Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Such Faith

Luke 7:1-10
May 29, 2016

            I've spent about 36 of the last 48 hours traveling to a family funeral. Due to the realities of air travel, I spent almost as much time in airports as I did on planes or in the company of my family. The larger airports I've been in these past two days look more like malls than the airports of years past. Airports have always had restaurants, and gift shops where you can buy last minute souvenirs and overpriced gum. But now there are restaurants, gift shops, competing coffee chains with full menus. Fast food chains offer express versions of their regular stores. You can shop at jewelry stores, high-end clothing boutiques, wireless kiosks and spas.
            When I was killing time in one airport, waiting for my last flight, there was an express spa with a complete variety of services to choose from. I could have had an express facial, manicure or been waxed while I waited to board the next plane. I also had a choice of massages. I had been carrying bags on my back and shoulders for two days. I had been sitting in cramped seats and sleeping with my neck at weird angles. Forget waxing. I wanted a massage! So for 15 glorious minutes, a lovely man named Ira worked on my shoulders and my neck while I took deep breaths and tried to relax. I kept thinking, "I cannot believe I'm getting a massage at the airport!" But then it hit me. "I'm getting a massage at the airport."
            When I walked up the express spa, I didn't look for their credentials or licensing. It looked professional enough. It was clean, open, well-lit. Ira and another massage therapist were wearing smart uniforms. I'm sure had I been looking for credentials, etc. I would have found them. But I went in there on faith. I went in trusting that Ira was going to be a well-trained massage therapist who just happened to work at an express spa in an airport. He could have gotten his training at Bubba's House of Massage for all I knew, but I went on faith that it would be okay.
            Going on faith. I've been thinking a lot about that. What does that mean? The answer isn't that hard or complicated. Having faith involves trust and belief. For me faith has meant being willing to embrace mystery and set aside my desire for certainty. Maybe the real question is not what does it mean to have faith, but who do I actually have faith in?
            My vocation, my whole life really, is about faith. I preach and proclaim it. I studied and trained to preach and proclaim it. I talk about faith. I think about faith. But when it comes right down to it, do I live it? Suppose that right next to that express spa there would have been a place of worship. Not the airport chapel, but a space that looked more like a store than a church. And in that place of worship, there would have been a person proclaiming to heal in the name of Jesus. It would not have mattered to me had the space been as open, bright, and clean as the spa. It wouldn’t have mattered, even if the man or woman claiming this healing power been rational, calm, neatly dressed and professional. I tend to be suspect of random people claiming the ability to heal in the name of Jesus. I put more trust in Ira the massage therapist then I do in someone who claims to have healing power. I would have scoffed at the so-called healer. I would have dismissed him or her as a seller of snake oil. And maybe I would have been right, but maybe not. Why am I more willing to put my faith in a massage therapist than I am someone who proclaims their faith in a way that's different than how I proclaim mine?
            I realize this illustration doesn't quite go along with our story from Luke's gospel. In this passage, the Roman centurion who sends messengers to Jesus asking for healing for his slave is not putting faith in a representative of Jesus. He isn't trusting in someone who claims the ability to heal because of Jesus. The centurion is putting his faith in Jesus.
            Taken at face value, the centurion comes across as the most benevolent and compassionate of masters and a person of deep faith. A person who worked for him was gravely ill. The centurion had not only heard of Jesus and his life saving abilities, he wholeheartedly believed that Jesus could cure with only a word. The centurion trusted in Jesus' authority. He understood the power of authority. He was a man who lived and worked under the authority of others, and who held his own authority and power. The people who served under him did what he commanded with only a word from him; in the centurion's eyes that kind of authority would have been even truer for Jesus. He, nor his sick servant, needed to see Jesus or be seen by him. The centurion trusted that Jesus had the power to heal from a distance.
            Yet when it comes to this story, there are skeptics -- not in Jesus' ability to heal, but in the centurion's motives for wanting that healing. The sick servant the centurion wanted healed was not a servant but a slave. As his master, the centurion had complete power over his slave’s life. Some critics of this passage have suggested that the centurion saw the slave as an investment, and when your investment is ailing, you fix it. The Jewish elders who served as the messengers for the centurion raved about his kindness and faithfulness. He was a great benefactor to the people. He loved the people. He built their synagogue. However, to use a cliché, it is quite possible that the Jewish elders knew which side their bread was buttered on. This man had influence. As part of the occupying force, he held sway over them. It was in their best interests to see that his slave was made well.
            All of this could be true, and perhaps it is. But one more question must be asked. How did Jesus respond? Jesus was not easily fooled. He routinely saw through hypocrisy, deceit and insincerity. Yet when the centurion sent friends to tell Jesus not to trouble himself, that he wasn't worthy to have Jesus under his roof, Jesus was amazed. The Greek word used for amazed in this context is the same one used to describe the amazement and awe felt by others when they witnessed Jesus' power.
            Jesus was amazed at the centurion's faith. He was amazed and awed and told those with them that he had never seen such faith, not even from Jesus' own people.
            “When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
            The centurion's faith, his trust that Jesus could do what he promised and what he preached, amazed even Jesus. The centurion was an outsider, a Roman, a collaborator in the occupation of Israel, yet he believed. He put his faith in Jesus and the life of his slave was saved. It seems to me that the centurion's life was also saved; it was changed and irrevocably altered as well.
            Who do I put my faith in? I say with all my heart that it is Jesus. But do I live as though that is true? I'm not talking about a personal relationship with God through his Son, although I think that matters. I'm not talking about being faithful in worship, although that matters as well. I'm talking about living like I have faith. I'm talking about recognizing that my life should be altered irrevocably because I believe in God, and that God's Word was made flesh in the coming of Jesus. I have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit. I have been shown grace of which I am unworthy. But do I live as though I have?
            Jesus proclaimed that he ushered in the kingdom of heaven. I believe that. I try to believe that. I think I believe that. But I see so much brokenness and violence and hatred in the world that sometimes God's kingdom seems more like a nice fairy tale. What I say is one thing, but I live and go about my daily life as if the kingdom of God is not real, not right here in our  midst.  If I really believe what I preach, shouldn't I also believe that my life has been changed forever? Shouldn't I live as though it is?
            Living a changed life because of my faith doesn't mean that I gloss over the terrible things that happen, the cruelty that we show to God's children. I saw a headline pop up early this morning that it's believed several hundred immigrants may be dead in three shipwrecks off the coast of Libya. My heart breaks at the thought, just as it breaks at the tragedies that seem to unfold on large and small scales all around us. But to I profess my faith in God does not mean that I just sweep these terrible things under some cosmic rug and say that God's got a plan. To live as though my life is different because of my faith, to live as though I trust Jesus more than I trust Ira the massage therapist, means that I respond in any way possible to that hurt and brokenness. Jesus ushered in the kingdom of God, and everything changed. But if I am changed by my faith, than that means that I have kingdom work to do. The change wrought by faith, the trust I proclaim I have in God should be reflected in how I live, what I do, the words I speak, and the love I show.
            Jesus was amazed at the centurion's faith not only because this outsider trusted that Jesus could heal, but because the healing of his slave was not required for the centurion to believe. Healing did not have to happen as proof. The centurion believed, and lived as though he did. Isn't that what we are all called to do? Isn't that really what faith is? It is believing, not only that God exists, but that God exists, God is with us, God is working, God is calling each of us to work as well, and to live that belief. The Word made flesh in Jesus changed everything, including me. I believe that, and I want to live it. Let us live our faith so completely that others proclaim, "Such faith!"
            Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!" Amen.       


Monday, May 23, 2016

Hope Doesn't Disappoint -- Trinity Sunday

Romans 5:1-5
May 22, 2016

     What doesn't kill me makes me stronger. That's an expression I hear often. I read a new twist on this saying on social media that said, "If what doesn't kill me makes me stronger, than I should be able to bench press a Buick right now" What doesn't kill me makes me stronger. In other words, I may be suffering, but my suffering has a point.

     For as long as people have suffered, they have tried to express their suffering through art -- music, writing, painting, dance, etc. If suffering is an integral part of the human condition, then so is the creative expression it inspires. As an aspiring writer, I've worried that I haven't suffered enough. I mean, can you be a true writer, a true artist, if you had a happy childhood?

     Listen to music of any genre and you'll eventually hear a song about love lost. Whether it's blues or rock or folk or country, a woman's man has left her for someone else, or a man is bemoaning that his woman has done him wrong, or no matter how hard the two people in love tried everything fell apart anyway, and now the singer is alone and lonely.

     Brent's friend -- and my friend too -- Nashville singer and songwriter Les Kerr, took the phrase, "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger," and made it real and far more authentic in his song, "What Didn't Kill Me." He wrote it after the sudden death of his wife, Gail.

     "What didn't kill me made me sadder. Made me ask, 'why does life matter?'"

     We want to think that suffering makes us stronger, because again, we want it to have a point. Musicians and artists of every kind and caliber put their suffering into their art because it gives meaning to the suffering. Whether we are an artist or not, I think we all want that to be true. If being human includes suffering, then we want there to be a reason for our suffering. We want it to have a greater purpose, greater meaning. If suffering has meaning, then suffering is redeemed.

     Paul seemed to be making this point in his letter to the church in Rome. If ever there were followers of The Way who needed encouragement to be hopeful, it was these Roman followers. As one commentator put it, the believers in Rome were living in the shadow of the empire that would methodically try to destroy them through persecution. They were trying to live and worship faithfully in a culture that was hostile to them and their faith. That hostility would get much worse before it got better.

     The Roman believers were suffering believers. So Paul wrote these words of encouragement.

     "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of  sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us ..."

     I'm never quite sure how to respond to these words. I know they are meant to encourage. There have certainly been times in my life when I have gone through trials and tribulations, and I have turned to them for help. I may be suffering and struggling now, but the promised outcome of this suffering is endurance, character and hope. I may be suffering, but my suffering will have a point. My suffering will be redeemed.

     However, at other times I hear Paul's words, and I take issue with them. I wonder if they encourage people to seek suffering as a way to prove their faith or their piety. See, the more I suffer, the more faithful I am. I can boast in my suffering because I know it reveals how good of a believer I truly am.

     One thing is for sure, I would never quote Paul's words to someone who is in the midst of suffering. I know you are suffering because you've lost a child or your home or you've been the victim of crime or war or terrible circumstances far beyond your control. But just you wait, because all of this suffering is going to build your character.

     No, we would never tell that to someone who was suffering. At least, I hope we wouldn't. But that begs the question, does all suffering have meaning? Can all suffering be redeemed? Or is some suffering needless and pointless and without explanation, other than cruelty, hatred or just random chaos?

     It seems to me that both is true. I don't believe that God's intention for God's children was suffering. Too often our suffering is a consequence of what we do or don't do -- to ourselves and others. Sometimes our suffering happens without any rhyme or reason. Why did that house get demolished by a tornado and not the one standing next to it? Why did that child get cancer, but not another child? I don't believe that God wants any of us to suffer -- even for God's sake. But I also believe that we are never without hope. Hope does not occur as a result of suffering. Hope thrives in spite of suffering.

     An archaic definition of the word hope is trust. Perhaps that definition is archaic, but it seems to me that it perfectly defines the hope that God calls us to have. We trust God, therefore we hope. Hope in God is not a fingers-crossed kind of sentiment. Well, I believe in God, so I'm going to hope it will all be okay. It might not be okay, but here's hoping.

     As I've said in other sermons, hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism is about believing that everything is going to be okey dokey no matter what. Hope is recognizing that everything might not be okay, that suffering is real, but we trust in God and so we trust that all of it -- the good and the bad -- is in God's hands. And God's hands are good hands to be in. So we hope.

     Along with the expression, "What doesn't kill me makes stronger," there's another aphorism that I often hear expressed in the face of suffering. "God doesn't give you more than you can handle." It seems to me that if this is true, then there are a whole lot of people who are given far more suffering and grief and trouble than anyone should be able to or have to handle. I don't believe that God gives us just the right amount of suffering, just what we can shoulder. I don't think God want or intends for us to suffer. But I do think that God puts people in our lives who can help us bear the suffering that we cannot bear alone.

     God puts people in our lives who can help us bear the suffering that we cannot bear alone. Maybe that is really where our hope lies -- in our relationships, with God and with others. This is Trinity Sunday, the day that we supposedly ponder the mystery of our monotheistic faith that worships a God three-in-one. The fact that I could write that sentence without the grammar checker on the computer going nuts is a mystery.

     I don't presume to fully understand the Trinity. Nor can I ever adequately explain it; yet Rebecca Weaver, my church history professor, told us that we should never write off a question about the Trinity by saying it is a mystery. She lectured us repeatedly that of course it is a mystery, but there are ways to discuss it intelligently. It is a mystery, but it is also a model of relationship; God in relationship, the three-in-one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

     If suffering is redeemed, then it is redeemed in the relationships we have with others who suffer with us, or who hold our hands while we walk through a particular fire. If we endure, it is because we have others who carry us when we cannot walk on our own. If our characters are strengthened, it is because there are others who remind us that we are more than the suffering we endure. We have hope, we trust in God, not because God gives us no more than we can handle but because God puts people in our lives who remain in relationship with us no matter what. People have walked through fire with me, so I feel called to walk through the fire with others. Our suffering is redeemed because God refuses to leave us alone. God refuses to give up on us, or on the relationship God wants to have with us. There have been times of suffering in my life when I haven't recognized that God was with me; but looking back, I know that God was there in the people who surrounded me with love and compassion. God is with us. God calls us into relationship -- with God and with others. We don't get through this life without suffering, but God does not leave us alone. Therefore, we trust in God, and in our trust we have hope. And hope does not disappoint us.

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

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Babble On -- The Day of Pentecost

Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21
May 15, 2016/Pentecost Sunday

Everywhere you go, people talk funny. In every region and in every state of our country, people have different ways of pronouncing words and names. This is true for places. In Tennessee, we pronounce the town Lafayette as Lah-faaay-it. In Iowa, the town spelled Tripoli is pronounced Tri-pole-ah. Traveling in New York State? You'd think you were making a stop in Cairo, but you are actually in Kay-roh. Is there anyplace like that in Oklahoma? Perhaps Prague, better known as Praygg.

Everywhere you go people talk funny. The different accents you encounter in our land are great too. My name in Oklahoma and Tennessee is pronounced Aimee (the way God intended it). But in Iowa and Minnesota, I'm called Eemee. In Oklahoma, we might say, "Oh my gosh." In the upper Midwest, you'd hear, "Oohhh my gaaaahsh!"

Most of the time I find the differences charming. I love the quirks of language and the variations in accent and dialect. But there have been times when the particular pronunciation of a word sounded more like nails on a chalkboard . That was true when we lived just outside of Albany, New York. Phoebe was born there. And from the moment she came into the world until the time we moved to Iowa, people would comment about how quickly she was growing. Before I knew it, she would be starting "Eluhmentairrry" School.

I'm sorry, what? She'll be starting what?

In upstate New York -- at least the part where we lived -- Elementary school was pronounced Eluhmentairrry School. Whenever someone would say that to me, I would nod and try to smile. But in my head I was thinking, "Phoebe will never start Eluhmentairrry School. She will, however, begin Elementary School. In fact, if Phoebe ever says that she is going to Eluhmentairrry School, I will take her back to Nashville for a month so that particular pronunciation is knocked right out of her."

Don't misunderstand me, I was blessed to know so many good and kind and generous people in Albany. I've been blessed to know good, kind and generous people everywhere I've lived. Oklahoma has been no exception. I've learned that everywhere you go, people talk funny. But I've also learned that kindness, compassion and generosity smooths over our differences in language, accent and pronunciation. But eluhmentairrry ... that still gets to me.

I wonder if the people in our passage from Genesis struggled with differences in pronunciations and accents. We know that what they didn't have to wrestle with was understanding one another. At the beginning of the story, we read that there was only one language in the world, with all the same words. So the folks would have had no trouble understanding each other; different pronunciations and accents or not. We also know that they had access to technological advancements: bricks. The ability to make bricks meant that they could build structures that were not only sturdier but could soar much higher and taller as well.

According to the writer, the people wanted to use these things -- their language and their ability to make bricks -- to build a great city with a great tower. Their city and tower would make a name for them; it would make them known. It's important to understand that a scriptural and historical understanding of "city" was not just an urban community. It was a place of refuge. It was a place of walls. Walls that kept the city dwellers in and others out; and to build a tower was a show of strength. The people wanted to unite to build a strong city, where they would be protected and safe. They wanted to build a tower to show others that they were protected and safe.

At first reading, it would seem that this was an ideal situation. They all spoke the same language. Communication was not an issue. They wanted to protect themselves and others. They could reach new heights in architecture -- literally and figuratively. What was so bad about that? When I've read this story in the past, I've never understood why God did what God did. What was the problem? What were they doing wrong? Wouldn't God want them to be living in unity? Did God just want to make things harder? Was this a sign of God's contrariness or arbitrary nature?

That's a lot of questions to ask at once, but I suspect that many of us have had these or similar questions. However, let's take a closer look at what the people were actually doing. Again, they wanted to build a city to keep them in and others out. The implication being that they wanted to stand together against others. They wanted to use their abilities, their technology to show strength and power. This implies that they had the means to do whatever they wanted to do. They had strength and power, and not only could it be demonstrated but used. God saw this. God saw their plan, and understood what it could mean and lead to.

“Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

Obviously if they could not understand one another, they would have a much harder time working together. This seems counter-intuitive. I can understand why God wouldn't want them working together against others, but it would seem that God wanted it to be all but impossible for them to come together at all. It would seem that God wanted them to be set against one another rather than living together in unity.

Yet was the people's purpose unity or uniformity? It seems to me that they wanted to build a homogeneous society, where everybody spoke the same and lived the same. But God wanted the people to move across the earth, to be fruitful and multiply. If the people continued in the way they were going, that would never happen. Diversity was required in order for God's purposes to be fulfilled.

Diversity was required in order for God's purposes to be fulfilled.

Social scientists are recognizing that when it comes to creative problem solving, diversity is also required. When a group of different people work together to solve problems, the more diverse that group is the better. Teams that are homogeneous are far less creative in their approach to whatever task is set before them. But teams that are diverse in ethnicity, background, belief, etc. bring fresh vision to their work. The more homogeneous a group is the less creative they are; but the more diverse they are, the more creative their response.

Diversity was required in order for God's purposes to be fulfilled. But that doesn't mean that diversity is easy. Diversity presents challenges. When you speak different languages, you have to find a way to communicate that overcomes that difference. When you believe differently, you have to find ways to respect the different beliefs and negotiate within the parameter of that respect. When you come from different backgrounds and different cultures, you have to try and see the world through the other person's particular lens and frame of reference. Diversity is hard, no doubt. But no matter how challenging or tough it may be, diversity presents us with opportunity -- to be creative, to think in new ways, to broaden our understanding of God's world and God's people. Diversity was required in order for God's purposes to be fulfilled.

When the Holy Spirit descended like tongues of flame and rested above the heads of the apostles who were waiting in that upper room, it didn't just land on them and stop. The Spirit opened their minds and their mouths to address all the people who were gathered there. Each apostle began to speak in the different languages of the people represented. Every person, regardless of nationality or language, could understand the good news of Jesus because of the power of the Holy Spirit.

Is this because the Spirit made it possible for them to speak only one language, or is it because the Spirit met each person where they were, how they were, as they were. The vivid and awe-inspiring account of the Holy Spirit's descent on Pentecost has been described as the culmination of the story of the Tower of Babel. Yet it is not a culmination or a completion because the difference in language was changed back to just one, or that the diversity of the crowd was vanquished. It is a culmination because the gospel was translated through the power of the Holy Spirit into each unique language. If anything, the diversity of the peoples gathered there was celebrated and affirmed.

Diversity was required in order for God's purposes to be fulfilled. It seems to me that it still is. Unity is not achieved by uniformity. Homogeneous groups are not the blueprint for an equitable society. Unity is achieved when our diversity is celebrated. Unity is achieved when we see each other and understand one another through the power of the Spirit rather than through our own limited vision. Maybe to an outside observer, that day of Pentecost sounded like nothing more than incomprehensible babble. But through the gift and the power of the Holy Spirit, the good news, the gospel of God's love and reconciliation, was proclaimed and every person heard it in his or her own distinct and wonderful way. I would wager that we in the Church are viewed in the same way. To others what we do and say may seem like babble. But when we welcome diversity and embrace diversity, we too have the power to proclaim God's love to our broken and hurting world. So my sisters and brothers, let us babble on.

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

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Shaken Foundations

Acts 16:16-34
May 8, 2016

After the horrific earthquake in Haiti in 2010, I heard a story about a prison that was severely damaged by the quake. The intensity of the quake caused the prison walls to collapse just like it did every other building in Port au Prince and the prisoners, seeing their chance for freedom, escaped.

It was certainly a worrying development in an already tragic story, because many of those prisoners were dangerous and violent. The disaster was so widespread across the city that there weren’t enough police officers to conduct a search. The need and devastation from the earthquake was so extensive, I suspect that the prisoners were probably the last thing on most people’s minds. The death and devastation we saw on television was overwhelming. How much more terrible was the reality? Too many people were hurt and dying and dead for the authorities or anyone else to worry about escaped prisoners.

I don't know the end to this story. I don't know if any of the prisoners were found. I'm ashamed to say that I'm not sure what is happening Haiti anymore. 2010 feels like a long time ago, and many other disasters and horrific events have happened since. I hope that the prisoners did not go out and wreak more havoc and cause more harm to their neighbors, but I have to admit I can’t blame those prisoners for escaping. If I were in prison and the walls came tumbling down, I probably would have taken the chance and escaped as well. Who wouldn’t?

If you were listening carefully to the reading of the Acts passage you heard the answer to my question. Paul and Silas didn't run for it the minute the jail doors opened. They stayed in jail, even though they were the victims. The two men stayed even though about midnight the quaking of the earth shook the foundations of the jail, broke open all the doors and unfastened the chains that bound them and every other prisoner. They stayed. Paul and Silas stayed, and so did all of the other prisoners who had been listening to them sing hymns. They all stayed.

This is the end of the story that began last Sunday. Paul received a vision to go to Macedonia. He and Silas did just that. They went to a place of prayer where they met a wealthy woman named Lydia. Lydia's heart was opened by God to hear and believe the full story of God in Christ. She opened her home to them. In the part of the story we read today, Paul and Silas have gone back to the place of prayer. Instead of a woman who sold expensive cloth, they met a slave girl -- a slave girl who had the spirit of divination. She could see the future, and her ability to do this made her owners rich.

When she met Paul and Silas she began to follow them. She cried out over and over again, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She did this for days. Finally, it got on Paul's nerves and he commanded the spirit to come out of her, much like Jesus commanded spirits and demons. With Paul's command the spirit immediately left her.

I understand why Paul would have been annoyed with the repetition of the girl's claims day after day. But it seems implied that Paul was annoyed with her message as well. What was wrong with what the slave girl said? Wasn't she proclaiming their truth? They were slaves of the Most High God. They did come to proclaim salvation through Jesus Christ.

According to scholars, the literal translation of this story is that this girl had the spirit of pythoness, or the spirit that spoke through the Oracle at Delphi. This was a famous spirit and anyone possessing it would be sought out. It’s no wonder then, in a land where most of the people believed in gods that someone who could channel this spirit would bring her owners a lot of money.

Perhaps that was the cause of Paul's annoyance. Maybe he worried that the people listening to her cries would perceive her words very differently. To hear the term Most High God meant one thing to a Jewish audience. But to a gentile crowd – and the city of Philippi was predominantly gentile – it would mean something very different. Most High God could refer to any Roman or Greek deity.

It’s likely that Paul did not want there to be any confusion about the God to which the slave girl referred. So in the name of Jesus Christ he ordered the spirit to come out. He freed the girl from the demon that possessed her. The spirit obeyed Paul’s command and left her, but Paul's actions brought trouble on their heads.

When that infamous spirit was departed, the slave girl's owners lost their great source of income. The girl was just another slave. What did they care that she was free from a demon that controlled her? That was what made them money. The loss of their easy income made them angry. So they brought Paul and Silas before the authorities. But instead of charging them with the crime of ruining their hefty fortune maker, the owners told the magistrate that the men were disturbing the city. They were Jews -- outsiders, foreigners, others -- trying to foist strange customs onto the population; customs which were unlawful for Romans to practice or observe.

These charges were serious enough for Paul and Silas to be stripped and beaten with rods. Once the flogging was over, they were thrown into jail and their feet were fastened in the stocks. Escape would be impossible. Impossible for humans, not for God.

Generally, I love this story, until this week. I was excited when I looked ahead in the lectionary and saw that it was the passage from Acts for today. But the more I've studied it, and the more I've read other scholars who have studied it even more than I have or ever will, the more disturbed I am by it. I'm disturbed by what happened or did not happen to the slave girl. She was seen as a disposable commodity by her owners, and an annoyance by Paul. Paul may have freed her from the spirit that possessed her, but that doesn't mean that she was freed. In truth, we don't know what happened to her; she is never mentioned again. But I doubt she was given a "You're Free from the Demon Party."

The second aspect that troubles me is what the girl's owners did in response to her being freed. I'm not surprised that they brought Paul and Silas up on charges. But what reason did they give? It was not, "These jokers just messed up our money making scheme, our cash cow."

No, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe."

They took it from, "We're angry because of what they did to us," to "Look at what they are doing to our city! Look at how they are bringing their foreign ways into our midst. See how they are trying to change us and make us do what is unlawful."

Paul and Silas were not just men who thwarted a couple of peoples' profit, they were scapegoats. They were scapegoated because of their religion, their practices and their status as outsiders. It seems to me that you don't have to look very far back in history to see that if you want to incite people's anger, you give them a scapegoat. You tell them that they are a danger to all of the customs and values that the people hold dear. You use bigotry and racism, subtly and explicitly, and then you stand back and watch what happens.

What happened to Paul and Silas? They were beaten with sticks. They were flogged. They were thrown into prison, bleeding and wounded, perhaps hardly able to hold themselves upright much less walk. They were not charged with a crime, they were scapegoated. And it would seem that scapegoating them was much more effective than just pressing charges. They were scapegoated, and this insidious tactic is alive and well today.

As a preacher I walk a fine line. I believe with everything that I am that it is wrong and unfair to bring my own agenda into the pulpit. If I do that it becomes a bully pulpit. Those of you at the other end are unable to respond -- at least not immediately.

But at the same time, I also believe with everything I am that I have a call as a minister, as a Christian, to call out bigotry and racism and scapegoating where and when I see it. I see it growing and flourishing in this country that we so proudly boast as being the land of the free. People are being scapegoated in our country. They are being scapegoated because of the color of their skin and because of the religion they practice. The person doing this has tapped into a seemingly deep chasm of racism that we have pretended for a long time did not exist. But it does exist. And it's wrong. I know that I am treading on dangerous ground, but I am going to say it over and over again. What is happening in our country is wrong. It is wrong. WE are called, as people who are trying to follow Jesus, to stand up and say, "No!" "Not on our watch!" It is wrong. It is opposite to the kingdom of God. It is opposite to the love of God that was made flesh in Jesus, his Son.

This is Mother's Day, and I wish that I had a sermon that was a little more sweetness and light. But as a mother I have to speak for all the other mothers who cannot. I don't want my children living in a country that would continue to allow this kind of vicious scapegoating to happen. I don't want any child to live in it. How many mothers have lost their children to violence and hatred because of it?
The foundations of that prison were shaken, the doors were flung open. But Paul and Silas would not leave. Even after the jailer came and believed and was baptized, they would not leave. The lectionary stops this story a little short. But in the verses following ours we read that the morning after the earthquake, after all these things happened, the magistrates sent the police to tell Paul and Silas they were free to go. But Paul said, "No!"

"They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now they are going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves."

The foundations of that prison were shaken. The foundations, the beliefs, of the powers-that-be were also shaken. God shook those foundations, not just to release Paul and Silas, but to free anyone trapped by hatred and fear. I sense that the foundations we base our lives on are being shaken right now only in a different direction, and I am scared. I am scared for what may come if we don't raise our voices in protest. But I also trust that God is still bigger than those who find power from wealth and fear mongering. I trust that God's love is more powerful than hatred. I trust that God's light can never again be completely extinguished by the worlds' darkness. So I must do my part to proclaim that love and that light; not just to those who believe as I do, but to those who would rather live in the darkness -- especially to them.

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

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Open Houses

Acts 16:9-15
May 1, 2016

"An intervention of grace." That's how I describe my experience at CREDO. It's hard to believe but it has been three years -- three years this week in fact -- since I flew to Louisiana to attend the CREDO conference for clergy. For those who may not remember this time as vividly as I do, CREDO is a retreat/conference put on by our denomination's Board of Pensions. It focuses on four aspects of a clergy person's life: physical, financial, spiritual and vocational. It isn't something you sign up for, you are invited to attend. If you accept that invitation, all costs for your travel and stay are paid, except an initial fee. When you say, "yes," you receive a large canvas briefcase filled with all the materials you'll need. Because before you actually attend CREDO, you have homework to do. You have to get your physical health assessed. You have to go through your finances. You have to fill out an evaluation of yourself and get four other people to fill out that same evaluation about you. You have to answer questions, create a timeline of your life, and do various other things to prepare for your 10 days away.

My going to CREDO was an intervention of grace to be sure, but grace works in funny ways. When I received my invitation in September 2012, I was thrilled and excited to be on the list. Two of my friends had attended CREDO conferences and said it was the best thing they had ever done. But the closer I got to May 2013, the less excited I became. I didn't want to go. I would start to work on some aspect of my homework and have to stop because I didn't know how to answer the questions, or I couldn't bear to answer them. I just didn't want to go. Why had I wanted to do this? It was all too hard, too much.

It wasn't just that I didn't want to do homework, it's that between September 2012 and May 2013, my life was kind of falling apart. But the real purpose of CREDO is not just to provide another continuing education conference for clergy. It's not just about workshops and evaluations. It's about showing hospitality. At CREDO, you are cared for, loved, pampered, listened to, prayed for, loved, welcomed. It's no coincidence that our words hospitality and hospital sound alike. They have the same root meaning. The original definition of a hospital was a place where needy people were sheltered. While many people today associate the world hospitality with the tourism industry, to show hospitality is to make others feel welcomed. When I arrived at CREDO, I was an emotionally and spiritually needy person; I was haggard and tired and approaching burn out at lightning speed.  Yet I was shown nothing but hospitality. I was made to feel welcome. It was an intervention of grace at a crucial moment in my life and it has made all the difference.

I can't help but think that the hospitality Lydia showed to Paul and Silas made a difference for them as well. Our passage from Acts starts in the middle of the story, in the middle of a paragraph actually. This was Paul's second missionary journey. He and Barnabas had a disagreement over traveling companions, so they went their separate ways and Silas accompanied Paul instead.

It would seem that Paul's initial destination was Asia, but the Holy Spirit said, "No!" So they traveled through the region of Phrygia and Galatia. They tried to go into Bithynia, but once again the Spirit wouldn't let it happen. So the apostles reach Troas, and they were stuck there. One commentator referred to it as "stalled." They were stalled in Troas until Paul received a vision of a man from Macedonia asking them for their help.

In Macedonia they met Lydia. Here is what we can surmise about Lydia. She was a dealer in purple cloth. Purple cloth would have been an expensive cloth, and one that was reserved for people of wealth. So it is assumed that Lydia was a woman of some means. She was described as a "worshiper of God," even before she heard Paul and Silas. She was most likely a gentile, and she was a woman of faith. I understand that to mean that she worshipped the God of Israel, but did not yet know of Jesus. But when she heard Paul and Silas, "the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly," to the good news Paul preached. Her response to that good news was immediate. She and all who were with her were baptized, and she opened her house, her home, to them. She possessed the gift of hospitality and she was persistent with it. The narrator, who in verse 10 surprises us by switching from third person to second person, said, "She urged us, saying, 'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.'"

She welcomed them. She showed hospitality. She gave them shelter. Perhaps she was a channel of grace for them, as much as they were a channel of grace for her. When we view hospitality through the lens of the gospel, through the eyes of Christ, I wonder if that is what hospitality ultimately is -- a channel of grace; even if we don't know or recognize it at the time. When we show hospitality, we become a channel for and a means of God's grace.

In my study bible, there is a note about verse 15. That's where Lydia responds to Paul and Silas by saying, "if you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." The textual note says that "In Acts, a person's hospitality indicates the capacity to respond to the truth of God's word."

Lydia responded to the truth of God's word and put that response into action by offering hospitality. What is our response to God's truth? In other words, how do we show hospitality? And if we don't, what prevents us from being hospitable?

I think this congregation does an amazing job of welcoming others. Y'all are truly friendly to other people, not just friendly to each other. You are gracious and inviting and you make sure that a newcomer is able to participate fully in the service. You don't let someone leave without at least saying, "Hello" and "We're so glad you're here."

But I wonder if the one mistake we make in our hospitality is waiting for the stranger to come inside, instead of going out and meeting the stranger where he or she is. Paul and Silas were prevented by the Spirit to go to Asia and other regions. Their original plans were thwarted. Maybe God is trying to push us to see that our original plans, our original way of doing and being the church needs to change. Maybe God is calling us out there, rather than sending people in here.

I don't know. I know I ask a lot of questions like this, but I don't have specific answers to any of the questions I ask. But what I do know is this. When I have been most in need of hospitality, when I have been most in need of shelter, the people who showed me that hospitality and offered me that shelter came to me. I didn't go looking for grace, but grace found me. Grace found me through the kindness and compassion and generosity of other people, sometimes unlikely people in unlikely places.

Who needs our hospitality? Who needs us to come and find them? May the God of grace, compassion, hospitality and love, the God who shelters us in our need, help us to open our houses, open our hearts and shelter others.
Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"