Summer, born 21 January 2018, is the daughter of Tyler and Michele Sibley and the younger sister of Piper.
Those joining as adults were Kathleen and Kenneth Kliewer (pronounced cleaver), Sharon Poyter, Leslie Bartlett, and Lynn and Jack Meads.
We are very excited to welcome all of these folks into a deeper relationship in this congregation.
Sunday 24 June 2018
Nativity of John the Baptist
Today is June 24th, which is half-Christmas. It’s exactly six months after last Christmas and six months before next Christmas. The Gospel of Luke tells us that John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus was, so if it’s six months before Christmas, it must the be the birth of John the Baptist.
John is an undeniably important part of the early Jesus movement. He appears prominently at the beginning of all four gospels. And while, outside of Christian writings, we have no records of the life of Jesus, John the Baptist is attested even in non-Christian writings.
John is undoubtedly important, and yet he is shrouded in mystery. What is his relationship to Jesus? Luke says that they are relatives, that they mother’s knew each, but Mark suggests that John has no idea who Jesus is when he comes for baptism. Was Jesus a part of John’s movement before he struck out on his own? How many of his early disciples started out as disciples of John? John says that he is preparing the way for someone more powerful who will come after him, but both Matthew and Luke tells us that even after Jesus’s ministry is well underway, John sends messengers to ask he if he really is the one everyone is expecting, if he really is the Messiah, or if they should be looking for someone else. John doesn’t seem to think that Jesus is living up to the task.
John’s message is a message of repentance. God’s Kingdom is coming into the world. It’s time to turn away from sin and turn toward God. Make your lives fruitful for God’s mission or you’ll be chopped down like a fruit tree that bears no fruit.
When the people ask him what he means by that, he says, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the say.” God’s Empire is about reversing the desperation of poverty, about making life livable for even the most marginalized in society. The tax collectors ask him what to do, and he says “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.” That would mean they would make no money at all. Roman tax collectors paid in advance for the right to collect taxes in a particular region, and their profit was whatever they collected over the authorized amount. Soldiers also ask him what to do to prepare for God’s Empire, and he replies, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.” It was standard practice for the military to extort money from the people whose land they occupied. John says that all that must end. There must be justice for the poor and the marginalized.
Come to the water. Be transformed. Reject evil. Return to God. Come to the water. Be baptized. Die to sin and become alive to God. Come to the water.
All week I’ve been putting off writing this sermon. All week I’ve been putting it off because I knew that I would have to say something about the news. And I don’t want to talk about the news this week. I don’t want to have to face it. And yet I can hardly think of anything else.
In politics, sometimes we use the metaphor of hostage-taking to talk about a particular political strategy. That’s when one party knows that there is something the other party cannot do without and so they refuse to give that thing unless they get something else that they want. We don’t use this phrase to talk about regular compromise or negotiation. Political hostage-taking means withholding something that if it isn’t given will cause pain, will cause harm. Politicians can hold the debt ceiling hostage. They can hold the federal budget hostage and force a government shutdown. Or they can hold veterans benefits hostage, or medicare. The idea is that it’s something that is usually fairly uncontroversial, but one side refuses to act on it unless they get certain concessions, and the consequences of not acting are highly disruptive. That is what we usually mean when we talk about hostage-taking in the context of US politics.
I am beside myself today to say that hostage-taking is no longer a metaphor. Our government has literally taken hostages, apparently for political purposes. And those hostages are children.
The Trump administration was not the first to implement widespread detainment of unauthorized border-crossers. The Obama administration, particularly during the refugee crisis of 2014, detained huge numbers of people, many of whom were eventually deported. In fact, the Obama administration still holds the record for deporting more people than any other in history, a fact that earned President Obama the nickname “deporter-in-chief.” Families who crossed the southern border without authorization, whether they were asylum-seekers or otherwise, were often detained in makeshift shelters while their cases for entry were considered. And that could sometimes take months.
In July 2015, the Ninth US Circuit Court ruled that ICE could not, as a standard practice, hold children more than 20 days while their cases were being reviewed, whether those minors entered the US on their own or with a parent. In addition, they ruled that a child’s accompanying parent must also be released after 20 days “as long as doing so would not create a flight risk or a safety risk.” ICE would then use other means, besides detention, to make sure these families appeared for their day in court. Electronic monitoring is one of those methods.
What has changed recently, with this administration’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy, is that children entering with their parents have routinely been separated from their parents, put into separate facilities, often without warning or the chance to say goodbye. This includes several so-called ‘tender age’ detention facilities, for children five-years-old and younger. At the beginning of June, at least 2300 children had been separated from their parents and placed in facilities all over the country. An unknown number of children have been taken from their parents since then.
The administration has said this is necessary because entering the United States without authorization is a crime that must be prosecuted. This is partially true. While it is legal for asylum-seekers to enter the US at a designated port of entry, entering between ports of entry is a violation of US Code, Title 8, paragraph 1325, a misdemeanor that is punishable by a fine not less than $50 and nor more than $250 for the first offense.
Our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions—who by the way is a United Methodist Christian—has publicly defended the policy of routine family separation using the words of Romans 13, Paul’s advice to obey the ruling authorities because they are ordained by God to bring God’s wrath. I would argue that Paul is being more than a little sarcastic here; it would have been plain to any of his early Christian readers that the Roman Empire was not enacting the will of God. But under Mr. Session’s interpretation, literally anything that the government might do would be by definition just and moral. The same verses were used to justify American slavery. Martin Luther used them to justify the slaughter of peasants by German princes. Christian leaders from all over the world have condemned this most recent perversion of the gospel. In fact, there is a movement in The UMC to have Mr. Sessions censured for his actions.
President Trump’s recent executive order has been described by many as a reversal of policy. It is not. What it actually says is that the administration wants the previous court ruling overturned so that it can detain children indefinitely so long as they are detained with their parents. Late last night the administration released an initial plan for reuniting children with their parents. The plan is that so long as parents are still in custody pending their immigration cases, they cannot be reunited with their children. If their case is deemed worthy and they are allowed to enter the US, they can then apply to the department of Health and Human Services to become their own child’s foster parent, a process that can take weeks. However, as one news outlet reports: “It’s still unclear who will take responsibility for linking parents with children. Policies to date have put the onus on parents to track their children down using an HHS hotline, which parents and the lawyers and case workers working with them described as confusing and often ineffective.” The administration says that if parents are deported they can take their children with them, but many have already been deported without access to or information about their children.
In the mean time, we have all seen the images and heard the sounds of wailing children in cages.
I don’t want to talk about this today. I don’t. But I can’t not talk about it.
John the Baptist warns us that how we relate to God is defined in no small part by how we relate to the most vulnerable among us. Regardless of what we may think about immigration policy and who should be allowed to enter this country, there can be no doubt that poor people who have fled thousands of miles on foot to escape deadly violence in their home countries are vulnerable. When they are also children, so much the more. The response of our own government to that vulnerability is to take children away from their parents and shuttle them to undisclosed locations. And that is because that is what some significant percentage of us wants to have happen. It is because some significant percentage of us see some people as less than human, as the President has explicitly said, “These aren’t people, these are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.”
John calls across the ages: Come to the water. Be transformed. Reject evil. Return to God. Come to the water. Be baptized. Die to sin and become alive to God. Come to the water.
Baptism is a sacrament that binds us together. It tells us something about our relationship to God; we are God’s beloved children. It also tells us something about our relationship to one another, our fellow human beings. The commandments tell us that every person is our neighbor, and that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Baptism tells us that even that is not enough. Baptism doesn’t say that we are all neighbors. Baptism says that we are all family. We are all brothers and sisters. We are all children of one God. We are all bound together as kin of Christ.
And as John’s preaching suggests, we are called to continually push out our definition of those we consider one with ourselves. John says, treat a poor person like you would treat your family; help them have clothes and food. Treat them fairly. Don’t cheat them. Don’t extort them. Treat them humanely. Treat them as your own.
This is at the core of who we are as Christians. How do we treat our neighbors? How do we treat our enemies? How do we treat those whom God calls daughter, son? These are the questions that we must struggle with in every aspect of our lives, not just in politics. We are always learning how to love more fully, to love with that boundary-breaking agape love that God showers on us.
And there are always those whom we will find hard to love. Sometimes we find it hard to love the foreigner. Sometimes we find it hard to love the stranger. Sometimes we find it hard to love the other, the outcast. But sometimes it’s the colleague at work we find hard to love. Sometimes it’s the classmate we find hard to love. Sometimes we find it hard to love our own friends. Sometimes it’s a person in our own family we struggle to love. And sometimes the hardest person to love is ourself. Wherever we find our love insufficient, we can rest assured that God’s love abounds.
Will you pray with me? Most gracious God, you have made us all of one blood. Through our baptism you name each of us children and call us to love one another as sisters and brothers. O God, we ask that you would pour out your spirit on all your children, all across this world. Soften hearts that have become hard. Inspire us to share in your love. Allow us to live both in justice and in peace. Let your Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us courage to do our part to make your reign a reality. Give strength to all of your followers, that we might walk in your way. Amen.
Sunday 17 June 2018
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Melissa Mimier King, guest preacher
I am an awfully passionate person. This is the correct intensifier by the way, “awfully” but we’ll get to that later. I was taught to “Bloom where you’re planted,” like the 16th Century Bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Sales said. In spite of the lack of sun, or water, or healthy soil, I was taught to grow. I was taught to be cheerful. I was taught to notice the good in the world and point it out to others. I have learned, as a teacher and mother that feelings will make themselves known somehow, intentionally or otherwise. It’s best to just be honest about them.
This past month I’ve been claiming that “I feel all of the feels very feelingly” in an attempt to put into words all of the emotions I keenly experience on a daily basis. I am the healthiest when I am joyful, and grateful, and exuberant, and happy. And remarkably, my feelings of optimism thanks to gratitude are backed up by research! Ahhh, I love research.
“Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.
One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.” (Harvard Health Publishing Nov. 2011). And since we always use the Harvard Medical School’s advice for planning our family conversations. Ahhh, I love sarcasm.
We say our gratitudes as a family each evening during “check-in.” It’s evolved over the past two years since the girls came home, but the idea is the same. “I am grateful to blank for blank.” Each family member gets to voice one of our blessings each day, and it makes us all feel better. It makes us focus on the positives. It helps us to see the bright side of things. It helps us be joyful. I am grateful to this church family for putting up with my loosely Biblical-based ramblings in David’s absence.
As I mentioned before, I am awfully passionate. My blessings and gratitudes are super-charged. This is fine with my friends, they get me, and none of them is put off my my enthusiasm. I learned last week, however, that this super-power of optimism is not fine all of the time. Sometimes it comes across as fake, or inauthentic.
This feedback obviously reminded me of a camp song…because most lessons do. Shall I sing it for you? OK. “Love, Love, Love…That’s what it’s all about…’Cuz God loves us we love each other… Mother, Father, Sister, Brother… Everybody scream and shout! LOVE! ‘Cuz that’s what it’s all about, it’s about Love, Love, Love… It’s about Love, Love, Love.” Ahhh, I love camp songs.
But did you catch those words? Everybody scream and shout? That’s not toned down. That’s not “even.” That’s not balanced! That’s passion.
2 Corinthians 5:6-7 says, “That’s why we live with such good cheer. You won’t see us drooping our heads or dragging our feet! Cramped conditions here don’t get us down. This sounds like a “bloom where you’re planted” message to me. It sounds like noticing that I’m able to love others, because God loves me, is something to be grateful and joyful and exuberant about.
My friends get that being awfully passionate is me, and they don’t even think it’s that awful. Neither does God. In fact, God’s going to need that passion.
2 Corinthians 5:19-20 tells us, “God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking of Christ himself now: Become friends with God; God’s already a friend with you.”
Be there for God. Remember that God’s already there for you. So in order to BLOOM. First Become friends with God. Ahhh, I love mnemonic devices.
- Become friends with God
- Leave the judging to God
- avoid the Only trap
- One act
The second step in Blooming? Leave the judging to God.
When we judge, what are we measuring against? What is the benchmark? Is there a rubric for who is more or less loved by the creator? I know I feel pretty uncomfortable trying to come up with success criteria for “worthy of God’s love.” In addition, then don’t I need to use the same yardstick for myself? Yikes!
The story of 1 Samuel 16 shows a family trying to read God’s mind. The story is one of the great metaphors for availability being more important to God than ability. It’s like we contemplated earlier, being there, showing up, noticing the blessings, being a friend, these aren’t rankable, but they are what matters. When God tells Samuel in verse 7, “Looks aren’t everything. Don’t be impressed by his looks and stature. God judges persons differently than humans do.” Ahhh, I love that I don’t have to give grades to others. Frankly, judging others…and yourself, is exhausting.
Have you ever noticed how God seems to use the most unlikely people to teach lessons and move mountains? The stories from the Bible about these people are numerous. Moses, David, Paul and even Jesus himself had doubts about their gifts and callings. “But I am “Only” a regular person. But I am “only” the runt of the family. But I am “only” a servant. But I am “only” here for a short time.” I can’t possibly be the person you need for this job, I can’t possibly do the thing that you need.
This faulty thinking seems to indicate that I know better than God. When I got the feedback that my enthusiasm for teaching was inauthentic, I started to believe that I was “only” fluffy happiness, fake fluffy happiness, and not a teacher. That I was only fake.
But, “Consider a mustard seed.” It is only a mustard seed. It’s pretty tiny. No one would notice it lying on the ground, but when it blooms, it can’t be missed.
This was one of my mom’s favorite parables, and she shared it with me a lot growing up. She, in high school, had had a bracelet with a small, sealed compartment containing a mustard seed. Over time and wear, some water got to the seed and it sprouted. The strength in the tiny seed shattered the capsule and could no longer be contained.
So on our way to BLOOMing, we should consider the mustard seed. And notice the “only’ trap. Remember Jesus’ parable in Mark 4: 31-32. “Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”
There are modern day parables too.
[Read The Wonderful Happens]
Ahh, I love picture books.
So while we ourselves are a miracle, so can our actions be miracles that make a difference. Sometimes principals send out a book in the summer for their staff to read and learn from in anticipation of the upcoming year. Celi, one of my 21 principals (did I mention that I Bloom Where I’m Planted?) did this with a book by Andy Andrews. He wrote The Noticer, that the women’s ministry team used so effectively at a retreat a few years back, but this summer reading book was The Butterfly Effect. It traces One act through a chain of events to the food solution to famine.
Norman Borlaug hybridized high yield, disease resistant corn and wheat for arid climates in the 1940s and saved billions of lives. But, Henry Wallace was Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president and created a place for this purpose and hired the young scientist Norman Borlaug to run it. Without that post, he never would have saved billions from hunger and earned a Presidential Medal of Freedom. But George Washington Carver had an impact too.
You see, Henry Wallace got to attend botanical expeditions with the brilliant 19 year-old when he was only 6. It was George Washington Carver that pointed out the miracles of botany. But baby George wouldn’t have survived a fire and kidnapping as an infant if not for the love of his adoptive parents Moses and Susan Carver. Ahh, I love adoption.
So… smile. Listen. Offer a glass of water. Be kind. Pay the expired parking meter. Teach the child. Learn. Because while we’re blooming… One act is all it takes to make a major difference in this world.
And so we come to my favorite. Miracles everywhere.
When I start to get overwhelmed with the icky, yucky, miserable parts of our world, I head to the massive amounts of metaphors in nature to try to make sense of it all. The book Lab Girl by Hope Jahren points out the miracles of trees…which are pretty easy to set eyes on in this neck of the woods. Ahhh, I love puns.
Here’s a quote from the beginning. “Do you see something green? If you did, you saw one of the few things left in the world that people cannot make. What you saw was invented more than four hundred million years ago near the equator. Perhaps you were lucky enough to see a tree.
“That tree was designed about three hundred million years ago. The mining of the atmosphere, the cell-laying, the wax-spackling, plumbing, and pigmentation took a few months at most, giving rise to nothing more or less perfect than a leaf. There are about as many leaves on one tree as there are hairs on your head. It’s really impressive.” It’s a miracle. We just have to notice it.
This happens to me all….of…..the……time. I often joke that it’s my great liberal arts education that can connect anything to anything, but I think it’s more than that.
There’s a possible explanation in Mark 4:33-34. “With many stories like these, he presented his message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. He was never without a story when he spoke. When he was alone with his disciples, he went over everything, sorting out the tangles, untying the knots.”
Have you ever experienced one of these miracles yourself? Just when you needed that advice, that reminder, that metaphor, that parable, it showed up in your inbox. You saw it on a friend’s facebook wall? You read it in a novel? You heard it on the radio? You saw it on a hike? Ahh, I love hiking.
This happened to me after my awfully passionate,“enthusiasm comes across as inauthentic” feedback. I wallowed in it for a while. I tried to not smile at anyone, for fear of making them uncomfortable with my friendliness. I even tried to not connect gratitudes with happiness, and failed pretty miserably.
God sent me a message though. When I say “God sent me a message” I actually mean a friend posted a facebook meme on their wall that reminded me that I am a learner, and passion for learning is as perfectly authentic as I can be.
The meme said, “Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.” I didn’t know that people could be uncomfortable with my enthusiasm. I hadn’t contemplated that being a friend sometimes requires a calm presence. I wasn’t aware of differing views on the impact of a single lesson, a single conversation, a single celebration. I wasn’t ready to give up my passion in order to fit in. If I’m going to bloom where I’m planted, I probably needed to plant myself somewhere else. Ahhh, I love being ok with the outcome.
I am enthusiastically grateful to God for the stories and people and miracles planted in our lives each day.
Sunday 10 June 2018
Commemoration of the Apostle Barnabas
This morning we are continuing our summer sermon series on saints with the Apostle Barnabas. Barnabas is not as well known as some other apostles—like Peter, Paul, James, or John—but he has a very interesting story and a message for us today.
Barnabas is introduced to us at the end of Acts chapter 4: “There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’)” (Acts 4:36). So Barnabas is a Jew, but he was born on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. Joseph is his given name, but, even though we haven’t heard anything about him before now, the apostles have already given him the nickname “Son of Encouragement.” As we’ll see, it is quite an apt name. According to tradition, Barnabas was one of the larger crowd of disciples who followed Jesus around and was one of the seventy missionary Jesus sent out in Luke 10. So perhaps Barnabas picked up his nickname while following Jesus in Galilee and Judea.
The next thing we are told is that Barnabas “sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37). This is during the time of that early Jesus community in Jerusalem, when they were all sharing their possessions with one another and living together in unity. Barnabas is the prime example Luke gives us of someone who sold his property in order to have the money distributed to the poor by the apostles.
We don’t hear any more from Barnabas until Acts chapter 9. Saul has been persecuting the church, but then he has an experience on the road to Damascus, and he changes from being a persecutor of the church to being a proclaimer of Jesus. He comes to Jerusalem to try to talk with the leaders of the church there, but no one will see him. They don’t trust him. They remember that he is one of the people who has been trying to out them to the authorities and destroy them. No one will speak to him. No one, that is, except Barnabas.
We aren’t told all of the details of how it happened, how Barnabas met Saul, or how Barnabas decided that Saul really had been reformed. Luke just says, “Barnabas brought Saul to the apostles and told them the story about how Saul saw the Lord on the way and that the Lord had spoken to Saul. He also told them about the confidence with which Saul had preached in the name of Jesus in Damascus. After this, Saul moved freely among the disciples in Jerusalem and was speaking with confidence in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:27-28). Barnabas vouches for Saul, puts his own name on the line. It’s a big risk, but it pays off. Without Barnabas, Saul is never accepted by the Christian community, and his mission never gets off the ground.
The next time Barnabas shows up in the narrative is in the passage we read this morning. After Stephen the Deacon has been stoned to death in Jerusalem, many early Christians flee the holy city, and they end up preaching message of good news in Jesus Christ in the places where they go. Most of them only preach in Aramaic. But a few of these refugee preachers offer the message to Jews in Antioch who only speak Greek, not Aramaic. When word of this reaches Jerusalem, they send Barnabas as their representative to see what is going on. When he finds a new community growing, he goes to find Saul in Tarsus. They stay in Antioch together for a year, preaching and teaching, and growing the church. Luke also gives us the detail that it is in Antioch in this time when the followers of Jesus are first called by the name Christians. We also learn that when there was a famine, it was Barnabas and Saul that took a special offering from the church in Antioch for the benefit of the poor Christians in Jerusalem.
After they have gotten back from their mission of mercy, bringing with them a new missionary named John Mark, Barnabas and Saul and the other prophets are worshipping and they have an experience of the Holy Spirit. They hear the Spirit saying that God has a special task for Barnabas and Saul. So they gather together, and they lay their hands on Barnabas and Saul, prayed over them, and sent them out, along with John Mark. This begins what is generally called Paul’s first missionary journey. However, you’ll notice that at this point in the story, it’s always Barnabas who seems to be leading the way. And you’ll notice that we haven’t heard the name Paul yet. It’s Barnabas and Saul wherever they go.
But that’s about to change. As they continue their ministry in Cyprus, Luke tells us abruptly, and with no further explanation, “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Saul, also known as Paul…,” and from then on it’s not Barnabas and Saul, it’s Paul and Barnabas. We generally have the impression that Saul has his named changed to Paul when he has his conversion experience on the Road to Damascus, but that’s not what actually happens. Saul sees Jesus on the road in chapter 9, but it’s not until chapter 13 that he starts being called Paul. Scholars think it’s just that Saul is the Aramaic pronunciation and Paul is the Greek pronunciation, like the difference between John in English and Juan in Spanish.
In any case, Barnabas and Paul make their way across Cyprus. Wherever they go, they preach, they attract followers, and then they get chased out of town by people who are upset that they are stirring up the people, disrupting the natural order of things. They go through the same pattern in town after town. When Paul and Barnabas take a boat over to what is now Turkey, their companion, John Mark heads back home to Jerusalem.
In Lystra, Paul heals a disabled man who couldn’t walk. The people think that he and Barnabas are gods in the flesh. They say that Barnabas must be Zeus, the king of the gods, and Paul must be Hermes, the messenger of the gods. It takes all of their powers of oratory to keep the people from sacrificing animals to them.
After visiting many towns, setting up many churches, and ordaining many elders, they return to their base in Antioch. While they are there, some other missionaries come from Judea saying that Gentiles need to be circumcised if they’re going to become Christians. Both Barnabas and Paul argue against this, saying that Christ’s grace is sufficient for Gentiles. And they point to their own ministry with Gentiles as proof that God’s Spirit is doing a new thing.
They end up being called to a council in Jerusalem to settle the matter. Interestingly, while it was always Paul and Barnabas out in the mission field, when they come before the leaders of the Jerusalem church, it’s Barnabas and Paul. It’s Barnabas who has credibility with the apostles, and it’s Barnabas who takes the lead. The leader of the Jerusalem church, Jesus’s brother James, ends up siding with Barnabas and Paul, and the church is opened up to Gentiles. Barnabas and Paul return to their base in Antioch with the news.
Much, but not all, of the story of Barnabas has been bound up with the story of Paul. But they are about to go their separate ways. Paul suggests to Barnabas that they go back and visit all the places they had been on their first epic trip. Barnabas is keen to go too, and he wants to take John Mark along with them, the same companion who had accompanied them on the first part of their earlier trip.
But Paul will have none of it. He feels that John Mark had abandoned them on the first trip, and he is not willing to give him another chance. Even though they have been through so much together, they are not able to resolve this conflict. Luke says, “Their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and left, entrusted by the brothers and sisters to the Lord’s grace” (Acts 15:39-40). After years of working together, they split up. So far as we know, they never get back together again.
It fits with what we know of Barnabas’s character. He is the son of encouragement. He is the one who offers second chances, who mends divisions. It was Barnabas who convinced the Jerusalem church to give Paul a second chance after he had been a persecutor of the church. It was Barnabas who supported Paul in his missionary travels. It was Barnabas who defended Paul and his acceptance of Gentiles before the council in Jerusalem. It seems only natural that Barnabas would be the one who would want to give John Mark a second chance. He wants to give a second chance, and it’s Paul who is unwilling to do so. It’s interesting. Paul is known to us as the apostle of grace. And yet, his bitter disagreement and break from his close friend and partner comes because he is unwilling to offer the same grace that Barnabas offers.
It a good reminder that even the saints don’t always act like saints. Even the closest followers of Jesus aren’t perfect. They have arguments, fights, fallings out. They let their egos get the better of themselves at times. Paul and Barnabas are different, and at a certain point they are no longer able to work with each other. But they are both still strong apostles. They both continue their ministry in Jesus Christ even if they can’t agree on exactly how to do it together.
Barnabas is worthy of imitation. He was never the rock star of the early church. He doesn’t have the fame or name recognition of Paul. Even though he is the one who brought Paul into the fold, he often ends up playing second to Paul. And he seems to do so happily and faithfully. He continues to support and defend Paul, even when Paul’s actions have made him unpopular. He remains faithful. And yet, he is willing to stand up to Paul in the name of grace. He remains that son of encouragement who is always more ready than those around him to offer a second chance.
May we learn from Barnabas that kind of compassion. May we learn to error on the side of grace. May we be willing to take the supporting role when we are called to do so, and to boldly speak our truth when the spirit compels us to. May we be generous with our possessions and generous with our hearts. May we become sources of encouragement, willing to reconcile, willing to forgive, willing to offer another chance to those who ask for it. For we know that we are all here because we have been forgiven, because we have been offered grace. May we be just as willing to offer grace to sisters, brothers, and neighbors. Amen.
Sunday 3 June 2018
Commemoration of the Visitation
We’re doing something a little different this Summer. I’m calling it a Summer of Saints. We usually follow a scheduled set of bible readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. But in the background, there’s also another calendar of days and readings that we usually don’t pay as much attention to. It’s a calendar of saints’ days and holy days. It’s a bit more common in the Lutheran tradition than in the Methodist tradition, but there are calendars of saints’ days and holy days for both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and for The United Methodist Church. The Lutheran ones appear in a book called More Days for Praise: Festivals and Commemorations in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, and the Methodist ones are in a book called For All the Saints: A Calendar of Commemorations for United Methodists. During this summer, we’re going to be drawing on those resources in order to explore some characters that we don’t often pay much attention to. Most of the saints we’ll be meeting are biblical saints, but we’ll also have the chance to get to know a few figures from later in the Christian story.
The commemoration we are marking today is called The Visitation, and it’s the story we read from the Gospel of Luke. When Mary is pregnant with Jesus, she travels to Judea to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. You may be thinking that this sounds like a Christmas story. But if you do the math, John the Baptist is supposed to have been born about six months before Jesus, so that’s June 24th. Then Mary must have visited about a month before that, and here we are.
Some of you have probably heard of the Bechdel test. It’s usually applied to movies, but sometimes to other kinds of storytelling. The Bechdel test has three parts. First, does the story have at least two women? Second, do the two women talk to each other? Third, do they talk to each other about something other than a man? Sometimes there is an additional requirement that the two female characters are actually given names. Only about half of Hollywood films pass the Bechdel test.
As you think through all the bible stories you know, you might notice that they have a significantly worse track record on the Bechdel test. The bible is not very strong on female characters. When they do appear, they are often not named. They only rarely talk to each other, and then almost exclusively about men, usually husbands, sometimes sons. According to one accounting, only three books of the Bible even come close to passing the Bechdel test: Ruth, Mark, and Luke. Ruth and Naomi have a complex relationship and wide-ranging conversations, though Naomi does keep trying to bring things back to finding a husband for Ruth. In the final scene of the Gospel of Mark, the women who go to the tomb murmur to each other “Who will roll the stone away?” Though, that’s hardly voluminous dialogue, and they are talking about the stone that bars the tomb of a man: Jesus.
The third example is right here, with Mary and Elizabeth talking to each other about their pregnancies. This episode, like the other two, is questionable, though. On the one hand, Mary and Elizabeth have not a word to say about their husbands, Joseph and Zechariah. On the other hand, they are talking about their male babies, and even when they’re talking about God, there is the strange sense that they’re talking about Mary’s man. Even so, though, I think there’s the sense that something special is happening here, that we’re getting a focus on the voices of women that we don’t often see in the bible.
Both Elizabeth and Mary function as prophets in this passage. Luke tells us explicitly that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit before she says what she has to say. Mary not only speaks, she breaks into poetry. Both of them utter God-speech—inspired words.
Those of you who have a Roman Catholic background will know Elizabeth’s words better than the rest of us do. Much of the Hail Mary prayer comes from Elizabeth’s words here. Hail Mary, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. That’s all cribbed from the KJV of Elizabeth’s speech. “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry.”
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, they call Mary the Theotokos (Θεοτόκος). Sometimes it’s translated as the Mother of God, but more literally, it means “the God-bearer.” That’s what Elizabeth is trying to say about Mary, that she has been chosen to bear the incarnate God into the world. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Why do have this honor that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Now that is prophecy! The mother of my Lord should come to me!
It isn’t mentioned in the part we read this morning, but by all outward appearances, it’s Elizabeth who has the miraculous pregnancy. To the world’s eyes, Mary is just another unwed mother, but we were told that Elizabeth is well past child-bearing years when she becomes pregnant with her son, John. But like Sarah in the Book of Genesis, she becomes pregnant in her old age, a miracle for all to see. And yet, she somehow recognizes that it is not her pregnancy, but Mary’s that is the greater miracle.
She even says that the child in her womb leaps when it heard Mary’s voice. Sometimes in icons and paintings of this scene, the artists will show a little miniature John in Elizabeth’s belly, leaping, and a little miniature Jesus in Mary’s belly, usually with his hand up in a sign of benediction. In any case, Luke tells us that even the fetal John knows that something important is happening here.
Elizabeth closes her words with this: “Blessed is she who believes that the things God had spoken to her will be fulfilled.” The grammar is a little strange. We’d expect, “Blessed is she who believed that the things God spoke to her would be fulfilled.” That would be a sort of congratulation to Mary for having believed in the past and her belief has been born out in the present. But it’s stranger than that. Blessed is she who believes (in the present) that what God said (in the past) will be fulfilled (in the future). There’s a tension there. The trust in the God is right now, and it’s based on what God said in the past, but it hasn’t been fulfilled yet. We haven’t seen the end yet. There is no guarantee that God will fulfill, that God will be trustworthy. There is only trust now that God will do what God promises in time.
And isn’t that where we find ourselves much of the time? We have these promises from God. We have these words, but they have yet to be fulfilled. There are the big ones, of course: peace, justice. And there is that tension between the good that we can clearly see God doing, and yet the imperfection of our human condition, the not yet complete of God’s invasive kingdom.
But there are also the smaller, but more immediate promises. God’s words spoken especially to me, especially to you. They’re not always as clear as words, of course. Not everyone is visited by the angel Gabriel. But there is that feeling, that sense of calling or purpose, that sense that God has a plan for me, that sense that God is concerned with my life, as small as my life may be. And yet that is often in tension with the not yet of what we sense God has in store for us.
No matter how strong that moment of clarity may have been, no matter how sure we may have felt of God’s calling, no matter how strongly our hearts may have burned, most of our life is spent in the time between those moments of clarity. Most of our life is spent not on the mountaintop, but in the valley. Most of our life is spent in the vagueness, and obscurity, and blurriness, and murkiness, and opacity of our everyday living. When we can’t see the end. When we question if we ever heard anything in the beginning. When we doubt ourselves, and our choices and wonder at all the ways our lives might have played out differently.
And yet Elizabeth’s prophecy suggests that there is blessing in that tension. There is blessing for the one who puts her trust in God even when the future has not yet been revealed, even when the promise has not yet been fulfilled.
Mary doesn’t know, in that moment, what is going to happen. Her immediate concerns—how she is going to explain this baby, whether she will become a social pariah, whether Joseph or any other man will have her now—she doesn’t know the answers to those questions. But she trusts God and the promise that God has made. The promise she has received from Gabriel is that she will conceive by God’s Spirit and that she will give birth to God’s Son and that he will rule on David’s throne forever. That is the promise that she trusts.
But even with those words, she does not know what is coming. She does not know that her son won’t begin his mission until he has turned thirty, an astonishingly advanced age to be beginning in the ancient world. She does not know that he will upset the Jewish religious authorities. She does not know that he will reject the family of his birth as he builds a new community. She does not know that he will create a scene in the temple. She does not know that one of his closest followers will betray him. She does not know that he will be captured and beaten and put on trial before the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, and their puppet, King Herod. She does not know that his male disciples will abandon him. She does not know that she will stand there with Mary Magdalene and the other women and watch as he is tortured and killed on a Roman cross on a hill called Golgatha. None of that is spelled out in the promise from Gabriel. And even after he is raised from the dead, she does not know that he will be taken away forty days later. She does not know that she will be among those in the room when the Spirit comes on Pentecost, that she will be among those who are visited with a tongue of fire, who will proclaim the good news of God in other languages.
None of that is remotely imaginable when Mary visits Elizabeth. Mary has heard the words of God straight from the mouth of an angel, and yet even so, they could not have prepared her for the turns her life would take, for the many twists and detours before God’s words might be fulfilled.
And yet Elizabeth prophesies, “Blessed is she who trusts that what God has said will be fulfilled.” Blessed is she who trusts.
It is Mary’s trust in God that inspires her to open her mouth in prophecy. She may not know all that is to come, but she knows that she is poor, that she is thought to be insignificant, and that all the same, God has chosen her for this special role. She echos the words of Hannah from centuries before, the words we heard read from 1 Samuel today. That God drags the mighty off their thrones and lifts up the lowly. That God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.
These are radical words that Mary speaks. Some of the most radical words in the gospel. But it is her words that set the stage for Jesus’s ministry. Before John utters a single word, before he is even born, Mary is the prophet of the coming Messiah. Mary is the one who proclaims God’s gospel of liberation. Even today, her words echo a call for justice. A little later in the service, we’ll have the chance to sing Mary’s words for ourselves, to hear them speak to our world in the words of the hymn, and I pray that they will move us today as they moved so many other in the past.
On this Sunday, we commemorate two of God’s many faithful women: Mary and Elizabeth. They heard God’s word, and they prophesied. They trusted in what God had promised. Their words and their examples call us still to trust in the one who has promised and to join in the work of God’s Kingdom. Thanks be to God!
Sunday 20 May 2018
The Feast of Pentecost
Today 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.
Sunday 13 May 2018
Feast of Matthias, Seventh Sunday of Easter
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.
Sunday 6 May 2018
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
We’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.