that salvation doesn’t come through God, or through the liturgy of the temple, but through the name of Jesus.

Another person who is much annoyed by the disturbance that Peter and John are causing is the captain of the temple. That sounds a bit strange. Why does the temple have a captain? Well, the Jerusalem temple is a huge center for worship. At the time, it was considered by many to be the one and only place where someone could properly worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. People came from thousands of miles to worship at the temple. Any place that has that many people coming in and out is going to need some kind of security. It seems strange at a small town church like this, but many larger churches do have security or a police presence on Sunday morning. I’ll never forget when we were first meeting our son, Karthik, and we went to worship at the cathedral in Bangalore, India. The gates were guarded by Sikh soldiers with sub-machine guns.

So the temple in Jerusalem had it’s own company of soldiers. They were partially to keep order in the temple, but they did more than just that. In the time of the early church, Judea was not ruled by Jews. They were under occupation by the Roman Empire. But the city of Jerusalem was tricky. It wasn’t the biggest city in Judea, but it was a holy city. In order to avoid offending people, most of the time there was no direct Roman military presence in Jerusalem. Instead, local soldiers, under the command of the Jewish nobles, would keep the peace on behalf of Rome. This is the job of the captain of the temple guard. He’s not only upset with Peter and John for causing a disturbance on the temple grounds, he’s also upset that they’re preaching in the name of Jesus. It’s only been a few months since Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey, disrupted the operations of the temple by turning over the tables, started a kind of public uprising, and created such a stir that Rome had him executed. If Peter and John are trying to stir up that whole mess again, it’s going to mean more Roman soldiers, more crucifixions, more violence. And who is Rome going to blame for letting things get out of hand? The captain of the temple guard. He needs to shut Peter and John down before things escalate into a riot.

The third group of people that are annoyed by John and Peter are the Sadducees. They are elite, Jewish aristocrats, and so they are upset for all of the same reasons that the priests and guards are. But they’re also upset about something else. Unlike some of the other Jewish groups at the time, the Sadducees don’t believe in resurrection. They still believe in God, they just don’t believe that there is an afterlife. But here are Peter and John preaching not only that there will be a resurrection of the dead at the end of time, which would be bad enough, but they are also preaching that Jesus has already been resurrected from the dead. It’s heresy. Peter and John need to be silenced before they corrupt the people any further.

So, they arrest John and Peter. It’s late in the day, so they put them in prison overnight until things can be sorted out in the morning.

And in the morning, all of the leading Jewish authorities gather together to question the two disciples. It’s the same sort of gathering of the Sanhedrin that Jesus was brought before on the night before he was crucified. They ask John and Peter to explain on whose authority they think they are allowed to disrupt the normal operations of the temple.

But Peter changes the subject. He knows that the council must be upset at their preaching and teaching, but he pretends that what they are really upset about is that the disabled man was healed. By focusing on the healing, Peter makes the authorities seem cruel and heartless. But then he pivots from the healing to the name of Jesus. It is by the power of the name of Jesus that this man was healed. You rulers rejected him, but God has made him the cornerstone.

This must have made the authorities even more annoyed. Not only are they being impertinent, not only are they insisting on defending the troublemaker Jesus, not only are they saying that the Sanhedrin is working against God, but they are doing all of these things by quoting a scripture: Psalm 118:22, the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. What do these illiterate fishermen from backwater Galilee think they are doing trying to quote scripture to the greatest theological minds in the Jewish world, the scribes and the priests? The arrogance!

In fact, Luke tells us that the council is shocked that Peter and John would be so bold and presumptuous, because the Jewish leaders think that Peter and John are ἀγράμματοί (agrammatoi) and ἰδιῶται (idiotai). Α-γραμματοι means that they are illiterate, without grammar. And I’ll bet you can guess what ιδιῶται means. It’s where we get the English word ‘idiot.’ The authorities must be more than a little annoyed that they are being talked down to by a couple of illiterate idiots.

The problem for the council is that the man that Peter and John have healed is still hanging around. Everyone knows that they performed an amazing sign. If they punish Peter and John, they will look cruel, petty, and foolish. But they can’t let these men continue to run around preaching that Jesus has been resurrected and stirring up the people. They can’t risk another riot that would bring Roman soldiers back to the city to restore order at the point of a gladius. And so they do the most they think they can. They order Peter and John to stop using Jesus’s name.

But of course, Peter and John are having none of it. And this time, they don’t quote the Bible to defend themselves. Instead they quote the legendary Greek philosopher, Socrates. When he had been brought up on charges before the council in Athens, he said: “I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy.” And so Peter and John quote him, “It’s up to you to decide whether it’s right before God to obey you rather than God. As for us, we can’t stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

It kind of sounds like another rabble-rousing preacher we know who was told by the authorities to stop preaching his crazy new theology. And what did he respond? “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Who said that?… [Martin Luther]

I am not a rabble-rouser. I am not a radical. I prefer to follow the rules. I prefer to do things by the book. On the Enneagram personality test, I am type six: the Loyalist. If I think that something needs to be changed, I make sure I go through the proper channels. I’ve mastered Robert’s Rules of Order. And I’m a bit risk-averse. Before I try something new, I want to make sure that I have anticipated every possible thing that could go wrong and corrected for it.

Our denominations are kind of the same way. Lutherans are steeped in long-held traditions and worship according to pre-defined liturgies. Methodists, on the other hand, are so methodical that someone decided to make fun of them by calling them Methodists. We have our ways of doing things. We have the Book of Discipline. We have the constitution and by-laws. We have processes, institutions, that are designed to make sure no one tries anything too crazy. They are designed to limit what is possible so as to avoid any catastrophes.

Sisters and brothers, that is not enough anymore. We are not living in the fifties and sixties anymore. We are not living in an environment where the church is going to thrive so long as we don’t do anything crazy.

We need to start channeling the boldness of apostles like Peter and John. We need to be willing to try new things. Trying new things means taking risks. Trying new things means be willing to fail spectacularly sometimes. I am preaching to myself here.

Yesterday, I was with a couple of members of this congregation at an Oregon Synod Regional Gathering in Pendleton. Lutheran churches, mostly from NE Oregon, were gathered together with the bishop and synod leaders to tell our stories and dream for the future.

And it was wonderful to see the risks that congregations are taking. Many, many churches are starting or exploring ecumenical partnerships like the one we have here. The church in Bend is planning to start a brand new congregation in their area. The church in La Grande is becoming the means by which their whole community thinks about and responds to homelessness. Even those old, died in the wool, cradle Lutherans are thinking about new ways to be church.

Peter and John have a mission to share the healing, life-giving grace of God in Jesus Christ. They don’t wait to go to rabbinical school before they start their work. They just do it. And they continue to do it, even if they might fail spectacularly.

We have the same mission: to share the healing, life-giving grace of God in Jesus Christ. What is holding us back? For Peter and John, it was the risk of arrest. It was outside persecution. But I don’t think that’s what’s holding us back. I think the thing that is holding us back… is us. It’s our desire to follow the rules. It’s our aversion to risk. It’s our fear that if we do what we know we need to do—if we share our faith—something will go wrong. We will look foolish. People will think we are strange. Or even more simply, we will feel uncomfortable. Again, I am preaching to myself here.

Well maybe it is time for us to feel uncomfortable. Maybe it is time for me to feel uncomfortable. I feel it. I feel the Spirit calling. And I pray that you and I will have the courage to be reckless. I pray we will have the courage to fail and have fun doing it. I pray that we will have the courage to trust that God is doing a new thing, if we will only follow. May God grant us that courage today, and in the weeks, and months, and years to come. Come, Holy Spirit. Move in us today. Dream a new dream us, and grant us faith to make it reality.

Garden News

Hello FISH Garden  Volunteers!
My name is Ann and I am coordinating the FISH Garden this summer.
I want to let you know that we have two volunteer days set up each week:
Wednesdays 3-5 PM
Saturdays 10 AM to Noon.

Come for the whole time or drop in as your  schedule allows. We are harvesting greens that made it over  winter, preparing beds, planting spring crops, and of  course, turning compost.
Another area we could use volunteer help is with growing starts.
Also looking to see if anyone has extra row cover.  Apparently, the Food Bank isn’t the only beings  we are supplying with delicious fresh produce.

I could use harvesting help this evening Thursday, Apr 19.  I’ll be there at 4PM.
Who can teach me how to trap moles?

Finally, let me know if other days and times work  better in your schedules.  Spring is definitely here! Thanks to  all the steady volunteers that have kept the garden vital  over the winter.

See you  soon
Ann
FISH Garden Volunteer Coordinator

Sermon: His Name Itself

Sunday 15 April 2018
The Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 3:1-20

peter_heals_a_lame_manToday is the Third Sunday of Easter, a season that lasts 50 days from Easter Morning until Pentecost. This Easter Season, we are focussing on readings from the first ten chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. The Book of Acts is written by the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke. Luke is the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Acts is the story of the continuing work of God in the early church.

As I mentioned last week, our assigned readings in Acts this season jump around a bit. Last week we were in the end of chapter 4 and the story of how the whole Christian community in Jerusalem held their possessions in common with one another and no one was needy because the more affluent gave their possessions for the aid of the poor.

This morning we are rewinding back to beginning of chapter 3. This comes just shortly after the story of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the early followers of Jesus, allowing them to proclaim the gospel in other languages they had never studied. There are about 3000 people in the church now, and it is growing.

In the midst of all of this excitement and change, two of Jesus longest-standing disciples make their way to the temple to pray. When Jesus started his ministry, he called four fishermen to follow him, two sets of brothers, first Simon Peter and Andrew, and then James and John. They left everything to follow Jesus. Now two of those fishermen, Peter and John, head into the Jewish temple to pray, as is their custom. Just where their brothers, Andrew and James, are is a mystery.

Peter and John make their way toward the temple for the evening sacrifice with all of the other worshipping Jews. And on their way inside, near one of the gates, they encounter someone. His name is not given. He has been disabled and unable to walk for his whole life. Consequently, he is unfit for any kind of job in the ancient economy. And so he does what would be expected: he begs to make a living. He has to have people carrying him to the gate of the temple every day and return him to wherever home is after the worshippers have left. On this day, as the worshippers are streaming in, he comes face to face with Peter and John.

The actual temple building, where only priests could go, wasn’t very big: perhaps as big as this sanctuary. But King Herod had completed a massive expansion and improvement to the temple courtyard, which was perhaps as big as ten football fields. The temple complex was designed with purity in mind. As you got closer and closer to the center, fewer and fewer people were allowed in. Anyone could come to the outer courtyard to pray and to hand over sacrifices to the priests. Even non-Jews could do this. But then there was a gate that only Jews could pass through, not gentiles. The next gate was only for Jewish men; women had to stay outside. The next area was only for priests and Levites, no lay men. Then just priests. Then only the high priest. We’re not sure exactly which Gate was the Beautiful Gate, maybe the gate that allowed Jews in but kept gentiles out. In any case, whichever gate was the Beautiful Gate, it would have been a funnel for hundreds of worshippers at the time of evening prayer, a good place for a beggar to be situated.

As Peter and John make their way inside, the man by the gate asks them for money, as would be expected. But Peter and John don’t drop a coin in his hand as they head in for worship. And they don’t just pass by without acknowledging him, either. Instead they do something very strange. They stop are stare at him. Then Peter tells the man to look at him and John, and he does. In the course three short verses, Luke uses four different words for looking. Everyone is staring at each other, and the man is still waiting to receive a gift from the apostles.

Then Peter starts to talk. He says, “I don’t have any silver or gold, but I’ll give you what I do have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk.” And Peter reaches out and lifts him up.

And the man who has been disabled from birth, the man who has never ever stood, finds that his feet and ankles have become strong. And he doesn’t just stand. He stands, he walks, he jumps, he enters the temple, he leaps, and he praises God for the healing.

And before long he has attracted attention. The other worshippers recognize him as the beggar who could always be found outside the gate. And as the man is continuing to walk around and hang on to Peter and John, people start to gather in amazement to see what has happened.

And whenever Peter sees that he has a congregation, he decides it must be time to preach. He addresses them as fellow Jews, and he asks, “Why are you surprised? We didn’t do this. It’s the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who did this. God healed this man in order to glorify Jesus, the same Jesus who was handed over to Pilate to be crucified. You remember him. It’s only been a couple of months since he was crucified. Pilate offered to release him, but you chose a murder instead. But God has turned the tables. You chose the murderer, but Jesus is the author of life. He resurrection reversed death. We saw him risen from the dead with our own eyes.”

And then we get to a very strange part of Peter’s speech: verse 16. A fairly strict translation reads “And his name—by faith in his name—has strengthened this man whom you see and recognize. And the faith that comes through him has given him this wholeness in front of you all.” One commentator on this passage says that “it is garbled in Greek.” Another says, “This verse appears impossible.” It is very strange. And yet, it seems to be the key verse in this passage. It’s important in this passage, and it’s going to be important as we move ahead in Acts.

Luke seems to be trying to say a few different things simultaneously, and making a bit of a grammatical mess while doing it. The healing isn’t the result of anything special about Peter and John. The healing has to do with the name of Jesus. Peter uses Jesus’s name when he tells the man to stand up. But Luke doesn’t want us to think that Jesus’s name is like a magic word. It’s not just saying the name that causes the healing. It also has something to do with faith. But whose faith is it, exactly? Is it Peter’s faith? Is it the disabled man’s faith? Is it Jesus’s faith? It’s not entirely clear. And what is the faith in? Is it faith in Jesus’s name? If so, what does that mean? Is it faith in Jesus himself? Is it just faith in God? Again, it’s not entirely clear.

But what does seem to be clear is that this healing is supposed to vindicate Jesus. Remember that we’re only a matter of months after Jesus’s crucifixion. People knew that there had been some unrest in Jerusalem on account of Jesus, and that he had been arrested, tried, and executed by Rome. And some had heard the rumors that Jesus’s followers had not given up. They were circulating the story that he had been raised from the dead. And since the festival of Pentecost, their numbers had started to grow. But no one thought this was going to last. Jesus had been killed like so many other would-be Messiahs. It was taking a little too long for his followers to get the message that it was over. Jesus is dead and gone, and soon enough, his followers will be too.

This healing in public, in the temple, a healing of someone everyone knows has been disabled from birth, this healing is supposed to provide evidence to the contrary. That’s why it is important that the healing is done in Jesus’s name. Surely a healing performed by Jews, taking place in the precincts of the temple, during the time of evening prayer, surely that kind of healing must come from the Jewish God, from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And surely, if that healing were done in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, it must mean that God approves of Jesus, it must mean that Jesus really is the Christ, Jesus really is the Messiah.

That’s what Peter tells the crowds. I know you thought that Jesus wasn’t anything. I know that’s what the priests and scribes thought. You just didn’t know the truth, that Jesus is the Christ. Now you know. God has proved it through this healing. Jesus has been vindicated. It’s time to accept it and turn back to God.

Two thousand years later, we live in a world that has its own doubts about Jesus. How relevant is a first-century Palestinian Jew to our modern world, anyway? Do we really need Jesus if we have modern medicine? Do we really need Jesus if we have Social Security? Do we really need Jesus if we have psychiatrists and anti-depressants? Do we really need Jesus if we have sports and meditation and yoga? Do we really need Jesus if we have science and technology? How is it that we know Jesus is alive, Jesus is risen, Jesus is working in our world? How is Jesus vindicated in our time?

I could give a long list of the ways that Jesus’s presence is still known in this world, of the ways that Jesus transforms lives, of the ways that Jesus’s followers live out his gospel. You could make that list yourself. But instead I want to focus on one small way that Jesus is vindicated, something suggested by the story from Acts.

Perhaps Jesus is vindicated in the simple act of seeing another. That’s the other strange thing about this story, isn’t it: the looking and the seeing. Peter and John encounter a stranger, a beggar. What do we usually do when we see someone like that? Pretend we don’t see, keep looking forward and move on by? Or better, drop in a coin and keep walking?

That’s not what Peter and John do. They have no money to share, but they still stop. They stop, and they look deeply at this stranger. And they ask him to look deeply at them. They take the time to see. They take the time to try and understand a stranger.

Is Jesus vindicated by the way we regard a stranger? By the way we engage with those who are pushed to the margins? By the way we try to understand someone who is not like us, who does not pass in the same social circles? Perhaps Jesus is vindicated when instead of seeing a stranger, we take the time to see a human being. And perhaps when we take that time, we will see not just a human being, but a sister, a brother, a beloved child of God, made in the image of God. Perhaps when we take the time to see a stranger, we might even see the face of Jesus.

Sermon: Everything in Common

Sunday 8 April 2018
The Second Sunday of Easter

Acts 4:32-35

00012939After journeying through the reflective and penitential season of Lent, after celebrating the joy of resurrection on Easter Morning, we are now in the Season of Easter. Easter isn’t just one Sunday, it lasts for seven weeks, eight Sundays. A week of weeks, it is sometimes called, or the Great Fifty Days of Easter.

During this Easter season, we’re going to be focussing each Sunday on a reading from the Book of Acts. The Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book in the New Testament, is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells about the life of Jesus. Acts, written by the same anonymous author, tells the story of the early church. For seven weeks, we are going to be taking a closer look at readings taken from the first ten chapters of the Book of Acts.

Unfortunately, the lectionary doesn’t give us these readings in order. According the narrative order of the Book of Acts, today’s reading is the fifth of the one’s we’ll be looking at. The order of readings is going to be 5 today, then 3, 4, 6, 7, 1, 2. So we might need to spend a little time each week clearing up just where we are in the book.

Today’s reading, towards the end of chapter 4, happens after Matthias is selected as the new apostle to replace Judas, after the Holy Spirit appears on Pentecost, the birthday of the church, and after Peter and John are imprisoned for healing a disabled man. At this point in the story, the community of believers in Jerusalem has grown from about 50 at the beginning of Acts to 5000. The Holy Spirit has been working through the apostles to vindicate Jesus, to bring healing and hope, and to grow the church. Five thousand people, that sounds like the first mega-church, although they would not have been able to meet all together in one place.

The image that we get here of the early church is a rather controversial one. A Christian community in the first century that was so unified, so committed to Jesus’s message, so devoted to the idea of fellowship that no one owned any private property. A community so dedicated to the needs of each other that the wealthier members willingly sold their property so that the proceeds could be distributed to the poor. A community in which there were no needy people because each person was cared for by the entire community.

That’s some pretty radical stuff. After all, it’s Socialism, isn’t it? It’s Communism. It’s the kind of thing we would expect to find either in an ashram in India or in some armed compound out in the wilderness. Community property. People sell their possessions and give it to a small cadre of party leaders for distribution based on need. That sounds pretty sketchy, and potentially quite dangerous. Depending on who you ask, it sounds downright un-American.

And yet, this is how the author of Luke and Acts describes the early church for us in the passage this morning. “The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common.… There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles.”

It’s interesting to note that the early Christians in Jerusalem likely had some economic troubles. Remember that Jesus had recruited a group of disciples in the northern province of Galilee. He asked his followers to leave their jobs behind and follow him. Remember Peter and James and John leaving their nets and their boats to follow Jesus? They left their livelihoods behind. And now many of those disciples had followed Jesus south to Jerusalem, away from their families and their social networks. Now that they had immigrated to Jerusalem, many would not have had any means of support. No jobs, no incomes, and certainly no investment portfolios.

And that makes it even more remarkable that there was no one needy in the early Jerusalem church. A good portion of the members were unemployed and unemployable. And still somehow, they were able to share their possessions so that no one was left wanting.

This is actually the second time that Luke has told us about how the early Christian community shared its resources. Back at the end of Acts 2, Luke writes, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers…. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them…. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”

While this might sound fairly radical to us today, we shouldn’t be too surprised by this. It’s the sort of thing that Jesus has been preaching all through the Gospel of Luke. Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples and listeners to sell their possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him. He even says, “None of you can be my disciple if you don’t give up all your possessions” (Lk 14:13). The early church in Acts is just living out the values that Jesus was preaching during his ministry. This sort of behavior is precisely what Jesus said the Kingdom of God was all about.

Of course, we live in a very different world today. In the ancient world, they believed that the world had limited resources and that those resources had already been distributed; if someone is getting more it must mean that someone else is losing out. Modern economics tells us that the economy can grow, that the pie can be made bigger, that everyone can get more and no one loses out. In the ancient world there were no retirement plans. People rarely lived to an age that retirement was necessary, only a tiny fraction of people had enough resources to stockpile them away, and if someone did survive into old age, it was expected that their children and grandchildren would take care of them. In today’s world, it seems irresponsible not to put away a significant amount of money for retirement. In the ancient world, there really was no middle class. The vast majority of people lived at or near subsistence level, and only a small minority had significant resources stored away. In our world, there are lots of people who have enough money that it has to be managed.

So what are we to make of this story from Acts? Should we be selling our property and giving the money to the needy? Should we be forming a sort of commune together, or an economic collective? Should we be advocating for a state with a strong social security network that meets the basic needs of all it’s citizens? Perhaps. None of those should be out of the realm of possibility. But it is complicated. It is difficult. We live in a very different world.

Acts presents us a model of an ideal Christian community. They have been brought together in a short period of time. Many of them are living away from their homes and without resources. But they band together. Those who have an excess give to those who don’t have enough.

And while that might seem quite radical, it is also quite natural. Christians have a wide variety of political beliefs. Some Christians are libertarians who don’t want the state to be involved in any kind of social security or welfare programs. Some are progressives who would like to see nationalized healthcare and a universal basic income. Most are somewhere in between.

But when we are actually faced with need, especially if it is the need of someone we know, people of all different political stripes often jump right in to help. When we see someone hurting, generally we want to help. And that desire to help comes from God.

And even on a somewhat larger scale, the desire to help those in need transcends political affiliation. Both conservative and liberal churches support the FISH Food Bank. Both liberal and conservative churches support the Emergency Voucher Program. It’s when things are larger, more impersonal, and systemic that we have a harder time working things out. For people we see as family, as friends, as neighbors, it is easier to want to help. For people we see as others, as foreigners, as strangers, it is more difficult. And yet, Jesus calls us to draw ever wider the circle of people we consider family. Jesus calls us to love even our enemies.

But the ideal of the Jerusalem Church in Acts isn’t just about sharing resources with the needy. It’s also about releasing our grip on the things we have. For Jesus and for Luke, money and possessions are not morally neutral. Money and possessions are dangerous. They are in many ways necessary, and there are good uses for money and possessions, but they are dangerous.

Money and possessions can easily become the objects of our faith. They become the thing we look to for security. They become the thing that drives how we make our choices. They become the thing that we work for, the thing that we value, the thing that defines our worth. In short, they become a replacement for God. The preaching of Jesus and the example of the early church warn us to resist the temptation to put money in the place where God should be.

When we remember that God is our God and our things aren’t, when we remember that all people are God’s children, and when we remember that every good thing we have comes from God… that is when we come closest to the ideal vision of the church we see in Acts 4, that is when we release our grip on our things, that is when we put our trust in God and not in our investment portfolios, that is when we experience each person as our neighbor, each person as our sister or brother, even.

It is not an utter mystery. It is a gift of God’s grace. In fact, it says so right in the middle of today’s passage. Act 4:33: “An abundance of grace was at work among them all.” And abundance of grace. That is what what nudges us ever closer to the ideal, that is one thing that everyone shares in common: our reliance on the great abundance of God’s grace. Thanks be to God.