Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Help or Hindrance -- Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 11:1-18
April 24, 2016

            Back in the early 1990's, British writer, director and producer, Richard Curtis, had an idea for a television comedy about a woman vicar in the Church of England. The only problem was that women were not yet allowed to be ordained as priests in the Church of England. So he had to wait. But as soon as they were Curtis turned his idea into reality, and the result was The Vicar of Dibley. I know you've heard me mention this show before because it is an absolute favorite of mine. Although I consider it an instant classic, there were many other people in England who were not immediate fans. After all, the show's premise was about a change in the religious landscape of the United Kingdom that left many people unhappy, distressed and pretty angry as well.
            The first episode, Arrival, dealt with the anger and fear this change wrought. In one scene three of the villagers watch the new vicar, Geraldine, and her lay pastor, Alice, walk into the church, and they discuss the issue of change. This is my rough approximation of the dialogue and an English country accent.
            "Well, it can't be right, can it really?"
            "Women vicars. I mean, Jesus didn't have women disciples, did he?"
            "But things have to change, don't they?"
            "Look at traffic lights."
            "What bout em?"
            "If they didn't change, there'd be terrible congestion."
            "But then there's gravity."
            "What about it?"
            "If gravity changed, we'd all go floating up in space. We wouldn't want that."
            "So there's good change and there's bad change."
            "That's right. There's the changing of the guard, isn't there?"
            "But then again, there's prawn flavored crisps."
            So there's good change and there's bad change. I suspect that many of us feel that way about change. It can be good, but it can also be bad. Very. Bad. There are times when I crave change. I need to do something different – change my hair, rearrange the furniture, anything; just to have a little change. But in the larger picture, those are relatively small changes. The small changes don't always cause that much stress (although I have shed many a tear over a bad haircut). But what about the big changes? Shrimp flavored potato chips may have seemed disastrous to the good folks of Dibley, but that was a small change. However a woman vicar? A woman in robes and cassock preaching from their pulpit? That was a big change indeed; and it was a change that some of the folks fought tooth and nail. But it was a big change that opened the door to other changes -- good changes that revealed that God was still alive and well and working in that little village and in the world.
            The problem with change is that at the outset we don't always know whether it will be good or bad. Sometimes what we perceive as bad is really good. I think that is what Peter was faced with in the story we read from Acts.
            The apostles and believers who were in Judea heard that Gentiles – those others -- had "accepted the word of God." Apparently this was a change they weren't prepared for, so when Peter arrived in Jerusalem they wanted to know what happened. More specifically, these circumcised believers wanted to know why Peter, also a circumcised believer, ate with uncircumcised believers. They didn't ask him about the Gentiles’ acceptance of God's word or what that acceptance entailed. They wanted to know why Peter shared table fellowship with them, because if they were uncircumcised they didn't keep kosher. If Peter ate with them, then Peter was most likely in violation of dietary laws. So there had better be a good reason for doing what he did.
            The reason Peter gave them was the recounting of this vision he received back in Chapter 10. He was sitting on the roof of where they were staying in Joppa. Peter was hungry and while he was waiting for the meal that was being prepared he fell into a trance. He saw a sheet being lowered by its four corners from heaven. On that sheet was every kind of creature imaginable: mammals, birds, reptiles. Along with the sheet of critters came a voice telling him to get up, kill and eat. It was the Lord speaking to Peter but Peter refused. He told God that he had never put anything profane or unclean in his body, and he wasn't about to start. Three seems to be a critical number for Peter, so in true fashion this happened three times. Three times God called Peter to kill and eat anything on that sheet. Three times Peter said, "no." But after the second time the voice told Peter, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." The sheet was lifted back to heaven and Peter's vision ended. But with the ending of the vision came the arrival of men sent by the centurion Cornelius.
            Cornelius had been instructed by an Angel to send for Peter. Peter went and Cornelius and all of the people in Cornelius' household not only listened to Peter’s sermon, they also received the gift of the Holy Spirit and believed. Even though they were uncircumcised!
            Peter told Cornelius that it was unlawful for a Jew to associate with a Gentile, but he finally understood that his vision was not limited only to food. It was also about people. If God commanded that people were clean, then he could not call them unclean. If the Gentiles, the others and the outsiders, could receive the Holy Spirit just as Peter and the other believers had, then who was Peter to hinder God?
            "Who was I that I could hinder God?"
            I think it must be human nature to draw dividing lines between us and others, and to create categories and impose labels. This category is good. This category is bad. This food is clean and this food is unclean. This group is good and this group is bad. These people are acceptable. These people are not. These folks are the in group. These folks are outsiders. We all do it. Certainly the earliest believers in Jesus did it. However, when Jesus was living among them he spent a great deal of time not only blurring the lines they tried to maintain, but leaping right over them. If you recall, the cream of the religious crop had trouble with the folks Jesus chose to sit at table with. It's not surprising, then, that it seemed to be happening again.
            Peter's vision did not just dispel the idea of clean and unclean food. It firmly stated that the dividing lines we draw between ourselves and others are ours, not God's. A famous quote attributed to Gracie Allen is, "Never put a period where God has put a comma." I think of that quote when I read these verses in Acts. Beware of thinking of thinking in terms of outsiders and insiders, because God has other plans.
            But recognizing that God has other plans means that we must grapple with change. It means that we may have to look at ourselves, our beliefs, and scariest of all, our understanding of Church in a new way. The Vicar of Dibley may have been a television show, but it represented a truth about how people in England welcomed or didn't the ordination of women. It represented a real change, and change can be hard and challenging and downright terrifying.
            It seems to me that the most significant lesson Peter took from his vision and his experiences was that trying to maintain the divisions he took for granted was not being faithful or helpful to God's work in the world. It was being a hindrance. If God sees food or people or ideas as clean, but I don't, then I am hindering God's work. I am hindering God's ministry.
            I know that God can work through me and with me in spite of me, but how do I hinder God? How do I make God working through me a greater challenge than it has to be? What stumbling blocks and obstacles do I put in God's path? Well, I worry. A lot. Most of the time. I get anxious and I ruminate on what can't be changed and I spend a great deal of energy trying to control what cannot be controlled. I live fearfully. I try to be faithful on my own terms. I live small. I am so afraid to trust in the large things God can achieve through me that I narrow my world so I won't be hurt or disappointed.
I have to be honest that I am completely over the expression, "Let Go and let God," but while it may sound cliché, there is truth to it. I hinder God by trusting so little and believing so small. Yet God works through me in spite of me. God's going to change the boundaries and erase the lines and turn upside down who is in and who is out whether I like it or not. God is bringing about change -- in my life, in your life, in our life together. God will do what is unexpected and unlikely, and it seems to me that we can trust God or we can hinder God. God is bringing about great change in the world, in our community, in this place, in us. Who are we to hinder God?
            Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Aliveness -- Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:36-43
April 17, 2016

            I will never forget the delight and joy and rush of happiness I felt the first time I saw the movie, "E.T." I will never forget my devastation and sorrow the first time I watched the scene where E.T. dies. E.T. and Eliot, the boy who discovered, befriended and protected him, began to share emotions. Eliot felt what E.T. felt. When E.T. was scared or excited or drunk, then Eliot was scared, excited or drunk. And when E.T. became ill, Eliot became ill. After a long cold night in the forest, E.T. and Eliot were both sick. E.T.'s existence on this planet was discovered. He and Eliot were taken into a governmental mobile lab/operating room of some sort. They were both attached to monitors their recorded their vital statistics. E.T. was scared and sick. He wanted Eliot and Eliot wanted him. As E.T. grew sicker the attachment between them weakened and finally ceased altogether. Eliot grew stronger while E.T. slowly died. When they were completely separated emotionally and physically, one from the other, E.T. died. And when this sweet creature died, I felt as though a part of me died as well. Even the flower E.T. brought back to life with just a touch of his finger began to wilt toward death once more.
            The doctors and scientists gave Eliot a moment alone to say goodbye to his friend. Eliot tenderly and tearfully told E.T. how much he loved him and needed him.
            The first time I witnessed this moment on the big screen, I thought my heart would break. The only sounds you heard in the entire theater were sniffs and muffled sobs. E.T. -- our beloved E.T. -- was dead. The audience's grief seemed as connected to Eliot's sorrow as Eliot had been connected emotionally to E.T.
            But if our grief matched Eliot's, then so did our elation when everything changed. As Eliot uttered his sweet, final goodbyes, E.T.'s heart light began to glow. For whatever reason, E.T. who had been dead was now alive once more. Eliot was overjoyed and so were we all. Even the flower, which was dying without its healer, begins to spring back into new life. E.T. is alive! He is alive!
            I saw this movie in the theater five times in the summer that it premiered. Yet even on my fifth viewing, my grief and elation at the death and life of E.T. was not dimmed. Knowing how the rest of the story played out didn't keep my grief over his death at bay nor dilute my joy at his living.
            Life out of death, joy out of sorrow, is not a new theme -- in movies or in scripture. In our story from Acts, Peter was called upon by believers in Joppa to come to them because Tabitha, also known by her Greek name -- Dorcas, had died. Tabitha is the one woman in Acts, perhaps in the New Testament, who is called a disciple in the same way men were called disciples. This says something about the regard in which Tabitha was held. As the story points out, she was devoted to charity and doing good works. She took care of people. When Peter arrived and went to the house and the room where Tabitha was lying in state, the widows held up tunics and other clothing she had made for them. This is what this devout woman, this disciple did -- she took care of people. She helped them. She loved them.
            Peter sent everyone away; when he was alone he knelt down beside her and prayed. Then he looked at her and said, "Tabitha, get up." Tabitha opened her eyes. Peter helped her up, and then called to all the people gathered and showed them that she was indeed alive. Our story ends with the declaration that many people believed because Tabitha lived.
            You know you're in trouble as a preacher when the scholars and commentators you turn to declare that this story from Acts is a great story, but even they are not sure what a preacher can do with it as far as proclamation is concerned. I have to admit that when I realized the people I consider in the know when it comes to scripture and preaching made a statement like this, I was almost ready to give up on Acts for today. I contemplated abandoning my decision to preach on Acts for Eastertide and choose one of the other scriptures for my sermon.
            But stories are at the heart of the gospel. They were certainly at the heart of Jesus' preaching and teaching. This is a good story. Tabitha was dead but came back to life. She came back to aliveness. Yet the trouble with stories like this one is that while we can take them seriously and believe that they happened -- they happened back then, a long time ago, in a faraway land. What about now? I suspect that we can all name people who have been prayed over, loved, cared for, attended to, treated, etc. with the intent that they would live, but they died. And they didn't -- at least not to our knowledge -- come back into their aliveness; at least not here. It's not that I don't believe that miracles happen. I do. I am not a completely skeptic. It's not that I don't believe in prayer. I believe completely that prayer has the power to open hearts and minds and hands, but I know that I have prayed and prayed for someone to get well and they didn't. I have prayed and pleaded and hoped for someone to come back to aliveness, but it didn't happen. So what does this story have to say about that? Why was Tabitha brought back to life, but the other people I've loved and prayed for weren't? The truth is that Tabitha was brought back to life, but unless there is a 2,000 year old woman walking around somewhere, she died again; just as Peter died and the other apostles and the believers there in Joppa died. It would seem that living, even living again, is a temporary condition -- at least here in this life.
            But what I find striking about Tabitha is that it seems she was completely alive when she was alive. Her aliveness did not rest upon her coming back to life. She served. She cared. She loved. She did for others while she was alive. She was filled with life before she died. Although we don't hear any more about her after she came back to life, I like to believe that she was as filled with life the second time around as she was the first.
            The question remains, however, what do we do with this story now? How does it speak to us? Certainly, we should seek to live with intention and mindfulness right now because we don't know how long we will live and we don't know that we will have a second chance at life here. But I want to take this one step further and proclaim that this story reminds us that new life out of death here can be a reality. I'm not saying that someone who has died will suddenly rise up and live again. I'm not saying that can't happen; it's not impossible but I suspect it is improbable.  Yet life out of death can be a reality. I hesitate to make an allegory out of this story, but it is hard not to. Death seems so prevalent in our lives, in our world. Death is everywhere. People die. Relationships die. Communities die. But our hope in the resurrection of Jesus our Lord is not just that we will have new life down the road somewhere else, on some other plane of existence, it's that we will experience new life now. That is true in our relationships. That is true in our communities. That is true in our churches -- in this church. Isn't that what we are working for, reaching for, hoping for? New life. In the working lunch we're having immediately following worship, we'll be talking about our hopes for our congregation, for God's congregation. We will be praying for and contemplating how God is using us now and how God may use us in the future. This is an exciting time in the life of our congregation.
            However it seems to me that we are not just talking about life, we are talking about new life. We are talking about aliveness. We hope and pray not just that our church will be resuscitated, but that it will be resurrected. We want new life. But new life implies the death of old life. We have worked so hard to get to this point. We have stepped out, leapt out in faith and trust that God will help us land. But what do we still have to let go and let die? What must die so that we can be filled with aliveness? I don't have answers to offer. But I believe and I trust that God continually calls new life out of death. God continually does a new thing. God is calling new life out of us. God is calling a new thing out of this old thing. God is calling us to aliveness. Always. Always. That is good news indeed. Let us hear and heed and follow God's call.
            Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"


Monday, April 11, 2016

On the Way -- Third Sunday in Easter

Acts 9:1-20
April 10, 2016

Two young women. One white. One black. The young black woman is carrying schoolbooks. Her eyes are shielded by sunglasses. She is walking steadfastly forward; no indication that she is looking at the faces in the crowd around her. The young white woman is standing a few feet behind her. Her face is contorted by hatred. Her mouth is open, and although the black and white photograph reveals nothing more than images, the young white woman's expression makes it clear that her words are filled with venom and rage.

This is an infamous picture from what is known as the Little Rock Nine. In 1957, following the supreme court's ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, the state of Arkansas made an attempt to comply with the order to integrate public schools. Nine African American students were chosen to integrate Central High School in Little Rock. They attended school under the protection of armed guard. For their courage and their trouble they were spit on, screamed at, verbally abused and physically attacked.

This picture of these two young women is on display at the museum at Central High School. Next to it is another picture. In this color photograph, two older women stand together, with their arms around the other. Their faces are lit up by broad smiles. It is the same two women in both pictures. Elizabeth Eckford and eight other young men and women braved hatred and violence just so they could go to school. Hazel Bryan, along with many others -- young and old -- opposed their presence in their school with their words and their actions.

But something changed; something was transformed. A completely unlikely and seemingly impossible conversion happened because these two women who were separated by skin color, hatred, ignorance and unjust law became friends. A dramatic conversion indeed.

That's what we have in our story from Acts this morning -- a dramatic conversion, the dramatic conversion of Saul; perhaps the most dramatic conversion found in scripture. Our first encounter with Saul happens two chapters earlier. When Stephen was dragged off to be stoned, Saul watched over the coats and cloaks of those who threw stones. After Stephen's death, Saul began ravaging churches and persecuting those who worshipped in Jesus' name. He dragged off both men and women to prison. Following this account of Saul's persecutions, two other conversions happened. Simon, who was a magician, became a believer. Then Philip met the Ethiopian Eunuch, interpreted scripture for him and baptized him immediately upon his conversion.

These were amazing conversions in their own right, but the conversion of Saul is the pinnacle of these three transformations. It was a completely unlikely and unexpected conversion. Think about the very first words of our story.

"Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord..."

Still breathing threats and murder. This evocative imagery is not just wordplay on Luke, the author's, part. It suggest that the persecution of followers of The Way was not just Saul's casual hobby. It was the foundation of his existence. It was as innate to him as his breath. He was not just plotting or planning or considering persecution. He was breathing threats and murder.

He was breathing this violent persecution on the way to Damascus. Apparently he was no longer content with rounding up the believers in Jerusalem. His territory of persecution was expanding. Yet while on the way, the impossible happened. On that road to Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly flashed around them. Saul dropped to the ground and heard a voice speaking to him.

"Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

This voice proclaimed that he was Jesus, the one Saul persecuted. Saul was to go to the city and there he would be told what to do. All those who traveled with Saul, all those on the way, heard that voice. But only Saul left that encounter blind. Without his sight he was completely helpless. His companions lead him by the hand into Damascus.

Saul was not the only person who encountered the Lord in this story. His conversion did not happen in a vacuum. Ananias was a disciple living in Damascus. In a vision he was told by Jesus to go to the street called Straight, to the home of Judah. There he would meet a man from Tarsus named Saul. At that very moment, Saul was praying and experiencing a vision of his own. A man named Ananias would come to him, lay his hands on him, and Saul would once more see.

To no one's surprise, Ananias was hesitant. This was Saul! Saul! Saul's name was well-known. Saul was a man intent on doing evil to the faithful. How could Ananias go to him and pray for him and lay hands on him? But Jesus told him that the Gentiles would be reached through Saul. Saul would be an instrument of and for the gospel.

So Ananias obeyed. He went to the house where Saul was staying. He prayed for Saul. He laid hands on him, and at his touch something like scales fell from Saul's eyes. He could see once more.

This is the story -- the dramatic, impossible, unlikely story -- of Saul's conversion. Saul,  the zealous persecutor of the disciples of Jesus would become Paul, the zealous proclaimer of the good news of Jesus. But it seems to me that more than one person was converted in this story. In some ways, Ananias was converted as well. Saul was left blind and helpless and had no choice but to trust the people who cared for him -- on the way and once he reached Damascus. But it took incredible trust on Ananias' part to do what he was called to do. This was Saul! I am sure that there were people who were skeptical of Saul's conversion. Was this real? Would it last? Would Saul truly be an instrument of Christ or would he revert to his former ways? Would he once more travel the way of persecution? Was Saul truly converted?

We know that he was. We have his letters, accounts of his travels as evidence of that. But I think that conversion is a tricky business. It's not that I doubt it happens. It isn't that I don't believe people who proclaim their conversion. But it seems to me that conversion, true conversion, is not just a one time thing. Saul's conversion was undeniably dramatic. But as one commentator put it, he didn't go to Damascus, sing a few verses of "How Great a Foundation," and set off on his own way. His conversion began on the way to Damascus, but it was in Damascus, in a community of believers, where his conversion took root.

Conversion and community go hand-in-hand. Saul was blinded by his encounter with Jesus on the way. Perhaps that was necessary. Perhaps Saul had to learn what it meant to depend on others for his very life. After all, how could he inspire new communities of disciples if he didn't first understand how vital and necessary community truly was.

So this is a story about conversion. But it is also a story about trust. It is a story about community. It is a story about how faith is deepened and solidified not solely through our own means, but through the support and prayers and love of those around us. The older I get, the more I realize that while a personal relationship with God is necessary, it doesn't stop there. I once believed that I could be a Christian in private, on my own. I had no need of church. But I was wrong. It is in the community that my relationship with God deepens. It is in community where I encounter the living God and see the eyes and hands and face of Christ in others. It is in community where I not only grow in my own faith, but where I am continually challenged to reach out to and help and care for all of God's children. It is in community where I find help and hope as we travel together on the way.

Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"

The Consequence of Love -- Easter, The Resurrection of the Lord

Luke 24:1-12
March 27, 2016

"Why do you look for the living among the dead?"

The Dead Sea is a dead place. It is a hypersaline body of water.  Its intense concentration of sodium chloride and mineral salts make it perfect for therapeutic mud baths and peaceful floating, but it does not support animal or aquatic life. To go fishing in the Dead Sea would be as foolish as trying to sunbathe in Mammoth Cave or go water skiing in a mud puddle. The Dead Sea is a dead place. That's it. There 's no more to it. Except. It isn't completely dead. I spent a quiet hour walking the shoreline of the Dead Sea, and I never would have questioned it being anything but devoid of life. Until I met two Palestinian children who showed me that there were tiny creatures surviving at that point where the water and the shore met. The Dead Sea is a dead place, but at its edges, life persists. 

"Why do you look for the living among the dead?"

When the two dazzlingly dressed men asked the women this question, the women went from being terrified at their presence to understandably confused. After all, dead is dead. What are those two certainties of life? Death and taxes, and the women were certain that their Teacher was dead. They had watched his lifeless body placed in that tomb, so the question the men asked them was moot. Dead is dead. But the messengers knew otherwise. Jesus is risen. The tomb could not hold him. Death could not restrain him. He was resurrected. He is risen. He lives.

The women must have sprinted back to the disciples with this incredible news.  "He is alive! The Rabbi is alive! The stone is rolled away! The tomb is empty! Jesus is alive!"

But instead of jumping up and joining the women in their exultation, the disciples dismissed their story as "an idle tale." "Idle tale" is a translation of the Greek word, leros. But it is a watered down translation at best. We get our word, delirious, from leros. The disciples thought the woman's story was nothing more than hysteria, nonsense, foolishness, empty words, trash talk, garbage. Nuts!

The women's story about Jesus being alive was hysterical nonsense to the disciples. After all, dead is dead. Jesus was crucified. He took his last breath on that cross. They saw it all. They knew it for a fact. So what foolishness was this story the women told? What the women told them was nuts. Forget it. Dead is dead, and Jesus was dead. Except.

"Why do you look for the living among the dead?"

Except Jesus who had been dead was dead no longer. Jesus is risen. The tomb was a dead place, a dead zone, like the Dead Sea. But unlike that small creature persisting at life in spite of being surrounded by death, Jesus was resurrected into new life, a complete life, a life that swallowed up death. Death no longer had the final word. 

"Why do you look for the living among the dead?"

Jesus is risen. In his rising death was defeated. In Jesus' resurrection, we find our hope. The end. Except. You know the interesting thing about language is that the same words in the same sentence structure can take on entirely new meanings with just a slight twist in punctuation, or with a different inflection or tone. 

The question those men asked of the women, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?," conveys their incredulousness that the women did not already comprehend that Jesus is risen.  But change the inflection, modify the tone, and the intent of the question changes. 

"Why do you look for the living among the dead?" 

Try to explain to someone why your faith is grounded in the story of a fully human man who was also fully divine, was brutally executed, was really dead for three days, then was resurrected into new life, and because of that we have new life, and you might get asked this very question with this same tone? "Why do you look for the living among the dead?"

The angelic messengers were incredulous that the women didn't already get it that Jesus was resurrected. A whole lot of other folks are incredulous that we believe that he is. An idle tale indeed. But truth be told, there are times when I wonder the same thing. Couldn't this just be an idle tale? Why do I look for the living among the dead, because dead is dead. And death and its sorrow seems to permeate every inch, every corner, every shadow of this broken world of ours. Death seems to be the undeniable consequence of our brokenness, our violence, our hatred, our enmity, our sin; so it is a struggle sometimes to live as an Easter person, as a person whose hope is grounded firmly in the resurrection and its promises, because death seems to be as persistent as life.

In her book, Accidental Saints, Lutheran minister and writer, Nadia Bolz-Weber, writes, "And sin is just the state of human brokenness in which what we say and do causes those sometimes tiny and sometimes monstrous fractures in our earth, in ourselves, in those we love, and sometimes even in our own bodies. Sin is the self curved in on the self."

Our curved selves are broken, and death is persistent, and some days it is far too easy to dismiss the resurrection as an idle tale. It seems prudent and wiser to shrug our shoulders or change the subject when someone asks, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?"

With the terrorist attacks this last week in Brussels, with the terrorist attacks of this last month -- from Istanbul to the Ivory Coast -- I find myself feeling unsure about my answer to that question. "I don't know," is all I can muster. 

But here's the thing about the resurrection. We can't prove it. We can't explain it. We can't force or coerce others to believe it. Yet here is the good news. We don't have to. All we can do is witness to what we've seen, what we've experienced. When we are feeling most unsure about what the disciples dismissed as an idle tale, we need to search our memory for those times when we have witnessed life arising from something dead. When the messengers asked their question of the women who came to the tomb that morning, they remembered what Jesus had told them. They remembered the promise he had made. Faith is found in memory. So we need to remember as well. 

When have you experienced God's grace? When have you witnessed God's kindness in action? When you have felt God's hand on your shoulder? When have you most firmly and unflinchingly believed that Jesus is risen because you have witnessed that new life? When has God's love filled you so completely, so surely, that death and its consequences had no room to seep in? The consequence of our brokenness may be death -- death of hope, death of faith, death of kindness -- but the consequence of Love is what we proclaim this day. The consequence of Love, of God's Love, is that death does not win. The grave does not win. Love does. This day may the good news of the gospel ring out. The consequence of love is new hope, new joy, new life in abundance. Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed!

Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia! Amen!"

Monday, April 4, 2016

Lord of the Conscience

Acts 5:27-32
April 3, 2016

Was it worth it? 

A teacher in high school told our class a story about her younger self during the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement. She travelled with a group of fellow students to some place in the deeper South than Nashville, Tennessee. They went with the purposes of registering black people to vote. If you know history, you know that many of the white folks who lived in the South -- deep or otherwise -- were not eager to see this happen. The bus that my teacher travelled on was not greeted with open arms. Instead they were arrested and taken to the local jail. They were all together but the women were in one cell and the men were in the other. The young married couple who were leading them were trying to comfort and encourage the rest of the group to stay calm and to be strong. At one point the wife in this couple was harassed by a guard. When her husband tried to comfort her, he got his arm broken for his trouble. As my teacher described it, and as we can only imagine, it was a horrible time. I don't know how long it took before they were released, but eventually they were. They made it back home, grateful that they had lived to tell about it. Not everyone was that lucky. 

My teacher concluded her story by telling us that this event in her life became a measure. From that time on, whenever she felt called to champion a cause, she would remember that trip and that terrible time in jail and she would ask herself if her current cause was so important to her, so necessary to her that she would be willing to go through another night like that one. Was she willing to place herself in danger? Was she willing to go to jail? Was she willing to endure pain and fear? If she couldn't say definitively, "Yes," than she realized that maybe she was not as committed to the issue as she first believed. Was it worth it?

         Is it worth it? All these years later, and I still think about this story my teacher shared. I have wondered over and over again if I would be able to do what she did. I wonder if I am willing to put my very life on the line because of what I believe. I would like to believe that my answer would be a resounding, "Yes!" But I haven't faced that particular test yet, so I don't know. I don't know. 

Anyone who knew the disciples before the resurrection and immediately after the resurrection probably believed that this motley band of followers would crack under the duress of arrest and persecution in the name of and for the sake of the One they followed. After all, they pretty much fell apart when Jesus was arrested, beaten, interrogated, and brutally executed. Everything he told them about what he must endure, everything he taught them about God and God's kingdom seemed to have gone in their collective ear and out the other. I imagine the general consensus about the disciples was that these people would be unable to stand up to a bee much less the powers that be.

Yet in this passage from Acts we see those who were once disciples transformed. They were apostles. They witnessed the resurrected Christ. They had been filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. They were not only determined to share the good news of their resurrected Teacher, they would willingly endure whatever persecution might come their way in order to do so. Immediately before our part of the story, Peter and the other apostles had been imprisoned for teaching about Jesus, and for performing signs and wonders in his name. The crowds who had once flocked to Jesus for healing drew near to Peter and the others for the same reasons. Folks laid their sick family and friends on cots and mats so that Peter's shadow would fall across them and heal them. To say that the high priest and the Sadducees were unhappy at this turn of events is an understatement. They were angry and jealous, so they threw Peter and the others into jail under heavy guard. 

But during the night an angel came to them and told them to go back out to the Temple and preach the good news, the "story of this life." That's what they did. When the authorities heard that the men who were supposed to be securely in jail were once again at the Temple preaching Jesus, they had them brought before the council, the place where we take up the story. 

The members of the council wanted to know, "why." Why were they filling Jerusalem with this story? Why were they preaching Jesus, especially after they had been ordered to cease and desist. Peter responded, "We must obey God, rather than any human authority."

Nine words. Just nine words. But they are nine words guaranteed to bring down trouble on anyone who utters them -- then and now. "We must obey God, rather than any human authority." Another way to phrase these nine words is civil disobedience. Not all civil disobedience is grounded in faith. Not all civil disobedience grounded in faith is grounded in Christianity. However, some of the most profound social changes that have taken place throughout the course of history have come from people who were not only willing but compelled to engage in civil disobedience because of their faith; because they believed with their whole beings that they were responding to and obeying the authority of God, they were following the divine, not humans. 

Obeying God rather than human authority was the foundation for many in the abolitionist movement, women's suffrage, and without a doubt, Civil Rights. Certainly activists on both sides of the marriage equality debate believe that they are obeying God rather than humans. And let's not forget that our country's beginnings were founded in actions that were treasonous by human law. 

Earlier I asked the question, "is it worth it?" Is this cause, this willingness to endure suffering and persecution worth it? But I think the real question is,"Is He worth it?" "Is the gospel worth it?" 

Certainly for Peter and the other apostles their answer was, "Yes!" For that yes they endured terrible persecution, suffering, imprisonment, torture and martyrdom. When Dr. King was willing to put his life on the line time and time again, it was because he knew he was following the authority of God rather than the authority of humans. The leaders in the abolitionist movement saw slavery for the terrible evil it was, and they were willing to obey God rather than the law of the land. Obeying God's authority versus the authority of humans often means engaging in civil disobedience. 

This understanding of God's authority is at the foundation of our denomination. In its historic principles of church order, our Book of Order states, "That 'God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.'" 

God alone is Lord of the conscience. Those are life changing words. They are liberating words. But they are not words to be taken lightly, because within them is a call not just to think about what is right or wrong, what is just or unjust, but to act. To claim that God alone is the Lord of the conscience impacts every part of my life. It impacts my ministry, my family, my parenting, my citizenship. It also means that I must take seriously the reality that obeying God may put me at odds with human authority. If I believe that God alone is Lord of the conscience, then I also believe that I may be called to do and say not only what is hard but what is dangerous. Obeying God and obeying my conscience may require me to stand up to the powers that be, to challenge what I believe to be unjust. It may compel me to engage in civil disobedience and to live more for the greater good than for myself alone. If God alone is Lord of the conscience, then I must be willing to endure ridicule, anger, violence, persecution, even death. As a Christian in this country, I have not experienced persecution for my faith. The way my faith shapes my life and my beliefs has been contradicted to be sure; but never have I experienced persecution. But that does not mean that test won't come. It doesn't mean that I won't have to stand up and be counted. It doesn't mean I won't have to proclaim that I obey God rather than the laws of humans. 

I hope that if that time ever arrives, that I will be able to do what I believe to be right. I hope that I will be empowered with the courage to face the consequences that come with obeying God rather than humans. I hope my trust and faith in God will not waver in the face of threat or danger. 

I do not know exactly how I will be called to live out my faith and my belief that God alone is Lord of the conscience. None of us do. We do not know what challenges or trials we may face or how our faith will compel us to live. But what I do know is that the gospel -- the incarnation of God's love into every corner of our world and our lives, the resurrection of God's Son and the triumph of Love over death, and the gift and power of the Holy Spirit in our midst -- this gospel is worth it. This story is worth it. God's love is worth it. The gospel is worth it. 

Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!" Amen.