Sunday, April 24, 2016

You, Me, and Those People: Acts 11:1-18 - Fifth Sunday of Easter

1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (NRSV)
Roko naktys by Zoi Koraki. Creative commons image on flickr
I’m hardly brave when it comes to trying new foods…  But when an Ethiopian family invited us to their home for a traditional Ethiopian meal, I could not say no. 

I don’t remember exactly what I ate that evening, except to say that it didn’t demand that much bravery—and it was delicious.

They don't have silverware in Ethiopia, so every meal is served with a large, spongy pancake called “injera.”  To eat your meal, you tear off a piece of the injera and use it to pinch a portion of your food. 

Our friends also served coffee, fresh from the trees—literally roasting the beans before brewing it.

Yet what was most memorable was their love and friendship. 

But this edible adventure pales in comparison to what Peter experienced in today’s first reading…  While he is praying, he falls into a trance—and God commands him to eat “profane and unclean” foods.  We’re talking the very foods strictly forbidden by the Law of Moses.  At first, Peter objects—but God insists.  The rules have changed: “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Peter testifies to this dream when he returns to Jerusalem—because he’s in hot water with “the circumcised believers” for ministering to and fellowshipping with uncircumcised Gentiles.  In Scripture, “Gentile” is an umbrella term applying to anyone and everyone who was not Jewish in ethnicity, lifestyle, or religion.  After all, Old Testament Israel was constantly under threatened, harassed, and attacked by Gentiles.  Their sinful, pagan ways often corrupted the Israelites and led many astray.  Naturally, the best way to remove the threat was to avoid those people—and maintain strict, impermeable boundaries between the holy and profane

But Peter transgressed these boundaries…  Jesus did, too…

You could say Peter ignited the first major controversy of the early church: must you be a child of Israel—or become as one—to belong to the community of Christ?

The controversy here is not unlike those we see today.  What does it mean to live as a Christian?  What does it mean to live as an American?

We live in a culture ruled by fear, anger, and desperation.  Anxiety and paranoia can quickly take us over:
·         As we struggle to make ends meet
·         When we fall victim to crime and violence
·         When our deeply-held values and beliefs are under attack
·         As evil seems to be having its way

What happens is that the people who sin against us become the faces of evil.  But we don't stop there…  There’s “me” and “us”—but there’s “those people.”  They’ve done nothing to us, but we count them as enemies.  “Those people” act differently; believe differently; live differently; look differently.  If those people get too close and get their way, we’re in danger.  Our society is in danger.

But now, Jesus is making a dangerous commandment: to love one another…  “One another” includes “those people.”  The reason why is simple: God loves “those people” too. 

God uses Peter to bring Gentiles into the Church—and no, they will not be circumcised.  They will not become Jewish.  However, they will be baptized.  They will belong.  The challenge for the circumcised believers is that Jesus is building a Church that will be profoundly different from Old Testament Judaism. 

It is not built of walls that protect us from "those people," whoever they may be...   The Church is built on relationships.

The Church exists to love the world that Jesus loves—which means that we’re not finding fault; we’re not discriminating between worthy and unworthy people.  We’re not fighting to prove ourselves as right, everyone else as wrong, and remake our society so that everyone either becomes like us or goes away.  We’re loving people—which goes far beyond just being nice.  We’re going out and meeting “those people” where they are.  We’re hearing their stories; we’re sharing their burdens; we’re meeting their needs.  We are the faces, the hands, and the voices of Jesus. 

I can’t tell you what the Church of tomorrow will be, except that it will be different—far different than anything it has ever been in the past, or even anything that we could imagine.  But we won’t be a part of it if we love our doctrines, our commitments, our traditions, and our buildings more than God’s people.  We won’t be a part of it if we expect others to come to us and then expect them to become like us before they can be one of us

The future of the church is love.  We are commanded to love one another because we are loved.  Love begins by seeing beyond ourselves.  Love embraces others as more precious to us than anything else.  Love welcomes diversity and even celebrates it.  Love binds us together when conflict and controversy inevitably arise.  Love chooses “those people” instead of doing our own thing and resisting change.

When you love, you can see more easily the love that surrounds you.  And as difficult as it can be to love “those people,” “those people” may show you God’s love like we’ve never known it before.  If they don’t, you are blessed because Jesus loves you.  And best of all, we become more like the people God created us to be—and we know Jesus like never before. 

We’re all children of God.  Life is better as we’re loving, together.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Being Sheep: Acts 9:36-43 - Fourth Sunday of Easter

36Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a ro38Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner. (NRSV)
Sheep and cows in Steyning Bowl by Leimenide.  Creative Commons image on flickr

In many ways, the halls of Gettysburg Seminary could be described as an art gallery...

Every past seminary president (living or dead) has his own painted portrait, as do several distinguished faculty and alums. 

To no one’s surprise, there are no paintings of janitors, cooks, or office workers.  Yet the institution could not exist without them…

Today, in our first reading from Acts, we are introduced to a female disciple named Tabitha (or Dorcas, in the Greek). 

If you’ve never heard of her, you’re not alone.  I’ve read Acts numerous times, but I could not have told you Tabitha’s story prior to this week.

She is the only woman in the entire New Testament who is actually called a “disciple.”  It is written that “she was devoted to good works and acts of charity.”  She then became ill and died.”  Upon learning of her death, the widows she had served came to grieve, wearing the garments Tabitha had made. 

Perhaps one of the reasons why Tabitha’s story is told is because of her service to widows.  In both the Old and New Testaments, God’s Word commands that all widows be looked after and cared for.  In those days, there were no social welfare programs.  Without a husband to provide for her and their children, the charity of others was often all that kept them from starvation.

Trouble was, widows were easily forgotten—even by the early Church.  In Acts chapter 6, we learn that widows were being neglected in the daily distributions of food.  But God did not neglect their suffering.  God raised up an ordinary woman, gifted with the ability to make clothing, and used her to raise up the widows of her community.  Even though she was dead, the widows were literally clothed in her love and good deeds.  In no small way, God was giving resurrection to widows through Tabitha.  And now, God is giving Tabitha a taste of her own medicine… 

Tabitha is like so many women, men, and children in God’s kingdom: they are anonymous disciples whose service goes largely unnoticed.  Full of humility, compassion, and grace, they serve the underserved.  They love and care for persons who dwell in the shadows of everyday life; whose suffering is not at the forefront of everyone’s attention.

Everyone notices the service Peter, Paul and the apostles were doing, even to this day.  For one thing, they were men.  They preached and performed miracles before thousands.  They may have led the Church like lions—but it bears mentioning that they died as lambs led off to the slaughter. 

Tabitha, on the other hand, made clothing for widows. You could say she was a sheep whose wool literally clothed others with Jesus’ life and love. 

This is how God brings new life to the world—raising up some who will serve in the public eye; and others who will be as sheep. 
But discipleship is not a call to glory…  It’s not a call to the spotlight, but to the shadows where God’s children suffer and want.  It’s not a call to heroism, but use whatever gifts and passions God has given you to lift up others.

So today, let us celebrate Jesus—and Tabitha—by asking: who of God’s children are underserved in our community?  Whose hunger and pains are being neglected and ignored? 

Personally, I believe one of the biggest mistakes being made by the Church today is that we haven’t a clue of what Jesus wants our congregations to be.  I’ve long dreamed of a future in which all the pews and roll books are filled with happy, young families.  Never again would we have to worry about offerings meeting the budget or finding volunteers to serve on committees.  Think of all we could do if our congregation was like those big ones you see on TV or that friends and neighbors tell you about that they attend.

But have we ever stopped to ask if that’s what Jesus wants?  Jesus never uttered a word about buildings, budgets, committees, or programs. 

Jesus went—and sent his disciples to the people who were unserved and underserved.  They went and ministered to both the neglected and the rejected.  They took great risks, faced great terrors, gave everything they had, and reaped little in return.  Most were forgotten.  Many lost their lives.  Yet through these disciples, Jesus shepherded all into resurrection. 

This is what we are called to do as a Church.  We are here to see to it that no one goes hungry, rejected, and forgotten.  We are here to make sure no one misses out on Jesus’ love.  We are one flock, of one shepherd.  We share our wool.  We do whatever is in us to do, and God supplies the rest.  We rise together. 

It’s not about you, me, or even this congregation.  It’s about the shepherd and sheep that he loves.  It’s good to be a sheep in Jesus’ flock!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Conversion Conundrums: Acts 9:1-20 - Third Sunday of Easter

By Caravaggio - scan, Public Domain
1Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
  For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,
20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 
I thought I was in for a quiet flight when I took my window seat next to a nine-year-old boy immersed in a fantasy novel...  Boy, was I mistaken…

As soon as I sit down, he asks me my name and he introduces himself, and he strikes up a lively conversation. 

I’m amazed at how outgoing this young man is, particularly because I had just taken a mandatory personality test, as I was entering seminary the following month.  I rated 82% on the introvert scale—which is a fancy way of saying that I’m as shy as a bat in broad daylight…

By the time the plane takes off, he asks the big question: “have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

For me, this wasn’t an easy question to answer—because I’d always been a Christian.  I didn’t have a profound conversion experience like he had when he answered an altar call at his family’s church.  As a future pastor, I felt quite uneasy that I didn’t possess the spiritual gift he had to share my faith so openly with complete strangers… 

Yet if there was ever a person unqualified for the ministry of Jesus Christ, that person would have to be Saul.  We first hear about Saul in Acts, chapter 7.  He’s a young man of high standing in the religious establishment—and authorizes the execution of Stephen, who was the first person to die for their faithfulness to Jesus Christ.  Soon, he is going house to house, throwing Christians into prison.  Later, the religious authorities send him to Damascus with official papers authorizing him to arrest any and all who belonged to the Church, and take them in chains to Jerusalem. 

As he neared the city, a flash of light knocks him to the ground, and Jesus speaks as a thundering voice from heaven, revealing that he is the one Saul is persecuting.  He then commands Saul to get on his feet and go to Damascus.  His traveling companions must take him by the hand—because the encounter of Jesus has left him blind.

Meanwhile, Jesus appears to a disciple in Damascus named Ananias, and commands him to go to the house of Judas to lay hands upon the murderous ravager of the Church, whose reputation has clearly preceded him.  Naturally, Ananias objects to Jesus’ commands—but Jesus asserts that he is his chosen instrument to bring his name before Gentiles, rulers, and the people of Israel.  Ananias does as he’s told; scabs fall from Saul’s eyes, and the great persecutor of the Church becomes one of its most faithful laborers.  He gets a new name, a new life, and a new purpose.

This is what happens when we encounter the living Christ: there is resurrection.  There is conversion.  We receive a new identity, a new life, and a new purpose.  Yet for most of us, conversion is neither immediate nor dramatic…  Even if it is, it’s not uncommon for the novelty to quickly wear off as life returns to what it was before…

Speaking personally, I’m amazed at how quickly the joy of Easter Sunday wears off.  It was only two weeks ago, but, the way I feel it may as well have never even happened.  When the liturgy ended and we walked out of this building, we returned to a world that was every bit as threatening as it was on Good Friday.  As the pains and uncertainties of life stalk us like Saul did the early Christians, our Easter faith can quickly be consumed by desperation, fear, anger, and even hate.  Easter and resurrection mean nothing if all you can see is evil and death.

Conversion is, quite frankly, what we all need in this world so full of evil and death. 

What is rather ironic about Paul’s conversion is that his life was easy and quite prestigious before.  He was a kind of white knight, defending the defending the holiness of Jerusalem.  But now, life will be quite difficult. God sent him to people who were probably scared to death of him.  He will indeed suffer greatly for Jesus’ sake, just as Ananias is told.  The religious authorities conspire to assassinate him before Acts 9 closes out. 

Conversion is neither easy nor gentle; just ask Paul.   

It happens when you’re knocked to the ground; or when you’re so petrified with fear that you want to run away.  The reality of your sinfulness shatters your pride and can barrage you with so much shame that you won’t want to face the light of day.  Conversion happens when there’s no going back to the familiar and comfortable ways of yesterday.  It even happens when you’ve given up on Jesus. 

The challenge before us, then, is to ask: where is there shame?  Where is there hatred?  Where is there fear?  What are you desperate for?  The first part of conversion is the most painful—we must be crucified with Christ, every day.  But the second part of conversion is that we rise with Christ.  God sends into the world with a new heart, a new identity, and a new purpose.  God doesn’t necessarily send us to convert people, but the Holy Spirit creates conversion by what God sends us to do and through the people God sends us to serve.  It happens in relationships.  Saul and Ananias converted each other merely by obeying Jesus.  It happens to you and me through the strangers we serve.  We give it as we tell our stories of God’s faithfulness. 

Conversion is hardly a one-time event.  It is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, enacting Christ’s resurrection from the dead in you

So get ready, because God may send your life in a new direction. Get ready for God to send you to do difficult things in unexpected places.  Get ready to love and serve the Sauls in your world.  Get ready for change, healing, and new beginnings.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Resurrection On Your Turf: Acts 5:27-32 - Second Sunday of Easter

27When they had brought [the apostles,] they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” (NRSV)
Many residents of a local community are outraged over a plan to convert a vacant church into a halfway house for non-violent criminal offenders.

They fear for the safety of their children and the impact on their property values.  They argue that it’s illegal under local zoning ordinances.  They say other locations in town are more appropriate.

They don’t have a problem with halfway houses; just not in their neighborhood.

So who’s right?  Whose rights should win out here?  What would Jesus say?  Here you have a typical controversy of community life. 

But in today’s first reading from Acts, the controversy is of a different sort—and the stakes are much higher…

The apostles have just been arrested, for the second time, by the religious police.  Their crime was proclaiming that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and performing miraculous signs and wonders among the people.  God was bringing literally thousands of people to faith by their testimony.  Naturally, this posed a grave threat to the religious establishment

Now, the apostles are once again standing before the Sanhedrin—which was a council governing over all the religious affairs of the Jewish people in and around Jerusalem.  This was the same council that handed Jesus over to Pontius Pilate to be crucified.  They had already commanded the apostles to stop teaching about Jesus.  But Peter and the apostles testify that they answer to an even higher authority, and that they will not be silent. 

Trouble is, the men of the Sanhedrin claim authority as their divine right—not only by virtue of their position, but by their thorough knowledge of God’s Law and their absolute adherence to it.  They were guardians over the holiness of Jerusalem and gatekeepers to the divine estate.  As such, they acted with the utmost conviction that they were doing God’s work.  Acts chapter 5 will end with the apostles being flogged—likely the “forty lashes minus one” Paul later speaks of.  Yet, the apostles rejoice to be “considered worthy to suffer dishonor for [Jesus’ sake],” and continue their public proclamation.

I love the wording here—because they weren’t being beaten to a pulp because of what they were saying or doing.  Their proclamation as well as their punishment was because of what God was doing, which began with God raising Jesus from the dead.  God was (and still is) dismantling the present order of things, whereby death and the devil exercise dominion.  God is building the Church which will, in turn, render the Sanhedrin and the religious establishment obsolete. 

It is important to note that the kingdom of death and evil is not destroyed, nor is the kingdom of God built through violence, militancy, or bloodshed—but by the faith-filled testimony of apostles like you and me, as empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Problem is, death and evil won’t go down without a fight…  The front lines of resistance exist inside of every human heart, including yours and mine

One of the chief hallmarks of a sinner is in claiming a divine endorsement over one’s entire way of life.  You’re living each day, firmly believing that your convictions, pursuits, and lifestyle choices all bear divine stamp of approval.  One then turns to religion as a way of helping you to secure and retain what you believe to be your divine right.

Naturally, you will fearsomely resist anything you see trespassing against your divine rights and freedoms.  You can’t be wrong if you feel so in the right.  Before you know it, you’re attacking what could very well be Jesus building God’s kingdom right on your home turf.

But what happens when either disaster strikes or you just plain mess everything up, and you no longer feel that security and divine favor?

We must remember that the apostles were crushed and shattered, in all aspects of their being, by the crucifixion of Jesus.  They were crushed and shattered by their failings. Jesus’ death destroyed their faith, and made it seem as though they’d been living a lie.  Yet no matter what happens, God has the last word.  Jesus shows up and gives resurrection to their faith.  He gives them the Holy Spirit, and sends them into the world to testify to the new reality being born.  “Forty lashes minus one” only adds to their joy in sharing in the living, giving, dying, and rising of Christ.  You can’t fake this!

This is exactly what God intends for each of us.  So when we shout out in celebration “Jesus is risen!”, we’re not merely affirming a one-time event.  On the contrary, we’re celebrating what God is doing in the world—and the resurrection that is happening to us.  God is taking our pains, losses, and fears—together with our sins and failures—and forming us into the disciples of a brand new reality.

We are people of the resurrection.  Our divine rights are not to power, privilege, or personal achievement.  Our divine right is to die with Christ to rise with Christ.  Our freedom is to give ourselves away knowing that we can never be emptied of God’s abundant graces.  Our security comes by the promise that the forces of death and evil that wreak so much havoc are already on the fast track to their own extinction.  Our privilege is the peace of trusting God.  Our joy is in bearing witness to the reality of resurrection.

The grave couldn’t keep a lid on Jesus—and neither the world nor the hardness or timidity of our own hearts can bottle up the coming Kingdom of God.