Sunday, April 26, 2015

In Whose Name?

Acts 4:1-12
April 26, 2015

            “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet;”
            “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”
            Of these two quotes, I suspect that the first was more familiar to you than the second. Juliet of the Capulet family stood on the balcony outside of her room and asked this question about Romeo, a Montague. The premise of Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, is a familiar one. These two young people fall in love, but their love is forbidden because of a feud between their families. No Capulet would be allowed to love and marry a Montague and vice-versa. Although the feud was the supposed culprit in keeping Romeo and Juliet apart, their names were the real enemy. “What’s in a name?”
            The second quote may be less known, unless you’ve read Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, or saw the production of it by the Shawnee Little Theater. These words were spoken by John Proctor. Set during the time of the Salem Witch Trials, John’s wife, Elizabeth has been accused of witchcraft. Other innocent people in the town have been accused and are facing the gallows. John Proctor is now in jail, and he can avoid the hangman’s noose if he will confess that he did have dealings with the devil. He confesses in word, and he confesses in deed by signing the written confession. But when Deputy Governor Danforth intends for the paper to be hung on the church door as proof of Proctor’s confession, Proctor snatches the paper away and will not give it to him. His is a false confession; a confession that may save his body but will not save his conscience. Using his name will be a further betrayal of all the others who were also innocent, but would not falsely confess. In the end Proctor chooses the rope, rather than have his name forever bound to a lie.
            “I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”
            Juliet questions why a name should keep two people who love each other apart. John Proctor prefers an unjust death rather than losing his name. In the midst of the lies and hysteria of the trials, his name was all he had left.
            In both scenarios, names held power; for good or for bad. The power of their names made Romeo and Juliet’s love a forbidden one. John Proctor’s name held his dignity, his identity, his conscience. Our passage from Acts is also about a name. In that name could be found healing, power, and authority.
            In Jesus’ name Peter healed a lame man by the gate of the temple called Beautiful. After the healing, Peter preached a power-filled sermon to the people who witnessed the man’s healing, declaring to them that although they were the ones who sent Jesus to the cross, God was working through them. Jesus of Galilee who died on the cross is now Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the resurrected One. In this case, the dead did not stay dead.
            The dead not staying dead is the last thing that the priests and the Sadducees want to hear. The words Peter and John were preaching and teaching the people irk and annoy them. So they had the two arrested to try and shut them up. But Luke writes that arrest or no arrest, many of the people who heard the Word believed. Not just a few of them, 5,000 of them.
            After a night in jail, Peter and John are brought before the highest of the religious leaders. This religious court was the Sanhedrin, and going before them would have been like one of us coming before a Grand Jury or even the Supreme Court. When Peter and John stood before them, they asked, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” The authorities wanted to know the authority who gave Peter and John the authority to heal in this way, to preach and teach in this way?  In whose name do you do this? In whose name?
            Peter, empowered by the Holy Spirit, answers boldly. The reason this man, this former beggar, is standing before you, in good health, healed from all ill, is “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”
            By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. It is in this name that Peter and John are able to heal. It is in this name that Peter – a man who only a few weeks before could not even admit to a servant girl that he was a disciple of Jesus – speaks boldly to the highest religious authorities of the time. It is in this name that Peter declares salvation will be found. In whose name? In Jesus’s name.
            As a faith we bear Jesus’ name. But what do we do with that name? The last verse of this passage is a troublesome one for some, and a proof text for others. Peter states clearly that salvation can be found in no one else. Only Jesus. Many people use this verse as proof positive that there is no such thing as universalism, or to use a phrase found in Hindu, “all paths lead to the divine.”
It would seem that this verse states the exact opposite: not all paths lead to the divine, only following the in the way of Jesus leads to that end.
            I don’t want to get caught up in this to be universalist or not to be universalist debate. But I do think we have to think critically and seriously about what we do with Jesus’ name. There is no doubt from events that we’ve seen in the past months that people bearing Jesus’ name are persecuted, literally, because of it. However I often hear people here, in this part of the world, speak of being persecuted because they bear the name of Jesus. With that I take issue, because we may bear a lot of things for carrying the name Christian, but I do not think we are persecuted. Christians are often the butt of the joke. We are not always taken seriously by the larger culture. Christians are caricatured, no doubt. But is this persecution or is it because of what we do or don’t do, what we say or don’t say in Jesus’ name? We may speak boldly of our faith in this place, but could we speak as boldly as Peter did before the Sanhedrin? When we disagree with someone’s belief – not just a person of another faith, but with each other – do we find a way to speak with love or do we use our beliefs to beat up the other person? What do we do and say in Jesus’ name?
            It is the height of understatement to say that my actions don’t always match my words said in Jesus’ name. I know that I fall short of that daily. No matter how much I might feel fired up by the Holy Spirit in the pulpit, I confess that I don’t carry that same fire into the rest of my week. Am I willing to speak boldly on Tuesday, just as I am willing to speak it today? The old campfire song says that “they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” but how well do I manage to actually show that love?
            It seems to me that the key to really living and doing and speaking in Jesus’ name is to remember that Jesus who died is Jesus who lives. Speaking and acting in Jesus’ name is speaking and acting in the name of the Living God. The dead did not stay dead. That. Changes. Everything. It changed everything for a ragtag group of frightened followers. Jesus did not stay dead and their witness to it changed their name from disciples to apostles. Jesus did not stay dead, and with his new life and ascension came the power of the Holy Spirit. The tongues of flame that rested on of the apostles are waiting to rest on us as well.
            The power to be bold to speak in Jesus’ name is here in our midst. The power to live and do in Jesus’ name is here in our midst. Bearing the name Christian is about living boldly in a world that is broken. Bearing the name Christian is about speaking boldly to powers and principalities that do everything they can to silence those words. Bearing the name Christian means much more than in name only, because what’s in a name? Life.  It is life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

It Is Good

This is my upcoming Minister's Corner Article in the Saturday, April 25th issue of the Shawnee News Star.

“God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
Genesis 1:31a, The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version

            1970 was a momentous year and the beginning of a momentous decade.  That year saw the release of the album, “Let It Be” by The Beatles. It was the Fab Four’s last album[1]. In the fall of 1970, I turned five and started kindergarten. Okay, perhaps that was only momentous for my parents and for me, but I’m going to use it all the same. And in 1970 the first celebration of Earth Day was organized, with events held across the country.

            I don’t remember being aware of Earth Day until several years later, but I vividly remember a PSA from “Keep America Beautiful” that aired in conjunction with Earth Day in 1971. I can honestly say that this PSA will forever be imprinted on my brain. It featured a Native American, dressed in traditional clothing, paddling a canoe on a river. While the river looks pristine at first, as he paddled, trash and litter begin to float past. Signs of industrial development are seen – a barge belching smoke, and tall cranes crowd the horizon. Pulling the canoe onto the shore, the man looks out over a busy highway. The ground where he stands is covered with litter, and as he watches, someone throws a bag of trash out of the window of a speeding car. The bag lands at the man’s feet and its contents scatter in every direction. There are only a few words of narration, but the closing statement is “People start pollution, people can stop it.” This is said as the man turns to face the camera. As the shot pulls in tightly on the man’s face, you see a single tear tracing its way down his cheek.

            Oh that tear! Even as a little girl, that tear pulled at my heart and my growing environmental conscience. It would be many years before I learned about the concept of stewardship, but in my childish way I understood that the earth God created needed protecting. Watching that PSA I made a vow that I would be a person who stopped pollution. I know that I have not fully kept that promise, but to this day if even a gum wrapper escapes my grasp and blows away to land as litter somewhere on God’s earth, I feel terrible. It feels like I’ve caused more tears to etch the man’s face.

            I’m writing this article on Earth Day. Although I’m not participating in any organized observance of it, I take the day and what it stands for seriously. However I know that I don’t do enough to make good on my vow to be a steward. I haven’t calculated my personal carbon footprint recently, but I have no doubt it is much larger than it should be. I realize that people see the environment – how we treat it, how we use its resources – in disparate ways. Yet I always return to the verse from Genesis quoted at the beginning of this essay. “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good.” What God made, God saw as good. Good seems such a simple little word. We often use it in a throwaway manner. “How was that hamburger?” “It was good.” But in the context of these 13 words, I see good as having a much bigger, much deeper meaning.

            My thoughts about the word good are not based on anything but my own gut intuition, so take them with the grain of salt that’s implied. God’s good is not just nice or nifty. I think when God saw that His creation was good, that means it was complete. It was whole, perfect, beautiful, and abundant with verdant life. God did not make this good creation only for himself. God made it as a gift – for the first humans and for us. When my kids treat things they’ve been given with reckless abandon, I wholeheartedly express my displeasure. My parents did the same with me. Yet if I truly see creation, God’s earth as a gift, how can I treat it with reckless abandon?. But I do – far too often. So on this Earth Day, I vow once again to treat every day as Earth Day, to redouble my efforts to show God’s gift loving care. I will do everything that I can to live up to the promise I made back when. I want to live and care for God’s beautiful gift of creation in such a way that no more tears will stream down that crying man’s face. That will be good indeed.

[1] My rock historian boyfriend, Brent Stoker (who knows more about The Beatles than anyone I’ve ever met), clarified that “Let It Be” was their last released album, but “Abbey Road” was their last recorded album.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Wonderful, Powerful, Tiring

 This is my recent article for The Shawnee News-Star, published Saturday, April 11, 2015

            The big day is over. Easter is behind us. I suspect that many of my clergy colleagues took a much needed day – or two – off. I know that some of my clergy buddies plan vacations for this week, eager to rest and decompress after the frantic pace of the last 40 days and nights. While I normally take Mondays off to find sabbath after the Sabbath, coming down with a stomach bug on Holy Saturday necessitated even more rest and recovery after Easter than I usually require. Easter is wonderful and powerful, but it’s also tiring; for us and for others. Let’s not forget our musicians and choirs, or the administrative assistants who do an abundance of extra work this time of year. Easter, and the days leading up to it, is equally demanding of them as well.

            So it would seem that whether you are a pulpit dweller, a choir lofter, or a pew patron, Easter is a big day for all. It would also seem that now this big day is over, life has gone back to “normal.” Life is, to quote the band The Talking Heads, the same as it ever was. Except it’s not, right? At least it shouldn’t be. Life should be completely different. Presbyterians, along with other denominations, observe Eastertide. This is the season in the church year leading up to Pentecost. But you don’t have to observe a season to recognize that Easter is far more than just one day. Easter is a way of living, a way of being, and a way of seeing the world. I often hear the expression, “we are Easter people.” It sounds great, and I affirm it. The problem is that I’m not sure I actually live it.

            I think the point of Eastertide and living as Easter people is to remind us that the resurrection was not merely an historical event. It not only had meaning and power and significance for the people who walked alongside Jesus, it has meaning and power and significance for us too. Well of course it does. This is not new information. The reason we are who we are is because of the resurrection. It is the wellspring of our faith. To believe in the resurrection is to have hope that this is not all there is, that it actually is not the same as it ever was.

            Again, my struggle is not in the believing but in the living. Because on the surface it seems that nothing has changed. Red hates Blue and vice versa. Children go missing. Jobs get lost. Violence abounds. People are hungry. Grief seems omnipresent. Hope feels fragile in the face of it all. Yet if I really do believe in the resurrection, and if I really do want to live as one who believes in it, then I have to acknowledge the fact that the resurrection is not only about what happens after this life, it is also about what happens in this life. As an Easter person, I am called to continue the ministry of Jesus in the here and now. That does not negate the hereafter, but it reminds me that the resurrection happened for the world. Jesus ushered in the kingdom of God for the world. If the resurrection really makes a difference in my life, then living as an Easter person means I have the ability and the responsibility to make a difference in the lives of others.

            One of my favorite Easter hymns is Christ Is Alive! The text was written by Brian Wren in 1968. I think all of the verses are beautiful, but the second one stands out to me.

            “Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.”  (Brian Wren, 1968, ©1975, rev. 1995 Hope Publishing Company; found in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, p. 246).

This verse and this hymn would be lovely to me no matter what, but it was not until I turned to it for this article that I discovered Wren’s inspiration for writing it. Easter in 1968 came ten days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hope in the resurrection would have been needed more than ever before. How easy it would have been to lose hope during that terrible time. How easy it would have been to forget the importance of being Easter people in both word and deed. Yet Wren’s text vividly reminds all who sing it that resurrection hope cannot be destroyed by the cross or an assassin’s bullet. Hope is alive because Christ is alive, which means that every day is Easter and we are called to be Easter people every day.

One Heart and Soul

Acts 4:32-35
April 12, 2015

            In moral philosophy, there are seven deadly sins or vices. They are: Pride, Envy, Anger, Lust, Gluttony, Greed and Sloth.  I don’t know the history or the etymology of how these came to be known as the seven deadly sins, but I can fully appreciate why they are called deadly. It is no surprise that falling headlong into any one of them can be deadly, literally and figuratively.
When our country was plunging into recession in 2008, the sixth sin – greed – seemed to figure prominently. While Wall Street and corporate banks were in turmoil, another story of rampant greed emerged. In 2009 Bernard Madoff was sentenced for perpetrating the largest, most complex Ponzi scheme in history. Madoff was a formidable presence on Wall Street and in the economic universe.  He was the former chairman of NASDAQ.  He started his own company decades ago with the money he saved from being a lifeguard.  He worked with a number of charitable foundations.  He sat on the board of Yeshiva University and donated thousands and thousands of dollars to a variety of charities.  And he defrauded hundreds upon hundreds of people at a cost of up to 50 billion dollars.
 I’m no economist, but this is my understanding of how a Ponzi works: you entice investors to invest in a non-existent entity. Then you pay off old investors with the capital you receive from new investors. There is never any profit, because there is nothing from which to earn profit. I imagine that new investors would have to continually be brought in to keep the scheme sustainable. But when it collapses, those new investors lose. In the case of Madoff’s scheme, they lost big. 
            One example of the people he defrauded was Elie Wiesel.  Wiesel is an author; his most well-known work is Night, which is a memoir of his imprisonment in a concentration camp. He is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a humanitarian. His foundation, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, was one of many Madoff victims. Madoff, who was known for his charitable giving, willingly and knowingly scammed … anyone. His greed must have been all-consuming.
            Greed, that sixth sin, has proven time and time again, and certainly in this last decade to be worthy of the label deadly. Yet in our lessons today, we turn to this short collection of verses in Acts. In this brief telling we see a community that seemed to be the antidote to the Bernie Madoffs of the world. Greed had no place in this community. Indeed private ownership had no place either. These verses tell of a community based in giving rather than possessing; that was focused on “ours” instead of “mine.”
            “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.  With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.  There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  They laid it at the apostles’ feet and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
Not exactly a Ponzi scheme is it?  In fact it is a remarkable outline of communal living.  The apostles, because of their witness to the resurrected Christ, were the spiritual leaders.  As people sold their possessions and gave up their ownership of things, all the money they made was brought and laid at the apostles’ feet.  Then it was distributed to anyone who had need.  As a result, no one in this early community of believers had need. 
Chills traverse my spine when I read verse 34, “There was not a needy person among them.”  Considering we only have to look outside these doors to see people desperately in need, this description of a community without it stands in stark relief. What would our neighborhood, our community, our world be like if it were grounded in this story from Acts?  What would it be like to wake up in the morning and know, without a doubt, that there was no one living in dire poverty, that children here and around the world were well-fed, clothed, schooled, and loved? 
            “There was not a needy person among them.”
            There are plenty of needy people in our midst, and it is wonderful to imagine poverty, need, and desperate want being eradicated. Yet think carefully about how this need was eradicated. The people who were being led by the disciples did not just give a lot to the poor, but continue their previous means of existence. They changed how they lived entirely. Private ownership was a thing of the past, and communal, shared living was the new normal. However what sounds great in scripture can be much, much, much more challenging to actually live out. Truth be told, the way this community ended need sounds a little scary. Actually it sounds a lot scary, because it goes against how most of us live. I don’t mean that we are greedy, scheming people. But we live with what we own.  We own houses. We own cars. We own stuff. Our property, our stuff, is important to us. And with as much stuff as we have, we still aren’t satisfied. I could give you a list a mile long of stuff I’d like to own, so I know I’m not even close to doing what this passage speaks of.  Selling everything I own and laying the proceeds at the feet of spiritual leaders? I don’t think so. I suspect that if we were reading about this in the newspaper instead of Holy Scripture, we’d think we were reading about a society based on socialism, and socialism does not go over well in our world. 
            But these people were of one heart and soul.  This was not a community that was based on an economic or political policy. The people of this early Christian community had been transformed by faith. They were changed by the witness to the good news of Jesus Christ given by the apostles.  This was not a change or a transformation that was merely internal. This was not a private faith. They manifested their belief, their faith in how they lived and the way they lived. Their community reflected their faith.
            When I’m really honest with myself, I must admit I don’t know that I could ever do what these people did. I’d like to think I could, but really doing it?  Really selling everything that I own and putting it into a common trust to be used for all?  What about sending my kids to college? What about buying groceries and clothing and keeping body and soul together? How will we live? 
            But what is so remarkable about this passage, although I realize it should not be so, is that it speaks of trust.  To live in this way took trust. It took trust, not only in the disciples, but in God through the resurrected Christ. It took absolute trust in the power of the good news for the people to give up their claim on stuff.  It took trust that they would be cared for in the necessities of life, for them to do something so loving, so giving, so trusting. 
            Will I ever be that trusting? 
            It occurs to me that the real issue at stake is that of security. I don’t think that I have a problem with being generous, with being giving, but deep down do I fear that if I give too much, there will be nothing left for me and for mine? Luther is quoted as saying that security is the greatest idol of them all. Not wealth, not power, but security. Perhaps it is an innate quality of human nature to crave security; to need to know that there will always be enough. I posed a question on Facebook the other day about what makes people feel secure. The majority of my friends who responded said things like faith, family and friends, love, hope, God, Jesus. I don’t dispute any of them. I don’t dispute their sincerity. If I had been the one answering that question, my response would have been similar. However all of the people who answered have homes, jobs, some sort of financial means. These were not wealthy or dramatically affluent people. But they – and I – still have some means of security. My question to myself, my question to us all, is how would I respond if I didn’t have the things that make me feel secure? Could I trust God enough to give up those external signs of security? Could I relinquish my private ownership so that no one would have need?
They were of one heart and soul and there was not a needy person among them.
            This was not a Utopian society. This was not a community made up of perfect people, perfect believers in every way. These were real human beings with all of the flaws and failings of being human. Some of them will fall away. We know from the rest of Acts and from history, that these kinds of communities wax and wane. Some thrive for a while, some fail immediately. But what is so significant to me is that they wanted their entire lives to reflect the transformation they found in the resurrected Christ. They wanted to live out, to the best of their ability, what they believed. And they trusted God in Christ enough to try. They were of one heart and soul. We are also called to be of one heart and soul. I know that I won’t be able to walk out of here today and sell all that I own. But I also know that I am called to think more of the greater good than of myself. I know that I want my life to more truly reflect my faith. I know that I am called to trust. The good news is that it is never too late to do just that. It is never too late to be of one heart and soul. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.