Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sermon: Not the Lone Ranger

Grace Presbyterian Church
June 19, 2016, Pentecost 5C
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-18; 1 Kings 19:1-16;
      Galatians 3:23-29

Not the Lone Ranger

I’m a little young to remember the TV show – not as young as some here, but a little young for that. And because of my history of studying and teaching music history, if you played me the musical theme to that show I’d be much more likely to identify it as the final theme from Gioacchino Rossini’s overture to his opera Guillaume Tell, or the “William Tell Overture.”
But, yeah, we know about the Lone Ranger.
Some of you might be mentally rehearsing the opening to that show right now: “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear … From out of the west with the speed of light and a hearty ‘hi-yo Silver!’” … Yes, I can see you, it’s showing on your faces… .
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Lone Ranger, because of those old radio serials and the later television series, has been established for many decades as one of the iconic fictional characters in American popular culture.
Funny thing about the Lone Ranger, though; he was almost never really “lone.” The name, it turns out, is traceable to the character’s “origin story,” in which he was the lone survivor of a unit of Texas Rangers that was ambushed on a patrol. The five other members of the patrol, including its captain – the older brother of the eventual “Lone Ranger” – were killed. Rather than being truly “lone,” The Lone Ranger was instead virtually always accompanied by Tonto, a Native American who found the man barely alive after the ambush and nurtured him back to health. Again, I didn’t hear or watch the show, but it seems that most of what he accomplished required Tonto’s help.
Nonetheless, the image, or maybe the myth of the “Lone Ranger” as a singular individual who pursued justice on his own has persisted in the American mindset in particular, and has sometimes curdled into a image of a loner seeking revenge or retribution instead of justice (an appropriation that does no justice to the original character).
Though he lived innumerable centuries before the Lone Ranger mythology, the prophet Elijah seems sometimes to fall prey to the mindset of “going it alone.” You might remember from a few weeks ago, how Elijah took a simple command from God to announce the end of a drought and drew it out into an elaborate contest with the Baal prophets, culminating in the spectacular display of fire from heaven coming down and consuming all the waterlogged altars and soaked sacrifices. Afterwards, as the rain approached, Elijah (apparently now possessed by the super-speed of another modern hero, The Flash) ran ahead of King Ahab’s fully equipped chariot to the town of Jezreel, serving then as the seat of power in Israel.
And that’s where today’s reading kicks off, with Ahab whining to his wife Jezebel about what Elijah had done, and Jezebel issuing (via messenger) a not too veiled threat to Elijah: what you did to my Baal prophets, I’m gonna do to you.
And Elijah, the man who had been sustained in the wilderness by ravens, who had seen God miraculously extend meal and oil for weeks for the widow and her son, who had challenged the Baal prophets and won, who had slaughtered all those Baal prophets in triumph and humiliated the king … now, Elijah was scared. And Elijah ran. To be blunt, he ran like a scared chicken.
You can see the account of Elijah’s flight, falling asleep in despair only to be awakened, fed, and sent on his way (not once, but twice); arriving at Horeb the mount of God (in Exodus, that mountain was called Sinai), and repeating what almost sounds like a rehearsed, pre-packaged answer to God:
I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.

Elijah says this two times: first, when he comes to the cave on Horeb the mount of God, and then after the progression described in verses 11-12; a great wind, a strong earthquake, and a mighty fire, a scene not unlike that at the end of the psalm we read earlier. But God was in none of those; only in the “sound of sheer silence” did Elijah discern the presence of the Lord.
So somehow, the bombast and tumult of the mountaintop display, not completely unlike the bombast and tumult Elijah himself had initiated back at Mount Carmel, somehow doesn’t seem to get through to Elijah, for afterwards when he is asked a second time “what are you doing here, Elijah?” he responds the exact same way as before:
I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.

He doesn’t get it. Maybe if Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio with its vivid and exhilarating depiction of that scene had been available, Elijah might have had a better time understanding it. (Insert misguided attempt to sing here.) But Elijah doesn’t get it, so God has to hit him over the head with it, if Elijah is ever going to get over his severe case of Lone Ranger Syndrome.
First of all, we the reader know that Elijah has been fundamentally incorrect all along. Back in the first verses of chapter 18 we read of Obadiah, a servant in Ahab’s court who despite the threats of the royal family had secreted away a hundred prophets loyal to the Lord, hiding them in caves to thwart Jezebel’s plans to kill them. That’s at least a hundred and one examples of how Elijah was wrong when he claimed that “he alone was left,” and Elijah knows this because Obadiah told him to his face in 18:13. God then, in 19:18 just outside our reading, points to seven thousand loyal Israelites who have not bowed the knee to Baal, seven thousand faithful that God would preserve.
But maybe the unkindest cut of all comes in verse 16. Not only was Elijah not the Lone Ranger, he wasn’t even irreplaceable. Another prophet would take his place, and it was Elijah’s job to go anoint him. If that’s not a direct slap in the face against Elijah’s pity party I don’t know what else it could be.
Now God still had work for Elijah to do, but God needed Elijah focused on God’s call to him, and not hung up on his self-obsessed and self-possessed despair. It’s not hard to extrapolate the lesson for us from such a story: the same thing applies to us.
It’s not uncommon for us to fall into that pit. Australian biblical scholar and pastor Howard Wallace points out that Elijah needs to be released from the zealousness and self-control that had ruled his previous service and learn that it was the word of the Lord, which sometimes did not speak in the wind or earthquake or fire, to which he needed to submit his prophetic witness.[i] We’re convinced it’s all up to us. No one else is going to step up, it’s all on our shoulders. Yes, it’s easy to slip into that particular quality of despair, but it can be possibly the worst place for a follower of Christ to end up, It can go either of two different ways, both disastrous and potentially destructive.
This has been a week where perhaps we’ve felt that despair and sense of aloneness, in the wake of the horrific murders of forty-nine patrons in a nightclub in Orlando patronized primarily by gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or queer persons (and primary a Latino/Latina audience on that particular night). That event happened only a few days before the first anniversary of another infamous shooting, of nine members of an African-American congregation in Charleston. In the face of such horrific evil, it’s not hard to slip into that despair that no one is faithful anymore, no one will stand up and do what needs to be done.
Of course, on the flip side of that “I alone am left” mentality is the misguided, vengeful would-be Lone Ranger who takes up weapons to commit the murders, because he believes blacks are inferior or gets offended by the sight of two men kissing. “I alone am left” is not just a despairing place; it can be a pathway to acts of unspeakable evil. Even Elijah has already shown himself capable of grotesque violence in the throes of this mindset, commanding the slaughter of all those Baal prophets back in verse 18.
We can’t go there. We must not fall into that mindset (which has nothing of God in it) that the problems of the world are ours to solve by any means necessary. We also can’t be the one who is paralyzed by grief and despair, unable to take up the work of God’s kingdom. We need God, we need Christ, and we need each other too much.
The passage from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians reminds us that for all the ways we differ, God insists on making us one. Not making us “the same,” but one. We are one in Christ. We can’t go thinking we’re the Lone Ranger, folks; if we are truly following Christ, we literally can’t be alone – it is not possible. We are never abandoned, no matter how much we may feel like it.
Speaking of that masked man, besides Tonto, the Lone Ranger as originally written was bound to a strict moral code, one which governed all his actions and prevented him from veering off into revenge or other departures from his mission. For us, our ground is simpler, and yet amazingly complex; our “moral code,” our ground is Christ. It is in Christ, after all, that we are never alone; it is in Christ that we are one.
Even in dark and despairing days, we’re not alone in this, friends. Let’s not act like it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (From Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#4                Holy God, We Praise Your Name
#317            In Christ There Is No East or West
#322            We Are One In Christ Jesus
#824            There Is a Place of Quiet Rest

Yep, there's Tonto. See, he's really not "lone."

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sermon: Calling Down Fire

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 29, 2016, Pentecost 2C
1 Kings 18:20-40; Galatians 1:1-7;
            Luke 7:1-10

Calling Down Fire

Elijah is, to put it mildly, one of the more difficult characters in scripture to comprehend. He seems to come out of nowhere; unlike many of the major characters of Hebrew Scripture like Moses or David, we don’t get much of a life story for him. His presence in biblical story is pretty brief; a few chapters at the end of 1 Kings and the very beginning of 2 Kings. He is attributed feats of superhuman strength (presumably by divine favor, although it isn’t always made clear) that would qualify him as a character in a Marvel superhero movie. And when his time comes, instead of dying like a mere mortal, he is caught up for a ride in a flaming chariot.
His reputation lives on after his death, or final chariot ride. He shows up along with Moses in gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, and his name is invoked at Jesus’s crucifixion, when someone from the crowd wonders if Elijah will come to save him. In modern Jewish practice a chair is reserved for Elijah at circumcision services, and at a Seder meal the door is opened and Elijah is invited in, and a cup of wine is set at a place at the table reserved for him. As a Jewish friend of ours pointed out to me, though, Elijah never shows up and the wine never gets consumed – a waste of good wine.
A figure like Elijah can take on legendary status – it can be very hard for us to conceive of Elijah as human, with all the flaws and faults that implies, when he is calling down fire, outrunning a chariot, running from Israel to Sinai, or disappearing in a trail of flame. That would be a mistake, though; even in his great moments Elijah displays flaws from which we would do well to learn, if only to learn to avoid.
The story covered by today’s lectionary reading is probably the most famous part of Elijah’s narrative, except possibly for the fiery-chariot departure from the planet. It’s the kind of scene that big old-fashioned Hollywood biblical epics are made of: a dramatic confrontation; wild, frenzied action (particularly on the part of the Baal prophets, in their desperation to get a response from their nonexistent god); a charismatic and slightly crazy lead in confrontation with the political authority of his day; and a spectacular climax (with superior dramatic buildup) that would be a great opportunity for the special-effects department to do their thing. In fact, it rather amazes me that the story of Elijah hasn’t been made into such a movie somewhere along the way, although it does get a good dramatic treatment in Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio about the prophet, Elijah.
Still, though, if we poke around the ends and the corners of this account, there are a few parts that should give us pause.
First, though, it’s worth setting the scene. Israel (the northern kingdom at this point in biblical history, in contrast to the southern kingdom Judah) has, largely under the influence of Israel’s king Ahab and his foreign-born queen Jezebel, taken up the worship of the idol Baal, a figure in non-Jewish religions to which is attributed power over rain. In response to this, Elijah predicted a drought to fall on Israel, which indeed happened; by the time of today’s reading the drought has been in effect for three years. Elijah has first been in hiding in the wilderness, and later with a family in Zarepath, in the region of Sidon, outside Israel (next week’s scripture reading will cover this part of the story).
Now it was no new thing for the people of God to go astray and give their homage to idols. Nor is it a thing confined only to the darker past of such corners of Hebrew Scripture as this. They many not be carved wood or stone, and we may not trust them to provide rain for our crops, but even today the people of God are far too prone to give their allegiance and their trust in false gods, willingly supplied by the culture and society in which we live.
Those of you who follow college sports saw an example of just such a thing in this week’s headlines about Baylor University, which initiated proceedings to dismiss its president, athletic director, and football coach in the wake of an investigation revealing failure to take seriously numerous allegations of sexual abuse of female students on the campus, by male students including but not limited to football players. Despite its self-described status as a Christian institution of higher learning, Baylor apparently tolerated one of the most vile and unchristian, not to mention criminal, actions one human being can inflict upon another, apparently blinded by the idol of athletic prowess and success according to a very worldly status. Idols take many forms these days, but don’t ever be deceived into thinking they don’t exist anymore just because nobody’s physically bowing down to carved wooden statues.
But back to Elijah. God does give a command to Elijah in the face of the three-year drought, but nothing so elaborate as you might think. In 18:1, God issues this word to Elijah: “Go, present yourself to Ahab; I will send rain on the earth.”
That’s it.
Nothing about a big altar-burning contest. Nothing about any kind of big display, or show of force. Just a command to go to the king. But from this Elijah has extrapolated this elaborate contest. When he does meet Ahab, in verses 17-19, he doesn’t even say anything about rain coming. Ahab tosses off an insult at Elijah, calling him “troubler of Israel,” and Elijah rants back and challenges Ahab to the contest with the prophets of Baal.
One can look at this a few ways. Elijah is simply confident in God to support him. Or Elijah has an ego the size of a planet to think he can challenge the king and have God automatically back him up. Or Elijah has a hair-temper trigger and goes off half-cocked rather easily. Or Elijah has the mindset of a Celebrity Pastor; why simply proclaim the good news when you can put on a monumental show?
To be honest, I think there’s something to be said for the latter view. After all, Elijah doesn’t just challenge Ahab to the contest, but makes a theatrical event out of it at every step. The way Elijah mocked and derided the Baal prophets during “their turn,” you’d think he took taunting lessons from professional athletes. And when it’s finally his turn, he doesn’t just call out to God to consume the fire. Noooooo…first he has to make a great display of drenching the altar thoroughly, using an amount of water that makes very little sense at the height of a three-year drought.
And yet… “…the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.”
Elijah would hardly be the first or last such leader to be subject to temper, or excess, or theatrical overload. Our reading from Galatians captures just a small part of the vitriol Paul unleashes upon the believers in that community over their being misled by religious leaders who taught them rather less good news that Paul and his company had taught. His anger at their straying is palpable and only builds until finally, at 3:1, he exclaims, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” But at least he doesn’t have anybody killed.
There it is, in verse 40, which the assigned lectionary would have me leave out; those prophets of Baal are rounded up and executed. Let me put aside all delicacy and say bluntly (as much as it is a shame that this even has to be said, but such is the world in which we live) that this is not good, and it certainly isn’t commanded of God. There are plenty of disturbing passages in the Old Testament, back in books before 1 Kings, in which God really is portrayed as ordering the king or the prophet to slaughter their enemies (usually an opposing army, though), but there is no such mandate from God here; remember, all Elijah was told to do was to present himself to the king, and that rain would soon some. Everything else here is Elijah’s doing.
Some scholars argue that Elijah is taking retribution on Jezebel for killing the prophets of the Lord, as noted in 18:4. But since when is retribution Elijah’s to take? Violence in return for violence only guarantees more violence, as Elijah himself will find out in the next chapter. This weekend, and the Memorial Day that is observed this weekend, should serve as a reminder of that hard fact, if nothing else. In a day when far too many people are far too ready to kill in the name of God, this bit of “inspiration” from Elijah we don’t need.
The story of Jesus and the centurion found in the day’s gospel reading stands in stark contrast to the Elijah story. First of all, rather than the putative people of God straying from faith, the protagonist is a Roman centurion, an officer of an occupying army, who shows greater faith, according to Jesus, than he had seen in Israel. Secondly, it’s worth noting that Jesus did not consider it beneath himself to go to meet this centurion and the slave who was “close to death.” Rather than one to be destroyed, Jesus saw one to be extended the healing, the wholeness, and the love that it was his mission to show to God’s people. And in the centurion’s clumsy if earnest equation of Jesus’s power to that of a higher military authority, Jesus found a seed of faith that he went out of his way to respect.
Today it seems that Christianity bears maybe too much resemblance to the wrong examples in this story. We get led astray by false teachers, like the Galatians, or we vent our anger at other Christians like Paul (who, it should be said, did eventually get himself under control). We take up destructive idols like the people of Israel, or we appoint ourselves executors of God’s wrath like Elijah.
There’s only one worthy of our worship. We may not erect idols of wood or stone and bow down and worship, but don’t let’s kid ourselves; we create and adulate plenty of idols, and I don’t just mean the ones on that TV singing competition. Our adulation of wealth, or influence, or status; our fanatical support of a political party or figure; even excessive allegiance to a sports team or league or game – any of these, or any kind of overzealous allegiance, can become a false god, claiming adoration and emulation and worship that belongs only to God. It’s not for nothing that John Calvin described human nature as a “perpetual factory of idols”. [i] And yet the overzealous avenger is no better a position to take, bringing only destruction and death rather than life and healing.
As much as we may respect and admire and even learn from the likes of Elijah or Paul, Moses or David or the Apostles, we have only one Person in our Bible who is worthy of emulation or imitation, and most certainly only one Person worthy of worship; the one who frees us, both from the idols to which we would enslave ourselves and the claims of retribution by which we would destroy ourselves. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…[ii]
Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 11:8.
[ii] The Nicene Creed.

Hymns (GtG): "Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above" (645); "O My Soul, Bless Your Redeemer" (439), "O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee" (738); "Hear the Good News of Salvation" (441)

Elijah, what a showoff...

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)