Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sermon: The World At Our Window

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 15, 2016, Pentecost C
Acts 2:1-21

The World At Our Window

According to its website, the University of Florida hosts around six thousand students a year, between its undergraduate and graduate programs, who come to the university from countries other than the United States. That’s not uncommon for a university of UF’s size; Ohio State University has over seven thousand international students among its nearly sixty thousand total enrollment. Even a smaller university – like the University of Kansas, my former employer – hosts nearly 2400 international students among its total enrollment of a little over 24,000. Even in my own music history classes I routinely counted students from East Asia – Japan, Korea, and China in particular – as well as the Caribbean, South America, and Eastern Europe.
Of course, those totals are only of students. The international numbers only get larger when one begins to include faculty and staff from other nations – which, at a large university like UF, is going to be substantial – but a number of you know that far better than I do, from personal experience.
A city like Gainesville (or other such university towns like Columbus or Lawrence) is not far distant from the scene depicted in today’s very familiar reading from the book of Acts. It’s a part of the story that is significant as part of the plot, but easy to overlook in all the welter of strange and unpredictable action depicted in it, the familiar part to us.
Much of the story is familiar; the apostles gathered in the upper room in prayer; the sound like a rushing wind, and the strange and disruptive appearance of those things like tongues of fire; the sound of languages they didn’t know; the disciples on the balcony, with the gospel going out in may languages…
But then we might overlook what Luke tells us in verses 7-11. First of all, the nature of the language miracle is made clear; the languages being spoken by the disciples in verse 4 are revealed to be the native languages of the crowd outside, in the city of Jersualem. That multi-national (maybe today we’d say multicultural?) crowd might first have been drawn to the disciples’ building by that sound of rushing wind and what looked like “divided tongues, as of fire” but what got them to stay and listen was the gospel, being proclaimed to each in her or his own language.
And about that crowd… .
There’s something unusual about that list Luke gives us in verses 9-11; not all the references are contemporary – some of them are names of peoples who had lived in regions to the north, east, west, and south of Jerusalem many centuries past, rather than using contemporary terms for those peoples. In both its geographical and chronological diversity, Luke is cluing his readers in on a key point; the world was there, from the four corners of the earth, outside the disciples’ window, waiting for a good word.
Intellectually we know this. Sometimes, though, we don’t do a very good job of remembering this. For example; we do get a good bit of bewailing, in American Christian circles, of how “the church is dying.” If you’re speaking of a specific individual church, or of a denomination, you may not be completely out of line, although fretting about dying seems odd for a church with its very origins in resurrection, as my friend Rev. Ginna Bairby points out in a recent issue of Presbyterians Today. But speaking of the church as dying is shortsighted and maybe a little racist, given that the church continues to grow in places like South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia. The church is there, too, you know.
But in this world and in this town, there is a world outside our window. Persons from many different countries, persons from many different parts of the United States, and persons from every social strata imaginable. Persons steeped in privilege, persons shackled in grinding poverty. And they are waiting for a gospel from us.
The church in this country has gotten pretty good at giving a bad word. The media is always quick to let us know of a church or group of Christians who have been quite insistent about pronouncing a bad word; in the history of Christianity in the US one can find examples of the church, or substantial parts of it, pronouncing a bad word, a word of hatred and exclusion, against: blacks, Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Germans again, Russians and other Eastern Europeans, Arabs, Muslims (the two aren’t synonymous, you know), Mexicans, gays, and most lately trans persons, who seem to be the designated objects of hatred at the moment. The church has a pretty long history of pronouncing a bad word, but it seems like it’s been a long while since the world out there has heard a good word, a real gospel, from us. And the world out there includes the world at our window.
Divided tongues of fire or not, the Spirit wants to speak through us as the Spirit did through those disciples. The Spirit even wants us to prophesy – not make lame predictions about the end times, but to tell the truth, to see the world around us and speak truth to it, to speak God’s good news, to speak gospel. Peter doesn’t go out on the balcony and make up something new; he first turns to the prophet Joel, and then interprets Joel’s words through the life of Jesus, bringing in some other sources from the scripture he knew along the way. He pronounces gospel, even if at times it’s difficult.
And that’s what we’re called to do. We are charged by Jesus, and moved and enabled by the Holy Spirit, to speak gospel to the world at our window.
The Spirit really isn’t random; notice that in this story from Acts the Holy Spirit incites the disciples at the moment when there’s a large, diverse audience waiting to hear that good word. Well, that audience is out there, outside our window, so to speak. You’d best believe the Holy Spirit is inciting us to bear that good word. The Spirit may sound like an unusual hymn in which we learn to hear from the church all around the world – all around us – or it may sound like a life unlike any we could imagine, unlike ours, in which we learn to see the Spirit moving among us. But we are called and charged to speak gospel.
Will we follow? Will we listen to the Spirit when it doesn’t sound like what we’ve been accustomed to hearing? Can we speak gospel, no matter the language?
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns, from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal
#289                  On Pentecost They Gathered
#287                  Gracious Spirit, Heed Our Pleading
#292                  As the Wind Song
#853                  We Are Marching In the Light of God

Credit: I'm with you, kid...

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Sermon: *Those* People

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 8, 2016, Easter 7C
Acts 11:1-18

*Those* People

First of all, let’s make sure we get one thing straight: that’s not a typo in your bulletin.
No, the sermon title is exactly as I instructed our church secretary to enter it, so don’t go fussing at her (as I know some of you do). Leave her alone.
It’s printed this way because you need to read it this way. It’s not “those people,” it’s “those people.” You know how the conversation goes: “…oh, one of those people.” The inflection has a world of meaning.
And that world of meaning, and how it gets broken down and exposed, is what you need to understand about this story, a story of Peter making a leap he never expected, in today’s lesson from Acts.
The part we heard a few moments ago is basically Peter’s defense speech, given when he is summoned (a much more sinister-sounding word than merely “called”) before the council of the church, in Jerusalem, to account for his actions regarding a certain Gentile named Cornelius, whom he had first encountered while staying in Joppa in the days after the raising of Tabitha, or Dorcas (remember her?) from the dead.
While staying at the home of a tanner named Simon, Peter gets hungry one day. In this case, though, getting hungry becomes the occasion for the Holy Spirit to visit, to show a vision to Peter, a vision which called upon Peter to take a step that he could never have imagined taking, one that, literally, charged Peter to do something that went against the way he had been raised and against everything he had ever been taught about scripture.
In the vision, which is recorded directly in chapter 10, Peter sees something like a great sheet being lowered from heaven, containing animals of every kind, including all the creeping things and bottom-feeders you could imagine, and hears the divine voice – at least that’s clearly how Peter hears it, as his reply makes clear: “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” It’s actually a lot like an incident recorded in the book of Ezekiel, in which that prophet utters very nearly the same thing. This time, though, the voice of the Lord says virtually the most shocking thing possible: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Let’s not try to soften things here. Peter is not wrong, or just making stuff up. You can, if you’re so inspired, look to Leviticus 11 or Deuteronomy 14 for a starting point in surveying the amazing and very particular detail on dietary law in the Torah. And this wasn’t minor stuff in the Jewish mind of the time. Peter’s response might have been heated, but it was also virtually a reflex – “we don’t do that.” And yet here God is telling him to do exactly that, and getting in Peter’s face about it just a little bit – “must not” is never wishy-washy language in scripture, and that’s what Peter has just been hit with.
As if all this wasn’t shocking and destabilizing enough, Peter sees this vision a total of three times. If you remember Peter’s story, you remember that he has a bad history of things happening three times.
Finally the visions are done, no more sheets full of unkosher food descending from heaven. Peter is left trying to sort out just what he has seen and just what it means. Little does he know that the Holy Spirit has already been at work well before this set of visions. The messengers who come from Cornelius, the Roman – and very Gentile – centurion are there because the Holy Spirit has already been at work responding to the earnest prayers of a God-worshiper.
You might remember a similar term being used for Lydia in last week’s scripture. Apparently Cornelius was a Gentile who nonetheless claimed allegiance to the God worshiped in the synagogue community, but had not become a Jew. The extent of such dedication was that he was a generous giver and was constantly in prayer, and that “the whole Jewish nation” spoke well of him, according to 10:22. Those prayers got a dramatic answer when Cornelius – well before Peter’s vision, at least a day – received instructions to send for Peter. Of course his messengers arrive as Peter is trying to sort through his own vision, one that must have seemed far more nightmarish to him than Cornelius’s to him.
For all his confusion and distress, Peter at least seems to get that his vision must have something to do with these visitors. That doesn’t mean he’s immediately comfortable with what he’s being asked to do; even if the spirit tells him to go with these visitors “without hesitation” that doesn’t mean he’s going with comprehension or ease. But he does do a remarkable thing nonetheless, giving them lodging for the night before making the trip with them the next day to Caesarea, a thoroughly Roman city, like Philippi from last week’s reading.
Why is all this so remarkable? Well, Peter is associating with those people. The regulations in the Torah about associating with Gentiles and purity are as precise and fixed as the ones about food and purity. You didn’t just have Gentiles in your home, and you certainly didn’t go into their homes and share meals and things like that. Torah was quite clear that one was not to be cruel to Gentiles, and that one was not to abuse them if they were travelers in their land, and that one was to live in peace with them. But there were limits, and Peter, if still a bit uncomfortable as he makes clear in 10:28, was about to do all those proscribed things and more.
And it was this choice that had caused Peter to be brought before the church leaders in Jerusalem, which is where his account is given that is recorded in Acts 11. Notice how in verse 3 of that chapter, the leaders in Jerusalem had thoroughly failed to understand what has happened; all that they can think about is not that Gentiles have received the word of God, but that Peter ate with Gentiles. As you might have noticed, we today live in a world, and in a church, where God’s work is too often and too easily ignored in favor of humans taking offense.
So Peter has to relate his experience to them. In the end, what finally gets through to the church authorities is that the story is not really about Peter, as much as he is the one telling it. The actions that matter here are not Peter’s, but God’s.
It was God who answered Cornelius’s prayers and instructed him to send for Peter. It was God who gave Peter that strange and disturbing vision. It was God who told Peter directly to go with those messengers from Cornelius.
And it was God the Holy Spirit who came upon Cornelius and his household, right in front of Peter. Peter was at Pentecost; he knew what it looked like. He knew exactly what was happening. And it happened at the Spirit’s own initiative, without waiting for any cues. The Spirit came upon them while Peter was still speaking, giving what might have been his more-or-less standard introductory sermon. Other unexpected converts had received the Holy Spirit upon being baptized, but not Cornelius and his household; the Spirit didn’t wait. Peter called for their baptism, because after what the Holy Spirit had just done, how could he not?
We moderns really aren’t always any quicker than Peter to catch on to what the Spirit is doing in the world. We are more prone to seek comfort and familiarity rather than be open to those among whom the Spirit is moving. To put it rather bluntly: when was the last time you invited someone to this church who was in some demonstrable way – in race or ethnic background, or class, or orientation, or national origin, or (shudder) even political party – different from you? Clearly we do not reject persons of different races or backgrounds; we have welcomed, we do welcome, we will welcome – but do we invite? Do we take the initiative to reach out?
The silos in which we live in society can be composed of very nearly anything, not just the classifiers noted above, and we in our homes, our workplaces, our social circles, and most certainly our churches can fall into the trap of sticking with what’s comfortable, what’s familiar, instead of practicing the welcome of Christ, or following the initiative of the Holy Spirit. But we can’t do that, and not just because – not even primarily because – the church dies if we don’t follow. We’ve got to open ourselves to where the Spirit will lead us because that’s how we follow. That’s how we submit to the Lordship of Christ, not by memorizing rules, but by being active followers of Christ and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit always.
We worship a God who does a new thing. We worship a God who makes clean. What God has made clean, we dare not call unclean.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): “Alleluia! Alleluia! Give Thanks” (240); “Help Us Accept Each Other” (754); “Dream On, Dream On” (383); “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (640)

Peter wasn't into barbecue, I guess...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sermon: Macedonia

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 1, 2016, Easter 6C
Acts 16:6-15


“Macedonia” is the name applied generally to a region of southeastern Europe, on the Balkan Peninsula. That more general region includes two current political entities with the same name: a region in northern Greece, and an independent nation once a part of Yugoslavia. Historically, Macedonia was perhaps most famous as the home and kingdom of Alexander the Great, from whence he set out to conquer the world. In later years the region was a significant province in the Roman Empire.
One of the important cities in that Roman district was Philippi. First founded by one of Alexander’s successors, the city was re-established during the Roman Empire. It was the site of the climactic battle of Marc Anthony and Octavian, successors of Julius Caesar, against his assassins Cassius and Brutus. Under Octavian (later known as Augustus) Philippi became a city for retired soldiers, and was slightly modified by the addition of a Roman-style forum and the division of land among the soldier-colonists, becoming in effect a “miniature Rome.”
It was into this territory and this city that Paul and his fellow travelers were more or less forced by the Holy Spirit in today’s reading, and event which marked the first known foray of early Christian proclaimers of the Gospel into what we now define as “Europe” – a fact much more interesting to us today than to Paul and his co-workers. For us, a church like most Presbyterian churches made up of mostly white European stock, it’s an origin story. To them it was all Roman Empire, but Philippi, due to its unique origins, might have been just a little more Roman than other places on their journey.
To say that Paul and his company were “forced” into Macedonia isn’t really a stretch. When the party had sought to move towards Asia (not the continent we know today, but another Roman province occupying what we would call western Turkey), Paul had been “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” from proclaiming the Gospel there. They tried to go to another region “but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”
What does that even mean? Luke doesn’t give us any details here, but don’t you wish he had?? Whatever form these divine roadblocks took, Paul and Silas and the whole traveling group were stuck in a place called Troas, wondering what to do next.
Think about this. They were prevented from moving forward. They were “forbidden,” they were “not allowed” to go. Those are very strong words. We modern Christians have this perhaps overly catchy phrase about how “when God closes a door, God opens a window” – maybe you’ve heard it? We tend to forget about the door-closing part of that phrase in our eagerness to get to the open window, but we do need to pay attention. If Paul and Silas – the great missionary team of the book of Acts, and most prolific proclaimers of the good news – had doors divinely slammed in their faces, we need not think we can just make up our minds and charge off in whatever direction looks good to us. Whatever path this church or any church seeks to discern for itself and for its future, that particular church needs to be ready for some doors being shut in our faces.
At this point comes the dream, or if you prefer, the open window. A “man of Macedonia” (you know how in a dream you just know who someone is, even if you have no reason to?) appears calling the group to come to that region and “help us.” It’s a fairly meager dream as Luke describes it, but given all the preventing and forbidding that has been going on so far it sounds like a great positive, and Paul and his party undertake the voyage, the first time Paul takes to the sea in Acts since the relatively short jaunt to Cyprus and back in chapter 13. Unlike that trip this was no short journey. The trip involved several ports of call and a couple of days’ sailing, before a short overland journey to Philippi, that leading city and old soldiers’ home.
And once they got there … “we remained in the city some days.”
Again with the delay. Really, one might be excused for wondering if God is really with these folks or just messing with them.
Up to this point Paul’s usual practice had been to seek out a synagogue when arriving in a town to speak first to the members of that synagogue. Frequently many would be receptive to their word, but others would reject it, and sometimes violently. In Philippi, though, it doesn’t appear that Paul and Silas and company found one, hence they “remained in the city” for those several days. Finally, somehow, they got wind of a gathering, outside of the city gate and down by a river, that might be what they were looking for.
Well, sort of. What they found was a group of women led by Lydia, a wealthy woman (a dealer of purple cloth was inevitably wealthy) described as a “worshipper of God,” a term sometimes used to describe persons who were not part of the synagogue of the time but took an interest and directed their worship towards the God represented in the synagogue. So where was the man of Macedonia from the vision? Anyway, Lydia (who ironically was originally from the region they had just left behind) received the gospel with her whole household, and then pretty much took over, prevailing upon Paul and Silas and the whole party to stay in her home for the duration of their stay in Philippi. You know the folks who can do that kind of thing? They won’t take any of that nonsense about you staying in a hotel, we’re going to put you right up in the guest rooms and let’s make sure you’ve got everything you need while we’re at it? That was Lydia.
So Paul and his party intended to go into Asia, perhaps cover some familiar territory, with the familiar base of the synagogue, in doing the work of the gospel. Instead, they ended up in an entirely new place, much more in the heart of the Roman Empire, working without their usual safety net, and in the care of an independent woman of means. So much for best-laid plans.
And yet, if we truly want to seek God’s vision for the church – this one or the church universal – we’d better be ready for something similar to happen.
That hymn we just heard the choir sing, “Be Thou My Vision,” is rather dangerous if you actually pay attention to it. If we’re truly going to give ourselves, our prayers, our time, our gifts, our energies, our very being to God’s vision, we run the risk of ending up in unfamiliar places, among people who are unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable for us, doing a work we could not have possibly have planned.
If we’re truly going to be about God’s vision, we have no idea where we will end up. And really, that’s as it has to be. We follow Christ, after all. Christ doesn’t follow us.
The Spirit gives us absolutely no assurance that our church in five or fifteen or fifty years will look anything like it did five or fifteen or fifty years ago. That’s not the point. The point is to be faithful, and to follow. The church doesn’t get to “go back to” anything. Our call is to be faithful and to follow, even if we end up in places we couldn’t have possibly imagined. We end up at tables with God’s children we’ve never met or never imagined, not necessarily comfortable for us but absolutely who God calls us to serve and love.
For the vision that drives us forward, even when we have no idea where we are going, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)
#375                  Shall We Gather at the River
#733                  We All Are One in Mission
#506                  Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!

#765                  May the God of Hope Go with Us

Yeah, Lydia had things together...

Monday, April 25, 2016

Sermon: All Creation Sings

Grace Presbyterian Church
April 24, 2016, (Earth Day Sunday)
Psalm 148; Genesis 1:1-2:3; Luke 12:22-31

All Creation Sings

It seemed like such a good and simple idea at the time.
When the suggestion came up in session several weeks ago to have a day out at Montgomery Presbyterian Center (what many folks still call “Camp Montgomery”), and this day (April 24) was suggested for its proximity to Earth Day, it seemed like such a good idea. One thing I believe after a bit more than a year in this church is that, while we do a lot of things well, we could stand to spend more time together. You’ll never catch me claiming that Sunday worship is somehow insufficient for a church, but there is more to being a congregation than worshiping. We engage in acts of mission, true (one of those is coming up this Wednesday, remember), and we, in smaller groups, do engage in times of fellowship, but getting all of us (or as many of us as can) together for nothing more complicated than fellowship (and even fun) is still an awfully good idea.
And then, of course, came the logical follow-up; if we’re going to spend the afternoon out-of-doors, in a place that provides excellent opportunity to engage with God’s good creation, then it also makes sense to engage with that creation in worship, and to engage with creation as a theological and faithful reality in a sermon on this day.
After all, it’s hard to argue that the church has done particularly well in engaging with creation and developing a thoughtful and faithful theology on the subject, outside of a few specialized circles. We haven’t stepped up to the task described by Anglican minister and professor Akintunde Akinade as “develop(ing) a comvincing account of nature as a compelling epiphany of God,” or “a revelation of God’s abundant love for the world.”
It’s also hard to look at the church as a whole and see, for example, where we have done particularly well at being good stewards of the resources of creation. The facilities churches build, for example, don’t always operate with great energy efficiency. (This building is actually better than many sanctuaries, but while these wonderful open windows are pretty good for letting the sun warm us well during the less-hot months of January or February, keeping things cool in July and August can be a challenge.) Our use of our financial resources is sometimes not mindful of creation and its care. I mean, seriously, how is my retirement funding still tangled up in the same oil and gas companies that have now spent more than four decades spreading disinformation about how burning their products have damaged this planet? So no, these and other examples don’t suggest that the church has been all that great a witness to the goodness of God’s creation.
It’s not as if the scriptural witness isn’t there. From the very beginning of our scriptures – right where it says “In the beginning” – we encounter God as Creator. We get the initial recitation of the six ‘days’ of creation; all the creation – light and dark; land and waters and sky; beasts of every kind – in glorious and vivid detail. And of course, God resting on the seventh day.
And the one thing we hear, over and over again, was “…and God saw that it was good.” And the last time, looking over the whole of creation, “it was very good.”
Our gospel reading, a pretty familiar passage itself, points to the ravens and the lilies and Jesus’s admiration for their beauty – “even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” It’s not at all a stretch, I think, to consider that if we took Jesus’s admonition here more seriously, we might well do less harm to God’s creation. We might even understand that God cares for us in much the same way God cares for those ravens and lilies, if only we’d stop getting in the way.
But it’s the psalm for the day that is particularly compelling. This – the psalm that provided the inspiration for both of the hymns we’ve sung so far – is one of those exuberant psalms of praise that concludes the psalter, and here the psalmist’s exuberance opens up to hear the song of praise of all creation – “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!” in verse 3, and that’s just a starting point. Before it’s over the psalmist invokes sea monsters “and all the deeps,”

Fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together!

It’s crazy and reckless and totally unscientific and beautiful, and thoroughly theological and doxological. It’s the song of a psalmist who has grasped something we modern Christians don’t do very well at remembering: we are not separate from creation – we are part of creation; we are creation.
All of those creatures and all of creation join in praise of the one who created all of them. There’s no exclusion, no pretense that any of them are outside of God’s creating care and unbounded love. All creation sings.
This is all the kind of good stuff that ran through my mind when thinking about a sermon reflecting on the theme of creation, a sermon on a Sunday just a couple of days after Earth Day.
Then, just about the time I’d be starting to think about the specifics of such a sermon, a major earthquake struck in the south of Japan. An even bigger one struck near the same spot little more than a day later. Then a yet bigger earthquake struck along the coast of Ecuador, with a death toll of over 500 so far. Closer to home, the city of Houston had a month’s worth of rain drop on it in a day, leading to incredible flash flooding.
It gets hard to talk about the goodness of creation when things like that happen.
And yet we still need to do so. Creation doesn’t stop being God’s good creation, even in the face of calamity.
We have too often and too easily slipped into a view of creation as something to be subdued, something to be opposed and conquered and subjected and exploited. We’ve taken that awful translation Genesis 1:26 and run with it to the detriment of the earth and of ourselves. You don’t have to go very far to see such exercise of “dominion” if you live in Florida; just keep heading south or east and it will become clear just how much we’ve departed from God’s call for us to exercise stewardship over creation, to care for it and protect it (as the call is framed in Genesis 2), and instead chosen to exploit it and rearrange nature unnaturally to suit our purposes. It becomes all to clear that we’ve forgotten, or ignored, the plain statement of Psalm 24:1 – “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it…
What is it that we as modern Christians, as Presbyterians, as Grace Presbyterian Church need to do in the face of what scripture tells about God and creation and goodness?
There are the simple things that you don’t even have to be a person of faith to do; cut down on how much energy we use in our homes or work spaces, maybe don’t be so quick to turn on the lights or the air conditioning. There are highly ambitious things that might fall right now in the category of dreams – like this great big south-facing roof face that cries out for solar panels. And there are the in-between things, like how we use the beautiful green space that surrounds this sanctuary on this piece of property – is there space for a community garden, for example, or some other natural space to tend or care for or protect?
Underlying any of these is the basic truth that we need to think on these things, to remember God as our Creator and the creator of all that surrounds us and all that we love in and among – not merely think casually about them, or recite them in our prayers, but meditate on them, make them a part of our visioning and our praying for our church and the whole church. And we shouldn’t need an apocalyptic threat like climate change to cause us to do so; it’s something we should do because we are children of God, called by God according to the purpose of God, and created by God to live in and with God’s creation, to see creation as revelation of God’s undying love for us. We need to do it because God loves us, and because we love God and all that God has made.
For all creation, singing praise, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): “All Creatures of Our God and King” (15), “Sing Praise to God, You Heavens!” (17), “Touch the Earth Lightly” (713), “Because You Live, O Christ” (249)

...even this guy...

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sermon: Get Up

Grace Presbyterian Church
April 17, 2016, Easter 4C
Acts 9:36-43

Get Up

I don’t like to refer to them as ‘minor’ characters. It might be that they only appear in these biblical stories briefly, and sometimes they don’t even get names, but they aren’t ‘minor’ or else their stories probably wouldn’t have been included in these gospel and early-church narratives; as John puts it towards the end of his gospel, what they left out about Jesus and his deeds and his followers could fill a whole library to overflowing. So, for now, I’ll call them ‘brief’ characters, to acknowledge that they aren’t characters who appear frequently or for a long stretch of the story, but only appear once, are part of the story briefly, and do not appear again. Still, their stories are important to tell.
For such a ‘brief’ character, we do get an awful lot about Dorcas. Among other things we get two names for her – Dorcas is the name by which she is known in Greek, while Tabitha is the Aramaic version of her name. We also find out that whichever name you use for her, it would translate into English as “gazelle.” That’s a lot already about a person who never speaks in Luke’s two-part narrative of the earthly life of Christ (what we call Luke) and the story of the early church (the “Acts of the Apostles” from which we read today.
But that’s only the beginning of what we learn about Tabitha, or Dorcas. We are also told, in passing, that she was a disciple. If you’re thinking that might be unusual, you’re right; Tabitha is the only woman for whom Luke uses the word μαθήτρια, the feminine form of the Greek for “disciple.” None of the women who traveled with Jesus and the twelve, nor any other woman in Acts, gets this designation from Luke. Furthermore, we find out just how hard Dorcas worked to minister to the poor of Joppa. We see this in a particularly poignant scene where many of the people of Joppa had gathered where Tabitha’s body was laid to grieve, showing each other the tunics and cloaks and shawls and scarves that she had created for them. Can you, in your wildest imaginings, conceive of a more powerful witness to the influence of a single life than this? Dorcas was nothing less than a one-woman faith-based anti-poverty initiative, using her relative position of privilege to work tirelessly for those less fortunate in her town.
And now she was gone, and the poor of Joppa literally did not know what become of them.
Notice I didn’t say “poor citizens of Joppa,” and for good reason; quite likely no one in the room was a “citizen” of the governing authority of that time, namely the Roman Empire. In a place like Joppa the main concern for the poor that Rome was likely to show was that those poor stay the heck out of the way of Rome. It is entirely possible, maybe even likely, that Dorcas (and maybe some of her fellow believers, possibly) was the only one standing between them and complete destitution.
And now she was gone.
How much of this was made clear to Peter when he was begged to come over from Lydda, where he was at the time, Luke does not tell us; all he indicates was that the two men were sent to say “please come immediately,” and maybe that was enough to get Peter to go. Maybe he remembered the time when Jesus had been begged to go to the home of a little girl, daughter of a man named Jairus, ultimately to raise that little girl up from the dead. At any rate Peter goes with the two men and is led immediately up to that room were Tabitha had been laid, with the scene of grieving poor widows around them, showing her handiwork to all who came.
Not unlike Jesus before him, Peter had everybody else leave the room, and then knelt to pray. It’s not hard believe that Peter’s prayer might have gone something like this:
OK, Lord, what have you gotten me into here? I mean, preaching is one thing, getting thrown into jail is one thing, but this? Just because I saw you raise people like that little girl from the dead…I can’t do this. You know that. If anything is going to happen here, Lord, you’re going to have to do it.

On the other hand, I would not presume to guess how the Lord responded to such a prayer, if indeed Peter prayed it. But we do know what happened next: Peter told Dorcas to get up, and she did.
Peter then called the others back into the room to see the very much alive Tabitha, and we are then told that “many believed in the Lord,” presumably because of what happened there. Clearly one can imagine many being impressed by the miracle of a woman who was dead being raised to life. We see in other places in scripture how some will respond to this kind of miracle with an immediate response of belief, so that wouldn’t be a shock.
I suspect, though, that there’s also another level of “belief response” at work here. Remember who Dorcas is; our one-woman faith-based anti-poverty initiative, a woman of resources who gave of those resources for others who did not have them, maybe even at the expense of her own health or well-being. Were there other women like her in Joppa, or was she really the one, the only one, standing in the gap between the poor and oblivion? Was she really a one-woman initiative?
Whatever was the case, the raising of Tabitha, or Dorcas, maybe meant something different to those whose lives had been salvaged by her generosity and tireless work. A miracle, yes, but maybe it was a miracle with a particular meaning, one in which Tabitha was not the only one being saved. In the words of Presbyterian pastor Heidi Peterson,  

Many who heard about Tabitha’s venture to and return from the other side believed, perhaps because it was a miraculous event. Or perhaps because of what the event revealed about God. The widows would not be abandoned. God would not allow it.[i]

Notice that Dorcas never speaks in this passage, and as this is the only place in scripture where she is mentioned, we can say we never see or hear her say a word. She was no preacher, not a prophet, and doesn’t get the label “full of the Holy Spirit” that Luke applies to others in his gospel and history, like the martyr Stephen. And yet the witness of her work was such that her death was sufficient reason to yank the foremost of the apostles off his given journey to be there to do…whatever God would allow or enable him to do. She mattered that much, because her work mattered that much.
Her work was to extend herself for those who were the most marginalized of society at the time, those who were routinely crushed by the machine of the Roman Empire and the patriarchal structures of both that empire and the religious and societal structures in which they made the mistake of losing their husbands to death. And for this she mattered, not necessarily to the Roman governor of the region or the important leaders of the city, but to the poor widows, and to the fledgling congregation of which she was a part.
And she mattered enough to God.
What then does this mean for us?
We have Tabithas or Dorcases in our congregation; you know who they are. Do we leave them on their own to do the work? Do we support them in a way that recognizes the absolutely indispensible work they do in the face of crushing need?
Is there more we can do? Are there more Tabithas among us, who simply need our support to in turn be there for those in need?
What do we want our witness to be in this place? Are we merely about the business of survival, or are there avenues of service we need to be exploring and opening up on this stretch of US-441 where we stand?
Are we going merely to talk the talk, or will we walk the walk?
Dorcas did the latter. Dare we?
Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Heidi A. Peterson, “Clothed With Compassion” (Acts 9:36-43), Christian Century (April 18-25, 2001), 11.

Hymns: “Christ Is Risen! Shout Hosanna!” (PH 105); “The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want” (PH 170); “For All the Faithful Women” (GtG 324); “There Is a Balm In Gilead” (PH 394)

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Sermon: In the Breaking of the Bread

Grace Presbyterian Church
April 3, 2016, Easter 2C
Luke 24:13-35

In the Breaking of the Bread

One of the characteristic features of Luke’s gospel is that Jesus and the disciples spend an awful lot of time at the dinner table, or otherwise gathered around food.
More broadly one could argue – and at least one author has – that one of the underlying themes of the gospel is hospitality – both the ways in which Jesus sought to minister to those around them through the practice of welcome, the practice of enabling others to feel “at home” in his presence, and the ways in which such hospitality was (or was not) extended towards Jesus – whether Jesus was made welcome or not.
But the specific hospitality context of a meal does come up awfully frequently in Luke’s gospel. There are at least ten different accounts in Luke in which the action taking place is either a meal, or something that takes place in the context of a meal; six of those stories are unique to Luke, not found in any of the other gospels. In addition, another seven accounts in Luke feature meals or eating or food in the context of Jesus’s teaching to the crowds or to the disciples, or sometimes in the context of conflict with the religious authorities, as in the incident in which Jesus’s disciples were criticized for plucking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the first appearance of the risen Christ that Luke records in his gospel features a meal as its turning point.
We start on the road, though. Two of Jesus’s followers – not among the twelve, but clearly followers who had been with Jesus for some time – were, for reasons we don’t know, walking from Jerusalem to a town called Emmaus.
This is on the third day. We find out later that this is after the women have come back from the empty tomb, as recorded in the first part of this chapter, but at this point no one has actually seen Jesus. We have accounts from the women of the tomb being empty, but no sign of the risen Christ.
We hear that these two men, one of whom will be called Cleopas a few verses later, are talking about “all these things that had happened.” We tend to presume that “all these things” are those events that happened in Jesus’s last week in Jerusalem, particularly from the Last Supper forward through the crucifixion. It might also have included that curious report from the women and Peter, who each went to Jesus’s tomb and saw it empty.
Whatever their subjects of discussion, they were so caught up in them that they didn’t notice the man who had caught up with them from behind. (Remember, we know it’s Jesus, but they don’t.) When he asks what they’re talking about, the two followers act as if it should have been impossible for anyone in Jerusalem to have missed the events surrounding Jesus and his crucifixion. They recite those events to him (again, not recognizing that it is Jesus), including the odd reports about the empty tomb. In doing so they reveal, in the words “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” that after all this time they might not have truly understood just it was for Jesus to be the Messiah – not the military conqueror, but indeed a suffering Messiah and a true spiritual redeemer of Israel and of all.
It is this that Jesus picks up on and expounds upon as he begins to teach them, one more time, how all the things that he had said and done had been “necessary.” Going all the way back to Moses and working through all the law and the prophets he proclaims to them once again how all of his life and his teaching and, yes, his suffering and death, had been “necessary.”
What happens next, as the two travelers come to their destination, demonstrates that for all that the two disciples might have forgotten or misunderstood, they had remembered one thing, perhaps the most important thing. They had remembered how Jesus taught and showed them how to be his followers.
They remembered the table.
Not just the table at which Jesus had only days before broken bread and poured a cup and talked about his body and blood, and kept using words like “do this in remembrance of me.” Surely they remembered that one, but they remembered all those other meals and all those other tables – the one with five thousand fed by just a few loaves and fish; the one at Zacchaeus’s house, where a skinflint tax collector suddenly started making alternate plans for the distribution of his estate; the banquet at the home of another tax collector, Levi, who had dropped his whole business at a word to follow Jesus; the evening at the home of Mary and Martha, with Martha fussing over every detail while Mary presumed to sit at Jesus’s feet with the other disciples; a dinner at the home of a man named Simon, with some of the most disreputable people around.
They remembered, and they wouldn’t let the stranger go without breaking bread with them.
The rest of the story is fairly familiar; the stranger, the guest, takes over as host and breaks the bread – I know that breaking of the bread – that’s Jesus! – only for him to disappear from his sight; the rushed return to Jerusalem, where the disciples tell them about Jesus appearing to Simon (we tend to assume they’re speaking of Peter); and then, in the remainder of the chapter, Jesus himself appearing before them and teaching them, one last time.
In the breaking of the bread they recognized Jesus, yes; but it was in Cleopas and the other disciples reaching out to the stranger, inviting them into their own meal and their own room and sharing their resources with him, that Jesus was welcomed and able to break the bread.
One is reminded of the stories from Genesis, how Abraham and Sarah unwittingly entertained angels and even Yahweh himself in welcoming the stranger. We are also reminded of Jesus’s own words in Matthew 25, that what we do (or don’t do) for or to “the least of these,” we do to Jesus himself.
Our call, at its most elemental and most basic, is to make welcome for the stranger, for the guest, for the sojourners among us. This, even more than our prayers and offerings and worship, is how we welcome Christ among us.
We come to the table, and welcome Christ among us. Christ takes up the bread and breaks it, and we see our risen Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “Good Christians All, Rejoice and Sing!” (111); “Christ Is Risen” (109); “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ” (514); “Christ Is Alive!” (108)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter sermon: Missing Person Report/Found

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 27, 2016, Easter Sunday C
Luke 24:1-12

Part 1: Missing Person Report

Resurrection isn’t normal.
We have a pretty romanticized view of biblical events, sometimes, whether intentionally or not. Hollywood probably doesn’t help, with those old biblically-based movies with swelling choruses and strings when anything even remotely dramatic happens.
The current movie Risen (in theatres now) actually does one thing well; it works against this romanticizing tendency of ours when it comes to the crucifixion and resurrection. The film’s main character, a Roman military officer charged first with keeping the body of Jesus from being stolen and then with finding it once it does disappear, doesn’t have any particular reaction at the sight of Jesus on the cross except that it would be really convenient if he would go ahead and die so they could dispose of the body. The interruption of Joseph of Arimathea to claim the body actually turns out to be a convenience. Later, when the tomb turns out to be empty after a couple of days, to him it’s mostly a headache, as he knows that Governor Pilate is going to have a panic attack and make work for him.
That of course is fiction, but the biblical account that Luke gives doesn’t seem to indicate that the disciples and other followers of Jesus caught on any better. When the women showed up at the tomb and found it empty, their initial reaction was to be perplexed. No great rejoicing, no immediate epiphany of realization, just being highly confused.
The appearance of “two men in dazzling clothes” and their pointed reminder of the things that Jesus had told them does make some difference, but we don’t really get that the women have truly grasped what is going on. They do go back and report to the eleven and the others, but Luke doesn’t give us any particular indication that the women do so with any great excitement. To their eternal discredit, the disciples are even less impressed, calling the women’s story an “idle tale.” Peter, though, is at least provoked enough to go check out the tomb and verify their report.
Sure enough, he finds the tomb as the women have described it, noting the grave clothes off in a pile by themselves. But that’s all. Peter is impressed enough to be “amazed,” but all he can come up to do is go home.
It’s one thing to be perplexed or amazed. But these reactions don’t necessarily move us or change our lives. It doesn’t necessarily move you at the core of your being.
We do celebrate the empty tomb on this day. But that’s not really the main thing we celebrate.

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 27, 2016, Easter Sunday C
Luke 24: 36-49

Part 2: Found

Later on, the followers were gathered in a room, perhaps trying to make sense of what the women and then Peter had seen. Two of their number – we aren’t told who – had headed for Emmaus that day, but before too long those two came bursting into the room and telling their own story. This one was a bit different, though.
On their way they had been joined by a stranger who, though he didn’t seem to know much about what had happened, knew an awful lot about scripture and the very things Jesus had taught them many times. When they persuaded the stranger to stay and join them for a meal, the stranger took the bread and broke it – shades of that last meal a few nights before! – this was Jesus! Though the man disappeared just a moment later, the two followers had to come back to Jerusalem and share what had happened.
And then, the ultimate – Jesus himself appears before them.
And even this doesn’t seem to convince them.
Their first reaction is to be “startled and terrified.” Fair enough; their first thought was that they were seeing a ghost. Again, we somehow imagine we would recognize everything and have all those scriptures Jesus had taught would come flooding back into our minds and we would fall down and worship or something like that.
But that’s not what happens.
He challenges them to see his hands and feet, skin and bones that a ghost wouldn’t have. Here the disciples’ reaction takes a strange turn in verse 41: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…” Puzzle that one out: joy, but also disbelieving. They were rejoicing and yet still couldn’t believe it. Even Jesus eating a piece of fish doesn’t quite seem to lift the fog.
In that movie Risen, that Roman officer was aggravated and inconvenienced when the body turned up missing. Sure enough, Pilate gave him the task of tracking it down before that two-bit rabbi’s disciples could start claiming that he was back from the dead. He interviews a number of people who had known the missing messiah, including Mary Magdalene and one of the disciples, Bartholomew. Their claims that this Jesus fellow really was alive fell on deaf ears until, during the search, he burst into a room where the disciples were gathered, and Jesus – the same man he had seen die on that cross – was with them. From there his life was turned inside-out, his promising military career not even a thought anymore, everything and everyone he had known out of his life.
The empty tomb matters. It startles us. It is a puzzle and a challenge to our logic, it disturbs and throws us off. But it isn’t the empty tomb that undoes us. The stone rolled away and the body gone is a challenge, but it doesn’t change our lives. In Luke’s story, only the risen Christ does that.
The risen Christ. That’s what – who – we encounter on this day. That is why this day matters, why it’s worth all the bother and effort. An empty tomb is not what we follow. It is the Christ, the Son of God, the one who lived so that we would see what God wanted of us, who taught how to live and how to love and how to care for the world and one another, the one who was crucified and yet did not stay dead. It is Christ, risen and living, that is our salvation and hope.
For the Christ, risen and living, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” (113), “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” (123)

Credit: Nobody believes nuthin'