Sunday, May 28, 2017

Why Are You Looking Up? -- Seventh Sunday of Easter

Acts 1:1-14
May 28, 2017

            I checked the records and I haven’t used a Harry Potter illustration in quite some time, which means that I am about to use one now. One of my favorite moments from the third book, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” is when Harry and Hermione use her time turner – a device that lets you move through time. They used the time turner in order to rectify and right certain events that had taken place in one day and to save Sirius Black, the prisoner of Azkaban and Harry’s godfather.
            The climax of their time travel is watching a scene earlier in the evening when Harry, Hermione and Sirius were surrounded by dementors. I’ve loved both the books and the movies, but in the movie telling of this it is just Harry and Sirius surrounded the dementors. In the book, Hermione is also with them. I’m working from the book version. In the original moment, they are surrounded by the dementors – these evil, horrific guards of the wizard prison Azkaban, who don’t use capital punishment as the ultimate sentence, instead they suck out your soul. They are pretty awful. And they have surrounded the three. Harry tries desperately to conjure up the one thing that dispels them – a patronus. But this is advanced magic, and he does not yet have the power to create a patronus strong enough yet. Or so he thinks.
            Just as they are about to be completely overwhelmed by the dementors, something large and silver comes galloping at them across the lake. It charges at the dementors and casts them away. Harry and Hermione both pass out and are taken to the hospital wing; Sirius is taken to the tower to await a second and final meeting with the dementors.
            So, now we come back to the future Harry and Hermione watching this happen to the past Harry and Hermione. Harry realizes that it was a full-blown patronus who dispelled the dementors. And just before he passed out, he got a glimpse of the wizard who came to their rescue. But when he tells Hermione who he things he saw, she thinks he must be delusional. You see the person Harry saw send the patronus was his dad. Only Harry’s dad, James, was dead; long dead. So who was this wizard? From whom had this powerful patronus come? Harry and Hermione watch the scene at the lake unfold, and although Harry knows he must not be seen, he has to see the wizard who saved them. He rushes down to the edge of the lake looking for his dad. But as the dementors prepare to deliver their deadly kiss, he realizes who the wizard actually was … is, pulls out his wand, and cries out,
“Expecto Patronum!”
And this amazing, splendid, powerful stag springs forth from his wand, gallops across the lake and charges the dementors, scattering them in every direction away from Sirius, away from Hermione, away from Harry. A stag was the animal Harry’s father became to help his friend, Sirius. A stag, the symbol of his father, came to help Harry when he needed it the most, but it was Harry who made it happen. It was Harry who realized what he had to do, and did it.
What does any of have this have to do with Jesus ascending into the heavens? What does any of this have to do with the apostles continuing to look up, even after Jesus had disappeared into the clouds?
Just as two men in dazzling clothes appeared to the women at the empty tomb in Luke’s gospel, two men in white robes appear to the apostles in this first chapter of Acts. The two men at the tomb asked the women,
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
These two men asked the apostles, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
As I have always understood it, the ascension of Jesus as it is written in Acts clearly points to the second coming of Jesus. The second coming is a big deal to a lot of people and a lot of churches today. It certainly looms large in our particular theology. The second coming was a big deal in the church of my childhood. The second coming was a big deal to my grandfather and to so many members of my extended family. It still is. My father told me that every New Year’s Eve, his father would gather them all together and they would pray that in this New Year, the Lord Jesus would come. But I’ve wondered for a long time now if this isn’t missing the point. I wonder if we haven’t gotten way too caught up in looking up when instead we should be looking out.
I had never really considered the reason why Jesus did not ascend immediately into heaven after his resurrection. Why does it take 40 days before he ascends? Like the Israelite’s 40 years in the wilderness, and Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, the number 40 signifies a time of preparation. Jesus’ earthly ministry might have been over with his crucifixion and resurrection, but his preparation of the apostles was not. There was still 40 days of preparation to be done. Now, at the end of those 40 days, Jesus ascended. He had done all that he could on this earth to prepare his followers for their work, their ministry. He could ascend because the time of preparation was completed. If the apostles fully understood that though, it’s hard to know. I wonder if that’s why the men in white robes or the angels show up in this scene just as they did at the empty tomb. They had to prod the witnesses on to the next step. The women had to be prodded into the realization that Jesus was not among the dead, but among the living. The apostles had to be prodded into the recognition that their work was not focused on looking up, waiting for Jesus’ return, but on looking out. Their ministry was to go out, to reach out, to set out, move out … into the world, into the midst of the brokenness and the hurting and the chaos. Their ministry, their call was to bring the good news of the gospel to the world, to be Christ’s body, hands, feet, mouth, mind and heart in the world.
The men in white robes appear at that moment, when the apostles are staring up at the heavens – as one commentator put it mesmerized or paralyzed we aren’t sure – to move the apostles into action, to prod them into their calling.
“Why are you looking up? You should be looking out.”  
Why are you looking up? I struggle with looking up. It’s not that I don’t believe that we should turn to God in all things. I do. It’s not that I don’t believe we should trust in God’s presence or moving in our lives and in God’s world. I do. It’s that I think our looking up has become symbolic of what I see as a privatized faith. It is about my personal relationship with Jesus. It is about my belief in God. It is about my salvation. It is about the relationship between God and me. It is an individualized, privatized faith. I have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and I know that when he comes in again in glory that I will be okay, so I am going to spend my time looking up.
I am not trying to make other expressions of our faith into a caricature or stereotype. But I feel strongly that our tendency to individualize our faith – not personalize, individualize – is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it makes us forget that Jesus came not just to save individuals but to usher in the kingdom. That kingdom was community. Jesus modeled what it means to truly be human, and time and time again he modeled that humanity in community. He was not human in isolation, just him and God. He was human in relationship, in community with others. And they were not the others in the “in crowd.” They were the others on the outside, the “least of these.” He came in the most vulnerable of ways to be with the most vulnerable of people.
Jesus spent his earthly ministry and 40 days after his resurrection preparing the apostles for what it would mean to carry on without him. He taught them and demonstrated what it meant to do God’s work, to be in God’s kingdom, and to live God’s love. So when he ascended, in some ways, he gave the reins to them. I know that the men in white robes did not ask the apostles the question, “Why aren’t you looking out?” But to me it is implied.
“Why are you looking up? You should be looking out.”
The reason I used this illustration from Harry Potter is because Harry kept waiting for his dad to show up. Harry was so sure it was his dad who had sent the patronus that he almost missed the moment to act for himself. I realize that this is an imperfect illustration. To try and make this an analogy of God and us would stretch it to the breaking point. It could become a slippery slope of saying, “Hey God, I got this. I don’t need you to save me. I can do it myself.”
The biggest mistakes I have ever made in my life have been when I have told God,
“Don’t worry God. I’ve got this.”
We need God. We need to know that God is calling us, not the other way around. One of the things that we talked about in last week’s session meeting, and we will continue to talk about – in those meetings and with all of you – is that this is God’s church, and we are invited to follow God on God’s mission in the world. We need God. It isn’t that we shouldn’t look up. It isn’t that we shouldn’t put all that we are and all that we have in God’s gracious and merciful hands. It’s that we cannot look up to the exclusion of looking out. It seems to me that God requires both.
Look up, look to me, trust me, believe in me. 
Look out. Look out, look at my children made in my image, how are you caring for them? Look at the world I have made. How are you caring for it? Look up to me, but also look out to them.
Why are you looking up without also looking out? God requires both. We cannot look up without also having an outward vision. We cannot look out without also knowing that our strength and our power come from God, from looking up.
In Latin the words, Expecto Patronum, means “I await a guardian.” When Jesus ascended into heaven after 40 days of preparation, he did not leave the disciples completely alone. A Guardian, an Advocate would come to them. So as we observe the ascension, as we look up, know that we too have the power of our Guardian, our Advocate, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit empowers us to look up to God, to trust in God, and to look out into the world and do the work of love we are commanded to do.
Look up and look out and do the work of the Lord. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Our Known God -- Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 17:16-34
May 21, 2017

            In the movie, “Elf,” Will Ferrell’s character, Buddy the Elf, is working in the toy department of Gimbel’s Department Store in New York City. The announcement is made over the loudspeaker that Santa has arrived to greet the children and Buddy loses it.
            “Santa! Santa! I know him! I know him!’
            That’s how I felt when I first read this passage from Acts and saw two names: Epicureans and Stoics.
            “Epicureans and Stoics!” “I know them!” “I taught them!” “I taught them!”
            In case you were wondering, I taught a brief overview of Epicureans and Stoics when I was teaching Ethics. While what I learned from teaching intersects with my ministry in a myriad of ways, it doesn’t always happen this overtly. So, yes, I was excited to see Epicureans and Stoics mentioned in the scripture passage I was preaching.
            Epicureans were hedonists. But not in the way we tend to understand hedonists. They were not the drunken, toga wearing gluttons ala Animal House. Epicureans believed that the only thing that was intrinsically good was pleasure. That which increased pleasure was good, that which decreased it was bad. Pleasure and pain came in both mental and physical form, and to Epicureans there were two types of acute mental pain: fear of the gods and fear of death. The Epicureans believed in the existence of the gods, but they did not believe that they intervened in human life. The gods were set apart from humans on a completely different realm, indifferent to humanity and all of its ills. The Epicureans were materialists; they believed that everything down to the smallest atom, including humans, was made up of matter. Matter does not have an eternal soul. So when we die, we are dead. The Epicureans point was why fear gods who were indifferent to humans, and why fear death when it was a complete end? There would be no punishment in some life after this one. Live for today and live in simple moderation and tranquility.
            The Stoics valued reason. They believed that the universe was based on reason and rationality. The Stoics, like the Epicureans, believed that tranquility and peace of mind were the foundation of happiness. That tranquility and peace of mind came from reason governing our desires, self-control. The universe was based on Divine Law. That Divine Law was based on reason and rationality. Therefore, there was no point in getting bent out of shape over anything because everything was happening as it should. The example that I learned to illustrate the Stoics was a dog being tied behind a moving cart. The universe is the moving cart and humanity is the dog. If we fight against the rope tying us to the cart; if we chew and pull and resist, then we are going to be miserable. We are going to be unhappy and in pain, always hurting ourselves. But if we resign ourselves to follow along behind the cart, trusting that the cart is moving according to reason then we won’t be in pain. We will not expend our precious energy on useless resistance and struggle. The cart is reasonable and rational, and we just need to accept that it is going where it should.
            Then along came Paul. Remember last week, in the story of Stephen’s stoning, we get our first glimpse of then Saul. The people doing the stoning laid their cloaks before Saul’s feet. While we have skipped over the story of Saul’s conversion, and his transformation from Saul to Paul, we now meet him full on as Paul. Knowing what we know of Paul; knowing what we know of his zeal for the gospel, perhaps it is easy to understand why some in the crowd called him “this babbler.” Paul was preaching the good news of Jesus – God born into human flesh, crucified on the cross, resurrected into new life – pretty much the opposite of everything the Epicureans held dear. Paul preached the good news of Jesus – God willingly becoming vulnerable by being born into human flesh, taking on its frailties and weaknesses; not just dying as a human but being brutally executed as a human, then not staying dead! This upside down gospel also seemed to be the exact opposite of the reasonable universe the Stoics valued so highly.
            One of Paul’s best traits is his mastery of rhetoric. The man knew how to use language – in his writing, in his speaking. He knew how to turn a phrase, and articulate ideas that still have scholars and commentators and preachers like me trying to fully grasp his thought process. This sermon is no different. Our passage starts off with Paul wandering through Athens distressed by the vast number of idols found in the city. But when he is invited to the Aeropagus to speak, he does not chide or chastise the Athenians for being pagans or heathens, etc. Instead, he uses that to draw them in.
            “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
            That’s a way to win friends and influence people. He goes on to say that he found a particular object that intrigued him.
            “For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
            My first thought when I read this was that the Athenians were covering all their bases. They did not just believe in their own gods, they believed that there might be other gods out there. And if there were, they wanted to make sure they recognized that god as well. It seems to me that Paul was telling them that they were on target when they recognized this other god. But what the Athenians think of as an unknown god is actually the God. This god is the God, the creator of the universe, the One from whom they are all offspring. This is the God, the One who made them, not the other way around. They did not make God. This God, the God, is not enshrined in objects. God does not live in anything made by human hands – even the most beautiful of things made by human hands. This God is the God, and this God is not unknown but known. This God, the God, is not far way on some other plane, in some other realm, but right here; close by, at hand, in their midst and up close.
            This God, the God, is a known God, known through Jesus his Son. This God, the God, is the God they have been groping for, searching for, looking for, hoping for, even if they did not recognize that God was the object and the subject of their search.
            This God, the God, is the known God, and God is known because Jesus, God’s Son, was resurrected from the dead.
            As so often happened (and happens), the resurrection was the wall that some people ran headlong into. Remember, in that crowd were Stoics and Epicureans, people who believed that dead was dead, and the universe was a rational cart leading us along on a reason-lined trajectory. Resurrection was too much, too irrational, too unreasonable, too upside down, too illogical, too much for some to take. So at those words, some scoffed. But not everyone; some wanted to talk with Paul again, and some believed and joined him.
            It seems to me that this is the eternal struggle of our faith. To really tell the gospel, to really preach the good news, we have to share a story that sounds … just weird. God becomes flesh and dwells among us. God lives. God is executed. God rises again. At some point, reason and logic only go so far. Don’t get me wrong, part of what I love about being Presbyterian is being allowed, encouraged even, to think critically about faith. It isn’t that other denominations don’t do this, but I have not always been given permission to do so in other denominations. I love that I feel free to ask questions, to argue, to wrestle with angels. My arguing and questioning – with professors, with others, with God – has not diminished my faith, it has deepened it. But I also know that at some point, faith is an experience. I can tell you about my experience of the Holy Spirit. I can tell you about the moments when I felt as though God was pushing me or pulling me to see or feel or think in a new way. I can tell you about the times when it seemed as though God was right next to me, holding me hand, telling me it was going to be okay. I can tell you, but I cannot make you feel it. You have to feel that, you have to experience that for yourself. I cannot make you understand why our upside down, illogical faith makes complete and utter sense to both my head and my heart. You have to experience it for yourself. Paul told the Athenians that the unknown god they paid tribute to was the God he knew, the God of Jesus, the God of resurrection, the God of all Life and Love and Grace. Paul’s God was the God they were groping for, but they did not know it. But they could not know it, they could not know God the way he knew God until they experienced God for themselves. You have to know God in your heart and in your hands and in your feet and in your mind. Our God is a known God – here in our hearts and here in our minds. Our God is a known God, a lived God, an experienced God. And once you know it, you know it.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Living and Dying for Faith -- Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 7:55-60
May 14, 2017

            “We will not listen!” “We will not listen!” “We will not listen!”
            “We refuse to hear him, even if his words ring clear.”
            “We refuse to believe him, even if he speaks God’s truth.”
            “We refuse to accept him, what he says, what he stands for, who he stands for, no matter what!”
            “We will grind our teeth at him.”
            “We will cover our ears.”
            “We will close our minds.”
            “We will close our hearts.”
            “We will not listen!” “We will not listen!” “We will not listen!”
            “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he said this, he died.’”
            As we seem to be doing this Easter season, our passage begins at the end of a story. This is the end of Stephen’s story. What do we know about Stephen? Many of us know him as the first deacon. We know him because of the modern-day ministry he inspired – Stephen’s Ministries, which is a laity-led pastoral ministry. And we know him from these verses, from the end of his life. Stephen was martyred for his faith.
            How did Stephen go from being ordained the first deacon to being brutally stoned to death? How did he move from serving to sacrifice, from a ministry of life-giving compassion to giving his life for his faith?
            That is the part of Stephen’s life that most of us don’t know much about. That is the part of Stephen’s life that leads to this moment; the time between deacon and martyr.
            In those first days of the early church, the numbers of believers were growing by leaps and bounds. At the end of Acts, chapter 6, we learn that the numbers of disciples were growing so rapidly that the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews saying that their widows were begin neglected in the daily distribution of food. So the apostles gathered together with all the believers and decided that it was not right that they should neglect God’s word in order “to wait on tables.” It was decided that “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” should be appointed to serve. That way the apostles could continue with prayer, study, and “serving the word.”
            Everyone agreed, and Stephen was the first man chosen. It would seem that Stephen was not just good at waiting tables. He was also “full of grace and power,” and he “did great wonders and signs among the people.”
            Men who represented various places in the synagogue tried to argue with Stephen, but they were no match for him. When they could not beat him with logic, they decided to beat him with cunning. They whispered that he was speaking blasphemy. They stirred up the people against Stephen. They said that Stephen never stopped saying things against the Law and against the synagogue, the holy place. They spread the word that Stephen spoke of Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus’ plan to destroy what was holy and change the customs that Moses himself handed down to them.
            Stephen was arrested. And even though the men on the council heard the accusations against him, when they looked at the face of Stephen, they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
            When Stephen was asked if the charges against him were true, he did not recant his testimony. Instead he preached. He preached a sermon that told the story of the people going back all the way to Abraham. He preached a sermon that held the people accountable for rejecting the people God sent to lead them: first Moses, then Jesus.
With a prophetic voice, Stephen called them,
 “You stiff-necked people,” uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous one, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
            The people were enraged at Stephen’s words. They ground their teeth at him. But Stephen did not seem to see or hear them. Instead, filled with Holy Spirit, he saw the glory of God and Jesus, exalted, in his true place at God’s right hand. He tried to tell the people what he was seeing. He tried to get them to see it too.
            “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
            But the people could not or would not see. They could not or would not hear. They could not or would not believe.
            They covered their ears. They dragged him outside of the city. They picked up stones and threw them at him, each blow chipping away at his life. Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit till the last, cried out for forgiveness just as Jesus cried out for forgiveness from the cross. With those last words, Stephen died.
            In Stephen’s end, we get our first glimpse of Saul. From what we can tell, Saul in not an active participant in this scene; yet he must have bore some importance or influence, because witnesses lay their cloaks in front of him.
            Why is such a brutal passage a chosen text for a Sunday in Easter? Why do we have to read about the stoning of Stephen when we should be rejoicing about the resurrection of Jesus the Christ? Why do we have this particularly hard text before us, not just in the season of Easter but on Mother’s Day?! There is no way to bring the joy of Mother’s Day into this. Believe me, I tried. Why? Because as one contemporary writer put it, the Roman Empire did not pack up and go home with the discovery of the empty tomb. Although we wish it were otherwise, Jesus’ resurrection has not caused the worlds’ inhumanity to cease. Wars continue to be fought; and they seem to get only more deadly. People still treat other people with cruelty. Hatred, bigotry, intolerance, injustice, every ism that we know of – none of those things disappeared with the resurrection. If anything, perhaps the resurrection causes us to see them in even sharper relief.
            The stoning of Stephen is a reminder that the terrible things we are capable of doing to one another still happened and still happen. In some ways, this story is a continuation of the questions I asked last week. As those who follow Jesus, are we living as Jesus lived? Are we loving as Jesus loved? And the question that we add today is, are we willing to die as Jesus died? Stephen was willing. Stephen was willing to live and die for his faith, as were so many others; as are so many others to this day.  
            I’m not saying that we should go looking for martyrdom; I think the opposite is true. Nor, do I think that we our faith will automatically place us in positions of life-threatening danger. But I think we do ourselves, the church, and God a disservice if we act as though discipleship is easy. It is not easy. It isn’t meant to be easy. How could it be?
            In the middle of joy, atrocities still happen. In the midst of life, death refuses to be ignored. Even as we celebrate the power of the empty tomb, the empire clings to the power of the world. People still lay their cloaks in front of the world’s Saul’s, but here is the good news, here is a word of hope; Saul’s become Paul’s.
            So with that hope, we go back to what we said at the beginning. Only now, we say this: we will listen! We will listen! We will believe! We will live and die and love for the sake of the good news, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. We will! We will!

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

The Minister's Corner

This is the column I wrote for the Saturday, May 13th, Minister's Corner in the Shawnee News Star.

“Deep in the hundred acre wood, where Christopher Robin plays,
you’ll find the enchanted neighborhood of Christopher’s childhood days.
A donkey named Eeyore is his friend; and Kanga and little Roo.
 There’s Rabbit, and Piglet, and there’s Owl,
 but most of all Winnie the Pooh.” [1]

            This is from the theme song to Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh.” But in our house it was called “The Eeyore Song.” This was one of my daughter’s favorite songs, and we sang it over and over again. I do not know why she honed in on the particular lyric about Eeyore, but she did, so “The Eeyore Song,” it was.

            That little girl who loved Winnie the Pooh and singing The Eeyore Song is graduating from high school on Monday. Like every parent facing this moment, I am asking myself where the time went. How is it possible that my oldest born, my darling daughter, is getting ready to graduate high school and set off into the world? She should still be playing dress up, creating new fashions for her Barbies, and giving communion to her dolls (she is a preachers’ kid, after all). As my significant other says, “the days are long but the years fly by.” My, how these years have flown.

            When she was a toddler and her brother was a baby, we sat in our doctor’s office for a check-up. She was being a toddler all over the place, and I must have looked exhausted, which I was. Unexpectedly my doctor asked me a question I was unprepared for.

            “What is your job as her parent?”

            I thought for a second and said, “I don’t know; to make sure she’s happy?”

            He shook his head and said,

            “That’s not your job. You can’t guarantee that your kids will be happy. Your job is to make sure they can live in the world. Your job is to ensure they can function in society. That’s your job.”

            I have never forgotten his words. Now, as she stands on the brink of this new world, I find myself asking if I have prepared her for that world. Have I taught her the right things? Have I shown her and modeled for her ways to not only survive but thrive? Lately every parenting mistake I have made – and there are a lot of those – seems to be presenting itself to me. Will my mistakes keep her from doing well? Have I done enough? Have I done too much?
            Along with these questions, I also worry about the world she, my son and the others their age are getting. I have never felt more uncertain, more afraid for our world than I have in recent times. What problems are she and her generation inheriting? Some problems I can predict; many only time will tell.

            Yet in spite of my worries, I also know that my daughter, my son and their peers are some of the brightest, most compassionate, most passionate, empathetic and determined people I have ever had the honor of knowing. Their generation gets a bad rap, but I believe that if any generation has the potential to do great things in and for this world, they do.

            When I can remind myself to breathe, I can also remember that I trust in a God who is bigger than my fears. I believe in a God whose nature is Love. My sweet girl is loved more than she can possibly know – by her parents, grandparents, family, friends, and most importantly, by God. I am going to trust in God that she will be well. It is time for her to make her own way, make her own mistakes, learn her own lessons, and follow her own call. In my heart she will always be my little girl, but I could not be more proud of the woman she is becoming.

            So to the other parents and grandparents who are preparing for this moment as I am, I wish for all of us to experience nothing but joy for our children’s achievement. And to my daughter and all of the graduates, I wish you nothing but love and hope and blessings for a long life well lived.

            I started this off by quoting Winnie the Pooh, so I will end it with a quote from Pooh’s creator, A.A. Milne. The following is one I seem to see everywhere nowadays, but that does not detract from the wisdom of the words.

            “If ever there is a tomorrow when we’re not together..there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart…I’ll always be with you.”

[1] “Winnie the Pooh,” written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

All Things in Common -- Fourth Sunday in Easter

Acts 2:42-47
May 7, 2017

            We believe that we are all one, that the material and spiritual are one,
and the spirit is identical and one in all of creation.
            We believe that marriage, childbirth and death are sacraments of our church.
We agree that child rearing and care of the elderly is a holy responsibility.
We believe that being truthful and compassionate is instrumental to living together in peace and as a community.
We agree to be honest and compassionate in our relationships with each other.
We agree to resolve any conflicts or disagreements in a nonviolent manner.
We believe that humanity must change to survive.
We agree to participate in that change by accepting feedback about ourselves.
We agree to accept personal responsibility for our actions.
We believe that inner peace is the foundation for world peace.”[1]
These statements are from The Farm’s website. They are some of the principles that members of The Farm agree to as part of their life together. The Farm is an intentional living community in Summertown, Tennessee, south of Nashville. According to the website, The Farm began in 1971 when 80 school busses filled with hippie type folks rolled onto a cattle farm they had purchased in Tennessee with a banner that proclaimed their intention to change the world.
The Farm is a commune, started by a bunch of idealistic hippies that caravanned their way from San Francisco to Tennessee. They have been in existence for 45 years, for as long as I can remember. In fact I do remember watching an interview with the two main founders of The Farm, Steve and Ina Mae Gaskin, on one of the local news programs. They were hippies, no doubt about it. I imagine that there was controversy surrounding The Farm and its practices over the years, but it is still there. It is still there and thriving. They have outreach programs such as Plenty International. They have a renowned Midwifery Service. When a longtime friend’s stepdaughter was expecting her first child, she delivered at The Farm. They have retreats for adults and bring inner city kids into the country to experience nature. They teach and model sustainable living. Obviously, with the existence of a website and a Facebook page, they have moved with the times. And while I was perusing their website for this sermon, I discovered I could sign-up for an e-newsletter for green gardening tips and information about programs. So I did. The Farm may have its place in the cyber world of the 21st century, but that does not take away from the fact that they are a commune started by hippies 45 years ago; an intentional community dedicated to life together.
 Although the conversations that led Stephen Gaskin to begin The Farm happened when he was invited to speak by a group of ministers, I am not trying to imply that the Church would be better off if it were a commune. But I use The Farm as an illustration because it is a long time example of intentional living. Intentional is the critical word here. The whole book of Acts is essentially a description of the earliest believers and their life in the early church. The passage before us today tells of the community that formed after Peter’s Spirit-filled sermon on Pentecost. The “they” our passage begins with are the newly baptized believers who welcomed Peter’s message.
            “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
            This sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? It sounds so easy, so effortless. They were filled with the power and zeal of the Spirit. They were filled with the heady rush that comes with a new belief and understanding. They were in constant awe and amazement because signs and wonders were being done in their midst. The NRSV does not do a great job of translating that particular verse. According to Biblical scholars, it should read “wonders and signs were being done through the apostles” rather than “by the apostles.” By implies that the apostles were performing these wonders by their own power, except they weren’t. It was through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Even so, the people, these new believers, were witness to amazing miracles.
            What made it even better is that they were all together. They were not scattered hither and yon. They were not isolated from one another, believers alone in hostile communities. Together they were living in a community of support and understanding. They shared this new belief and understanding in common with each other. Not only were they together praising and worshipping in the temple, they were in each other’s homes as well; breaking bread and sharing fellowship with one another.
            They were taking care of one another. They were willing to sell their possessions so every person’s needs would be met. It would be like me selling my mandolin so Alice could go to the doctor or vice versa. It was a lovely, loving, idyllic life together. Certainly, it should be a model to us on how to be the Church with a capital C.
            But the idyllic never seems to last, and that is true for the early church as well. This idyllic fellowship did not last either. In just a few chapters we will read about trouble and dissension. There will be problems and disputes, conflicts and contentions. The church will struggle and grow, struggle and grow. The gentiles will enter the picture, and there will be a division between the Hellenists and the believers in Jerusalem. The church will become institutionalized and bureaucratic, and so on and so on and so on.
            To be fair to this early community, they thought that Jesus was going to come back any minute. It was probably relatively easy to live peaceably with one another when you thought your Messiah was just around the corner. But as the days dragged on, and Jesus did not come, things changed. As I understand my church history, part of institutionalizing the church was out of necessity; it was to keep the church going in what scholars call “the time between times;” the time between when Jesus came into the world and when Jesus will come again.
            The question is what does this mean for us? What does it mean for us today and next Tuesday? We are not privy to the miracles and wonders done by God through the apostles’ on a regular basis. We do not doubt that the Holy Spirit moves in our midst, but we cannot predict where and when it does move. We don’t always feel it or are aware of its presence. As wonderful as it would be to live in this ongoing state of anticipation – the state it seems the early believers were living in – we don’t live like that. We live in the day-to-day, the ordinary.
            What can this example of the early church teach us today? For that matter, what can The Farm teach us today? I know that we are not going to sell all of our possessions and go set up on a cattle farm –although the selling of the old church does feel a little like that. But I think that both examples share one thing in common: intention. The Farm is still around because it is intentional. Its members seek to be together. That early church, those early believers were intentional in how they lived with one another. They sought to live together, to be in fellowship together. Today, more than ever before, I think the church is called to be intentional in our fellowship – not just with one another but with the world. Fellowship isn’t just sharing cookies and punch after worship. Fellowship is being in community with each other, being in relationship with each other. Fellowship is really looking at one another and looking honestly at ourselves. Fellowship is listening to one another, loving one another, even when that love is hard – and it can be very, very hard. Fellowship is about creating community, not because it is a nice thing to do, but because it is a Christ like thing to do.
            That is the heart of the matter. That is what sets us apart from The Farm and any other intentional communities. That is what makes the Church the Church: Christ. We are to be Christ’s body in the world. We are to be Christ to others. People are to see Christ in us. I don’t believe we are called just to speak the gospel; we are called to embody the gospel. We are called to live as Jesus lived and to love as Jesus loved. And it seems to me that if the church is failing in the world, if the church is lacking in relevancy, then it is because we are not doing that. We are not living as Jesus lived, and we are definitely not loving as Jesus loved. Are you willing to sell your possessions to cover another person’s need? Are you willing to sell your possessions to cover another person’s need? Am I? Are we living as Jesus lived? Are we loving as Jesus loved?
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Cut To the Heart -- Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
April 30, 2017

            My dad was the Executive Director of the American Lung Association in Tennessee. His job entailed many responsibilities, but fundamental to his work was educating the public about the dangers of smoking; not only to the health and well-being of an individual, but also to the health and well-being of other people. He was an advocate, essentially a lobbyist, for anti-smoking policies in every aspect of life. While my kids grew up playing with stickers, I grew up with playing with Christmas Seals. At three I was in a local Public Service Announcement. As country music star Bill Anderson spoke about the dangers of smoking to children’s health, the camera would pan over to me playing on the floor with toys. I remember this because I got to keep the toys! At four I took my first big plane trip with my mom to Minnesota. Smoking was allowed and there were no smoking and no-smoking sections in airport terminals back then, so I made sure to educate the smokers about the terrible things they were doing to their lungs. It’s a good thing I was a cute kid, otherwise I was just annoying.
            I knew that smoking was dangerous and bad for your health. My sister and brother knew it. When they were teenagers they started to smoke. The summer I was 15, I decided to try it too. I spent several warm nights, walking up and down my street, learning how to inhale – which meant that I coughed and gagged, turned green with nausea, and got lightheaded. But I was determined. One summer morning, I left the house to walk over to a friend’s house. As I was crossing our neighbor’s front yard, I lit up a cigarette. My dad opened the front door and called out to me about leaving without telling anyone – I’d gotten in trouble a few weeks earlier for not leaving them a note; my 15th summer was not my best summer on record. I turned around to talk to him, putting the cigarette behind me back, which was such a clever, clever way to hide it. Not. We had a brief exchange. He went back inside, and I went on my merry way.
            That afternoon, I was crossing the same neighbor’s front yard, cigarette in hand, only that time I was walking toward my house. My father got home earlier than expected. When he pulled up in the driveway he saw me, and I whipped the cigarette behind my back again. This time, he stopped the car, rolled down his window and called me over. I walked toward him with dread in every footstep. The smoke from my cigarette was haloing around my head. I was prepared for the grounding to end all groundings. Instead, he just looked at me and shook his head. Then he said,
            “I thought you were the smart one. Of all my kids, I thought you were the smart one. You know what a terrible time your sister and brother have had quitting smoking. You know that! But now you’re smoking?! I thought you were the smart one.”
            Then he rolled up his window and drove his car around to the back of the house, leaving me standing there wishing that he would have grounded me, yelled at me, given me any and all relevant punishments. He did none of that. Instead my dad made it very clear that he was not just angry with me, he was disappointed in me. He thought I was the smart one, but not anymore. If I had ever been cut to the heart by someone’s words before, I have no memory of it. But I remember that moment. I remember it as vividly as if it had happened an hour ago. My dad’s words cut me to the heart.
            Peter was not a parent expressing disappointment at his children for doing something they knew was dumb and dangerous, but he was making it clear to the people listening to him that they had failed. They had failed to recognize the very presence of God in their midst.
            In today’s passage from Acts, we start at the end. Peter has wrapped up his sermon in response to the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. He has told the crowds gathered around him about this Jesus, whom they crucified but whom God raised up. He has made it clear to them that the death and resurrection of Jesus is not, as one commentator put it, a completely new story, but a new chapter on a very old story. It is the old story of God and the Israelites. God has been with the Israelites from the very beginning. He promised their forefather Abraham that through him and his descendents the whole world would be blessed. The coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the Word made flesh, is the fulfillment of that blessing. Through Him the whole world will be blessed.
            But again, the people did not recognize Jesus as God in their midst. This Jesus whom they crucified, God raised up.
            “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
            Was Peter placing the blame for Jesus’ death solely on the Jews standing before him? As I said last week, the accusation in this sermon has been used to justify persecution in the name of God. Matthew Skinner, professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, wrote that it’s unlikely that Peter believed that the crowds standing before him were the same crowds who stood before Pontius Pilate and chanted “Crucify him! Crucify him!” The people in these crowds were likely not to blame for what happened to Jesus. But there is a more general tone to Peter’s accusation. Humanity failed Jesus. Humanity failed to recognize God in its midst. Humanity itself was seemingly blind to God in the world, and certainly blind to God in the man Jesus.
            Luke who wrote the book of Acts as well as his gospel makes that blindness clear in his story about the followers on the road to Emmaus. Jesus walked with them, opening the scriptures to them. And just as the people listening to Peter were cut to the heart by his words, these followers’ hearts were blazing within them in the presence of the risen Savior.
            The people who listened to Peter preach the gospel were cut to the heart. They were humbled and distressed and wanted to respond. They asked Peter and the other disciples what they should do in response to what they have heard, witnessed and experienced. Peter told them,
            “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
            This is not the first time we hear people being called on to repent. In our context we tend to assume that repentance is directly connected to sins as moral failings. I messed up. I’m sorry I messed up. I repent.
I know that I have preached this before, but repentance is not just about being sorry. Repentance is a reorientation. It is a turning around. It is a 180 degree about face. It is a change in direction and a change in living. The people gathered around that sermon that day were not just repenting of Jesus’ death; they were turning their lives in a new direction. Before they had lived without the understanding of God in Christ, of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, but now they would live in that knowledge and understanding. Now they would live as those who saw God in their midst, as those who realized that God was fulfilling the promises of old, and writing a new chapter to an old, old story.
            They were cut to the heart by the gospel. They were cut to the heart that God had been in their midst. They were cut to the heart by their inability to see God in the world. They were cut to the heart when they realized that God was doing a new thing – in their lives, in the world.
            Their response was to repent and be baptized, not just as a washing away of sins, but as a new rising with Christ. In response to the gospel, in response to the good news, in response to the cutting of their hearts, they were turning around, changing direction, reorienting every aspect of their lives. They were cut to the heart, and from that point on their lives were changed.
            I wish I could say that when my dad confronted me on that day so long ago that I put down the cigarettes and never smoked again. I wish I could say that, but I cannot because it would be a lie. I kept smoking for a few more years. I never smoked a lot, but I did smoke. However, I never forgot my dad’s words. I never forgot how I felt at that moment. I was cut to the heart, and that cut never fully healed. When I did finally wise up enough to stop smoking, I did not go back. I was cut to the heart by what my dad said to me, and my life was changed because of it. It may not have looked like it, but it was. I slowly but surely reoriented myself. I turned around and I changed direction.
            I wonder if the people who heard Peter speak, who were cut to the heart by his words, by the gospel he preached, took a while to completely reorient their lives? I wonder if it was also a process for them. I think it might have been. I would like to believe that with repentance comes an immediate and lasting change. But I think for many of us, well at least for me, repentance as turning around and reorienting is a lifelong process. I have been cut to the heart by the power of the gospel. My heart has burned within me when I have gotten a glimpse of the risen Jesus walking with me and I did not recognize him. I have been cut to the heart time after time. I imagine that I am not done yet. But the good news is that neither is God.
            The power of the gospel, the overwhelming grace of the good news, cuts us to the heart. When we are tempted to walk in the wrong direction, it reorients us. When we are lost, it finds us. When we are blind, it opens our eyes by its light. We are cut to the heart by God’s good and wonderful and amazing and glorious news in Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. May our eyes and mind and hearts and hands be continually opened to God’s working in the world, God’s presence on the road beside us. We are cut to the heart by the gospel, and may that wound never heal.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.