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.

Sermon: An Empty Tomb

Sunday 1 April 2018
Easter Sunday

John 20:1-18

empty-tombAn empty tomb is a serious problem. It may not seem like it to us today. After all, we already know the end of the story. We know that Jesus was resurrected, that he left the tomb and ascended in glory to heaven.  But on that first Easter morning, when Mary Magdalene went to tomb while it was still dark, those first disciples had no idea what was going on. They did know one thing, though: that an empty tomb is a serious problem. An empty tomb is an emotional problem, it is a legal problem, and it is a theological problem. And let me tell you why.

The emotional problem is the most obvious. Mary has come to the tomb to grieve, to take care of the body, to do all the things necessary when someone dies. But Jesus is not there.  Someone has stolen his body.  Now she cannot perform the rituals of burial. Now she cannot care for his body. Now she cannot even grieve for him, because he no longer has a final resting place. They have taken him away, and she does not know where they have laid him.

But that isn’t the only problem. You see, tombs and burial places were considered sacrosanct by the Roman government. According to a first-century ordinance discovered in Galilee, every tomb, no matter who it belonged to, was protected under the direct authority of Caesar. Tampering with a tomb, or removing a body was a crime that was punishable by death. So if someone has stolen Jesus’s body, that means a crime has been committed. And where do you think those Roman soldiers are going to come looking first? That’s right, they’re going to come after Jesus’s friends and followers. If Mary can’t find that body and bring it back, then she and her friends might find themselves as the next victims of the cross.

And there is another problem presented by the empty tomb. It will sound ironic to us, but for those first disciples, an empty tomb meant that Jesus would never be able to be resurrected. He would be lost forever. And this is why:

In first-century Palestine, death and burial wasn’t something that took just a day, or a couple of weeks. It was a process that took a full year. For a criminal, like Jesus, the body would be held by the religious authorities for a full year. Remember, it’s Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council, who takes Jesus’s body and puts it in the tomb. It was believed that a person’s sin resided in their flesh, but that their personality resided in their bones. During that year, the flesh would rot away, thus cleansing the person of sin. When the year was up, the bones would be collected and returned to the family for safe-keeping. It was believed that when the resurrection came, God would take those bones and knit a new body of flesh on them. That way the person would be returned to life, their personality would be intact, but they would be freed from sin.

If Jesus’s body is gone, then it cannot go through the year-long ritual of purification. Jesus’s bones cannot be saved and guarded. And so, when the resurrection comes at the end of the age, Jesus will not be eligible for new life.

So, as you can see, an empty tomb really is a problem. First, it is a personal slight against Jesus’s loved ones. But it also means legal problems and even death for his followers. Plus, it may make Jesus ineligible for resurrection. That is a problem.

Of course, what they didn’t understand on the first Easter morning, is that God had changed the rules. According the rules of the authorities, Jesus had not yet served his sentence. He had to spend a year being purified of his criminal sins before he could be ready for resurrection. That is what the court had declared.

But God, the Supreme Judge, intervened and overturned their ruling. They had said that Jesus’s crimes demanded death plus one year. God said that Jesus had not committed a crime at all. God said that Jesus had been wrongly executed. And God said that there was no need for Jesus to be purified of sin before the resurrection, because Jesus’s flesh was already free from sin. God said, “You messed up of the verdict and you messed up the sentence. I’m going to make things right by reversing your ruling. And when God has made a ruling, it is final. There is nowhere else to make an appeal.”

God changed the rules. But the disciples were slow to catch on. They were so caught up with the way they thought things ought to be, that they were blind to the ways that God was actually working. They were so caught up with the ritual, and with the physical body of Jesus, that they couldn’t even imagine the miracles that God had in store for them.

And that kind of blindness to God’s new movement is not something that is confined only to the early church. Again and again, followers of God have had a hard time catching up when God decides to do something new. The very existence of a congregation like ours—a single congregation connected to two different denominations—is a testimony to God’s changing ways.

One of our denominations—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—has its roots in the Reformation movement started by Martin Luther in Germany in the early 1500s. Luther and other reformers sensed that God was calling the church to change. The church should be more focussed on the Bible and less focussed on its own traditions. The church should give ordinary people access to God’s grace by holding worship in the language of the people instead of in Latin, by putting the scriptures directly into the hands of ordinary believers and allowing them to read it for themselves, by preaching God’s message of salvation by grace, through faith, offered without price to all. But there were many in the church who were not ready to hear that message. Luther was condemned and thrown out of the church. It was too much to take. Losing the beauty of the Latin Mass, allowing the scriptures to be sullied by people who weren’t trained to read it correctly, doing away with all of the means of penance for forgiveness of sins. For some, a church like that seemed as bleak as an empty tomb. But Lutherans found that when the religion was stripped of its excesses, it more clearly presented the grace of God in Christ.

Our other denomination—The United Methodist Church—has its roots in 18th-century England in the ministry of brothers John and Charles Wesley. They grew up in a church that had become formal, sterile, and nearly irrelevant to ordinary working people. In a time when the Industrial Revolution was turning society upside down, displacing people and families, tearing up many of the institutions that gave people identity, safety, and support, the Wesleys and other early Methodists saw that God was calling the church to meet people in the world. The Wesleys preached in fields and in coal mines where people were working. They organized believers into small groups that met weekly to keep each other accountable and support each other. They worked for justice for prisoners and the poor. And not everyone went along. Some people were scandalized by the kinds of modern hymns that Charles Wesley was writing, like the hymn we opened our worship with this morning. Others complained that John was disrupting the order of the church by empowering lay people to preach and lead small groups. Still others were turned off by what they saw as the over-political thrust of Wesley’s emphasis on social holiness. It was too much. It was depriving the church of its dignity and its authority. But early Methodists found that when they were willing to look for God in new places, the Holy Spirit always showed up there ahead of them.

Even our more recent history testifies to how we often find God changing ahead of us. When I tell people that I pastor a church that is both Lutheran and Methodist, the most common response I get is, “How does that work?” Many are truly shocked by the idea. Because we know the rules. We know that the church is divided up into hundreds, even thousands of different denominations, and each one has their own way of doing things, and none of them are going to change and try to work with each other in any meaningful way. Sure, we might get together across denominational lines every once in a while for special occasions. Maybe an Easter Sunrise Service. But the idea of forming one congregation out of two congregations of different denominations: that seems incomprehensibly difficult. How will you decide when you have a Methodist pastor and when you have a Lutheran pastor, and how will you hire them? Which hymnal will you use? Whose forms will you fill out? How will you keep the membership roles? Won’t you lose your identity as Methodist or Lutheran? And for some, unfortunately, it was too much. Too much to lose. But for those of us who are still here, and for those who have since, we have found that God brought us together for a reason, that God is doing a new thing, that our life together is more vibrant than apart.

The world is changing. And so we must change. As individual believers, as members of society, as a church. The world is changing, and so we must change. But to change is not to move away from God. It’s staying the same that takes us farther from God. Because as the world changes, God has already changed to meet it.

The test for us is this: do we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the glories that God is working in this world? Do we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the signs of resurrection and new life that are all around us? Do we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the new way that God is calling us to be in this new and strange world? Do we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear that the tomb is empty—the tomb is empty—and will we realize that that is good news?

It may be difficult. Change has never come easy. Those first disciples had a hard time accepting that Jesus really had been raised from the dead. They had received all the warnings and preparation that they needed in order to understand—Jesus had told them again and again that he would die and be raised on the third day—but they still had a hard time understanding, they still had a hard time believing that it was true, that the empty tomb really was good news.

But eventually they did believe. They saw the linen grave clothes. They heard the reports of his appearances. They ate the bread and drank the wine. Some even saw the sign of his wounds. And eventually they did believe, and they accepted God’s call to do something completely new in what must have been a strange new world. And because they were able to change when God changed the rules, we are here today. May we be as able to change when God changes our rules, so that future generations can come to know the grace that we have known in Jesus Christ. O God, we believe; help our unbelief.

Sermon: I Have Given You an Example

Thursday 29 March 2018
Maundy Thursday

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

1854_3586_footwashing-264x388We gather tonight to worship on Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday. If you’re like most Lutherans and Methodists, you have some idea that Maundy Thursday is the Thursday of Holy Week. And you might know that it marks Jesus’s last meal with his disciples. But how many of us know why it is called Maundy Thursday? I had forgotten myself until I looked it up again this week. It comes from the gospel lesson for this evening, from John 13, verse 34. In the Latin translation, it begins “Mandatum novum do vobis.” I give you a new commandment. Mandatum—mandate, commandment—becomes Maundy. Tonight is Commandment Thursday. But more specifically, tonight is New Commandment Thursday. In his last night with them, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment. And that commandment is: Love one another. Love each another. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.

That isn’t usually how we think of a commandment, a mandate. A commandment is something that must be done or there will be negative consequences, something that is required. I am required to have working headlights on my car. If I operate my car without working headlights, I could get into trouble with the law. I am required to pay and file my taxes in a timely manner. If I don’t I could be fined or even imprisoned. A restaurant is required to meet certain health and safety standards. If they don’t, they could be shut down. That is how a commandment works. We do them because, if we don’t, we will be penalized.

But that isn’t how Jesus introduces his new commandment at all. He doesn’t say, Love each other, or you will be in trouble. Love each other, or you will lose God’s blessing. Love each other, or you will be sent to hell. None of that. Instead he says, “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you must love each other.” Just as I have loved you, so you must love each other. Jesus’s commandment is not based on the threat of punishment, Jesus’s commandment is based on his own example. Jesus loves, and so we must love. Jesus loves me, and so I must love. Jesus loves you, and so you must love. Jesus loves us, and so we must love.

All of this happens on the night Jesus will be arrested. When he gives the disciples his new commandment to love each other, he has already sent Judas out to do what he will, to betray him. But earlier in the evening, while Judas is still there, Jesus gives an example of the kind of love he is talking about. He gets up from the table, where they are all reclined, gets a basin of water, and begins to wash the feet of the disciples.

In the ancient world, sandals were typical footwear. And walking around a dirt roads, one’s feet could get rather dirty. And so, if someone were hosting a meal, they would often provide their guests with a basin of water to wash their feet with. Or a more affluent host might have one of their slaves wash the feet of their guests. But a host would never get up and personally wash the feet of their guests themselves. Washing someone else’s feet was a job only fit for a slave or a servant. In the honor-obsessed world of the New Testament, Jesus’s action is unthinkable.

And it is even more unthinkable when we consider who Jesus is. When he’s explaining his actions, he says that the disciples are right to call him Teacher and Lord. And this makes sense. Jesus is their teacher. They are his disciples who follow him around learning lessons from him. And it would be normal for the them to call him Lord, as well. In American English, we don’t typically use the word Lord for anyone other than God. And the word used here, κύριος, can be used to refer to God, but it can also be used to refer to any superior. It could be the equivalent of Sir or Boss. It would be nothing extraordinary for the disciples to call Jesus Lord, because as their superior, he is their boss.

And as Jesus explains, teachers are always above their students, and bosses are always above their employees. They would expect to be treated with greater respect, with deference. Jesus reminds them that he is their superior. They owe him respect. They owe him deference. And yet, Jesus has broken that normal expectation. He has washed the feet of his own disciples, a task that is the work of a slave. The master has become a slave to his own servants.

And this is all the more remarkable because we, the audience, know what the disciples do not seem to understand. Jesus is more than a teacher of wisdom. Jesus is wisdom incarnate. Jesus is not just their superior, Jesus is their God made flesh. He has come from the Father, and he is about to return to the Father, to everlasting glory. And in the moment before his triumph, he breaks all of the rules, he turns everything upside down.

Jesus, God made flesh, washes the feet of his disciples, a rag-tag bunch of no-account Galileans who never seem to know what he is talking about or who he is. Peter makes that clear in tonight’s reading. He has no idea what Jesus is up to. Even after Jesus explains it, he doesn’t seem to understand. The Son of God acts as a slave to his own followers. Not only that, at this point in the story, Judas hasn’t left the room yet. Jesus washes the feet of his betrayer, the one who will sell his life to those who would snuff it out. It is humility on a scale that is simply too incomprehensible to imagine. The architect of the universe acts as a slave to his killer.

Do you remember a few years ago the current pope created a scandal by washing the feet of twelve people on Maundy Thursday? It was normal, as a show of humility, for the pope to wash feet at Maundy Thursday mass, but what was scandalous was whose feet he washed. Usually it would be the feet of lower ranking clergy. Pope Francis made headlines in 2013 by washing the feet of prisoners. What really shocked people is that two of prisoners were women, and two of them were Muslim. In 2016, he was in the news again for washing the feet of refugees, including Muslims, Hindus, and Protestants. Again this year, he celebrated Maundy Thursday in a prison. That has been enough to make headlines every year, and to stir up controversy. Arguably the most powerful person in Christianity acting as a slave to prisoners, some of whom aren’t even Christian, a remarkable act of humility and love.

And yet it is nothing in comparison to Jesus’s gift of love. The King of Heaven acting as a slave to ordinary people from Galilee is only a foretaste of Christ’s self-giving love. The Lord of Life giving up his life on a cross of torture… so that we might have life, so that we might know God’s love, so that we poor sinners might be forgiven and accepted by God’s grace. It is love, grace, humility on a scale that is simply too incomprehensible to imagine.

“I have given you an example,” Jesus says. “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. Just as I have done, you also must do. I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

Faced with the incomprehensible love of Jesus, it can be hard to know how to respond. We will tonight participate in a ritual of foot-washing, that reminds us in a very tactile sense what Jesus’s love is about. But it is only a reminder. Jesus’s new commandment is not fulfilled when we perform the ritual in this sanctuary. Jesus’s commandment must be fulfilled when we leave this church building and go out into the world. In our homes we must love as Jesus loved. It our places of work we must love as Jesus loved. Among our friends we must love as Jesus loved. Among strangers we must love as Jesus loved. Among our enemies, we must love as Jesus loved. Among our social superiors we must love as Jesus loved. Among our social inferiors we must love as Jesus loved.

May we touched powerfully tonight with the awesome spectacle of Jesus’ self-giving love, as we wash each other’s feet, as we gather together around Christ’s table. And let this night be only a beginning of the love share when we leave this place. This is how they will know you are my disciples, Jesus says, when you love one another.