Acts

table manners

Enriched flour (composed of wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid), soybean oil with TBHQ for freshness (by the way, TBHQ is tertiary butylhydroquinone), sugar, salt, leavening (which in turn contains sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, and monocalcium phosphate), high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, cornstarch, and soy lecithin.

Would anyone care to guess what this list is all about?  Well, it’s the list of ingredients on a box of Keebler Club Crackers.

In recent years, there has been increasing attention to the food that Americans eat, especially the highly processed food we consume.  There’s a witches’ brew of chemicals—some benign, some quite harmful—all mixed up in it, along with added salt and sugar.

Some time ago, I saw an interview with a retired lieutenant general who said the number one reason that people are refused admission to the armed forces is because they’re too overweight.  On a side note, he said something I had never heard before.  In the 1940s, one of the main reasons for Americans being refused admission was malnourishment.  The military considered it to be a question of national security, so it pushed for the free lunch program in public schools.

Maybe it will take the military to push the food industry, and all of us, to get our act together and quit eating so much junk food!  (Although, what can I say?  I do like cookies.)

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Throughout history, cultures have addressed the stuff we put into our bodies in a multitude of ways.  What one group of people rejects as vile and disgusting is considered by others to be a treat that is absolutely scrumptious!

Ancient Israelites and modern-day Jews provide a classic example of distinctions in food.  Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 go into some detail.

These laws regarding what is proper and improper, what is ritually clean and unclean, to eat—they’re just part of a whole vision of life.  Along with birth, death, sex, economics, and everything but the kitchen sink, instructions about food demonstrate the way the people of Israel, who are called to holiness, should live.  In fact, the last part of Leviticus, starting with chapter 17, is referred to as the Holiness Code.

But maybe you’re wondering, “What is all this talk about food?  To remind us to eat healthy?”  Okay, that’s part of it.  Still, what we consume helps to define us.  You know, you are what you eat?  It may be largely an accident of geography, but different cultures are associated with certain kinds of food.  Thinking of cuisine, what comes to mind when I say Chinese…or Mexican…or Turkish?

However, there are other factors when it comes to eating.  What we eat can reflect many values, be they religious, political, ecological, or whatever.

So what’s going on with Peter in Acts 11?  It looks like he’s behaving—and eating—the way he’s supposed to.  It looks like he’s doing his very best to avoid food that is ritually unclean.  He hasn’t defiled himself by eating improper stuff; he has kept kosher.  But then, he has a vision!  (More on that in a moment.)

In chapter 10, we’re told the story of Cornelius, who lives in Caesarea.  He’s what people refer to as a “God-fearer.”  God-fearers are Gentiles attracted by the Jewish faith and who live according to its principles.  The Bible calls Cornelius “devout”; he gives alms generously and observes the hours of prayer (v. 2).

During one of these times of prayer, an angel appears to him, telling him to send for Peter, who’s staying in Joppa, about 30 miles down the coast.  He has a message that Cornelius needs to hear.  It just so happens, as Peter re-tells the story in chapter 11, that while he’s been praying, Cornelius’ guys show up.  And he has quite a story of his own!

It seems that he’s had a vision of “something like a large sheet coming down from heaven,” which contains animals of all kinds (v. 5).  Peter sees critters with feet that run, wings that flap, and scales that are…just scaly!  (This is not a vegetarian friendly vision!)  The heavenly voice rings the dinner bell, and says, “Come and get it!”

As I suggested a moment ago, there are plenty of items on the menu that have Peter saying, “Thanks, but no thanks!”  Then we’re told this: “a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’  This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven” (vv. 9-10).  It came from heaven.  That’s an interesting origin for all of this unclean stuff!

When Peter’s Gentile visitors arrive and tell him about Cornelius, something clicks inside him: one of those “a-ha” moments.  And after he returns with them, as he is speaking, he says that “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning” (v. 15).

What has happened to Peter?  Dan Clendenin frames it like so, how “the purity laws lent themselves to a spiritual stratification or hierarchy between the ritually ‘clean’ who considered themselves close to God, and the ‘unclean’ who were shunned as impure sinners far from God.  Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people considered dirty, polluted, or contaminated.”[1]

So in case you haven’t figured this out by now, this isn’t about food; it’s about people.  Notice the language of verse 3; look at how Peter is confronted.  The Good News Bible puts it this way: “You were a guest in the home of uncircumcised Gentiles, and you even ate with them!”  Peter, what in the world were you thinking?

Clendenin goes on, “In word and in deed Jesus ignored, disregarded and perhaps even actively demolished these distinctions of ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status.  And as Peter learned in his encounter with Cornelius, Jesus asked him to do the same.”

Jesus is all about removing distinctions that cause damage.  It’s obvious that we do have differences and distinctions but encouraging the ones that crush human life are not to be tolerated.

On that note about differences, there’s the story about the student who is speaking with the rabbi.  “Teacher,” he says, “you have told us that we are all made in the image of God.”  “That’s right,” the rabbi responds.  The student asks, “Then why do people come in so many different colors, have so many different sizes, and have so many different customs?”  The rabbi answers, “Because we are all made in the image of God.”

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Just like anything that is alive, our identity continues to change—one would hope becoming bigger in heart and spirit.  Think about it.  Do we describe ourselves the same way as we did when we were children?  (I hope not!  I hope we’ve learned a few things!)  What about when we were teenagers?  And through adulthood, our identity continues to evolve.

That’s where the church is in Acts 11.  They have to decide if they will let themselves grow in identity—who they say they are, how they define themselves—or will they turn inward?  When Banu and I did interim pastor training, that was something we were called to encourage, discovering and renewing your identity, at the individual level and at the congregational level.  We forget who we are, and we forget that we need to continue moving.

Remember, this isn’t something that Peter has welcomed.  He has struggled against this expansion of his vision.  (It had to happen three times, which is always a good symbolic number.)  But despite his resistance, he realizes that this change in table manners is a good thing!

What about us?  Do we need a change in table manners?

Do we have any purity laws of our own, ones that crush human life?  Do we have any convenient rules we rely on to avoid the love-affirming, community-building, Holy Spirit-obeying way of life we know we should follow?  Are there any people, or groups of people, that we think of as unworthy—and we move heaven and earth to avoid?  (I include myself in this!)

I don’t know the answer to all those questions.  I suspect that, if we’re honest with ourselves, much of it is true.

“A second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’”  The New Testament church has to deal with this again:  “Who do we welcome to the table?”  That’s something I’ve been hearing from Banu in recent times: who is at my table?  That’s a good question for all of us.  Who is at our table?

What is it within us that seeks to exclude?  What is it that we regard with fear and loathing?  Who is it that we regard with fear and loathing?

Remember, as I said earlier, Jesus is all about removing distinctions that cause damage.  As I said in the story about the student and the rabbi, God creates us with differences and diversities; we just need to not encourage the ones that lead us away from love.

I want to finish with a Polynesian prayer of confession of sin.

“Lord, you have made us known to friends we did not know, and you have given us seats in homes which are not our own.  You have brought the distant near—and made brothers and sisters of strangers.  Forgive us, Lord… we did not introduce you.”

Thanks be to God, who is always willing to teach us table manners!

 

[1] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070430JJ.shtml


one language

I want to begin with comments about the 1970s.  For many people, they were well along in years when that decade arrived.  For a vast part of our population, they hadn’t been born yet.  Their parents hadn’t even been born.  For those in my generation, right after the baby boomers, many if not most of those years were spent in elementary school.

This is an oversimplification, but the 70s were largely a decade in reaction to the perceived anarchy and rejection of authority of the 1960s.  The 70s gave us punk rock, with its reaction to the reaction.  It also gave us disco, with its ignoring of politics, and an urge to mindlessly lose oneself in foolishness.  (I guess you can gather my opinion of disco!)

1 gnBut for my purposes here, I want to mention another phenomenon of the decade: disaster movies.  There was a flurry of them, many with ensembles of A-list actors.  There was Earthquake.  We had The Poseidon Adventure.  And then, there was The Towering Inferno, with another impressive list of top-notch actors, such as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway…  and a host of others.

Those Hollywood luminaries aside, the real stars of those movies were the disasters mentioned in the titles.  The Towering Inferno provided a cautionary tale about the dangers of those buildings reaching up to the sky­­­­—skyscrapers.  Of course, skyscrapers had been around for almost a century, but this was the 70s.  A decidedly negative impression was portrayed.  After watching that movie, people might understandably be hesitant to live or work in such edifices.

There’s another structure which is featured in Genesis 11: the tower of Babel.  And like those disaster movies, it has usually been cast in a negative light.  Actually, it’s usually been cast as a truly wicked affront to God.  The builders have been seen as thumbing their noses to the Lord.

Again, it’s perfectly understandable to have that viewpoint.  There are several interpretations to this text: the good, the bad, and the ugly!

The decision of the people to construct a city and tower, “with its top in the heavens,” in order to “make a name” for themselves could easily be seen as an act of arrogance (v. 4).  Actually, that’s a very good way to see it.  Whatever the motivation, preventing themselves from being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,” given the circumstances, could be seen as logical.

And what are those circumstances?  The stage is set: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (v. 1).  There has been no end to speculation as to what that means.  This comes on the heels of chapter 10, in which the descendants of Noah form nations spread throughout the world.  More than once we are told of their families, languages, lands, and nations.

This enterprise appears to be a rejection of that diversity, indeed a God-ordained diversity.

The story’s location is pivotal.  They settle in the land of Shinar, later known as Babylonia.  It is a vast plain, unlike the mountains, islands, and forests from which they came.  It’s the perfect terrain for bringing everyone together.  Of course, if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, a construction project becomes necessary!

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["Tower of Babel" by Josh Dorman, 2016]

The tower is likely a ziggurat, a structure resembling a pyramid, though with sides that are terraced, giant steps leading to the top.  They were built throughout ancient Mesopotamia (which is modern day Iraq and western Iran).

Considering the multiplicity of ethnic groups on hand, making a name for oneself could be seen as a way of establishing a one-world government.  A major part of that is how we speak.  When languages disappear, they take with them all the intricate subtleties unique to their thought processes, based on the experiences of the people who use them.  They are irreplaceable.

The saying is true: “it gets lost in translation.”  It is vital to realize the theme underlying the entire story—words and tongues, messages and languages.

The way the Lord figures out what’s going on is something we see in much of the Old Testament.  There’s a term called anthropomorphism.  It means describing as having human attributes. We see it in verse 5: “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.”  It’s almost like God had to use a ladder, or maybe take an escalator, to check out what those humans were up to.

This is an unpleasant discovery.  Something about this doesn’t sit well.  What could it be?

The story basically hinges on verse 6.  “And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’”  Why is intervention needed?  Why is the decision made to confuse their language, so they won’t understand each other?

Maybe the assumption that what humans “propose to do” will work out for the best needs to be questioned.

I am reminded of George Orwell’s 1984, in which conformity in service to the state is required.  The government, overseen by a shadowy figure known as Big Brother, has four primary ministries.  There is the Ministry of Peace, in charge of waging war.  There is the Ministry of Plenty, running the economy and keeping the population poor and dependent.  There is the Ministry of Love, in charge of arrest, torture, and execution to make sure folks stay in line.

Finally, as especially relevant to our story, there is the Ministry of Truth, which has as its purpose the spreading of propaganda and lies.  One of its primary purposes is to take language and continuously remove any nuance of independent expression.  We might add, cracking down on misinformation, however that’s defined.  Three slogans encapsulate the effort: war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.

(Safe and effective.  I am the science.)

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I wonder if the drive for what we think of as “progress” is not also a factor.  We think of economic success by figuring out at what rate the economy is growing.  Growing more quickly is better than growing more slowly.  It’s always about growing.  Can’t enough be enough—at least, for a little while?  The earth and our fellow creatures would thank us.  How much do we care about them?

Rabbi Shai Held, a widely respected figure in Jewish thought, has spoken of the Tower of Babel as a “tower of uniformity,” saying its meaning concerns “the importance of individuals and the horrors of totalitarianism.”[1]  He expands on this idea, saying, “An inevitable consequence of uniformity is anonymity.  If everyone says the same words and thinks the same thoughts, then a society emerges in which there is no room for individual tastes, thoughts, and aspirations or for individual projects and creativity.  All difference is (coercively) erased.”[2]

When we take all of that into consideration, the words “this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them,” have an ominous sound.

Rabbi Held comments on something remarkable.  No names are mentioned in the story “because there are no individuals.  This is especially ironic (and tragic) in light of the people’s express wish to ‘make a name’ for themselves…  When people are anonymous, they are reduced to insignificance.  If no one is anyone in particular, then who cares what happens to them?”

Something else to understand is that by coming together in one place, the people have rejected the call of God to go forth throughout the world.  After the flood, “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Gn 9:1).  It’s difficult to impose unity if your population is spread all over the place.

When the Lord imposes the punishment / blessing, all the work comes to a screeching halt.  Building plans aren’t very useful if no one can read them!

I wonder, can we see this scattering of peoples and confusing of languages as acts of love?  Here’s one more thought from Rabbi Held: “To try and eradicate human uniqueness is to declare war on God’s image and thus to declare war on God.”  One of the age-old temptations of the human race is trying to put ourselves in the place of God—to idolize ourselves.  That could manifest itself by idolizing a single person, or a single group: to idolize or obey a kind of “Big Brother.”

When we do that, we do violence to the beautiful and wondrous creation that each of us is.  There is a Jewish saying, “To save one person is to save an entire world.”  I’ve often thought about that.  We live in our own world.  It’s not that we ignore the rest of the world, but we are a world unto ourselves.  Every single human has experiences of their own.  We each have our own experiences of the divine.  We are loved by Jesus in our own exclusive way.

The day of Pentecost in Acts 2 is seen as a reversal of Babel.  There is a reunification of language, although it’s not done by human effort—it is not an achievement.  It is a gift granted by the Spirit of God.  “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (v. 4).  The people are still speaking different languages, but they comprehend each other!

The language beyond all languages is the heavenly language.

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[photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash]

We can see the Babel project as an endeavor to overstep our place, to overstep our boundaries.  However, Brent Strawn who teaches at Duke Divinity School, has another perspective.  Rather than a case of hubris, outrageous arrogance, it can be seen as a case of sloth, under-reaching what God has set out for us.

He says, “Maybe at those times when we aren’t one, it is because we’ve fallen short of making every effort to be what we are in Christ.  Maybe when we aren’t one, instead of giving up on the unity that God desires and provides—maybe instead of refusing to believe in that unity when we don’t experience it—maybe we ought, instead, to grieve over it.”[3]

It is right and proper and essential to grieve.  It is necessary to lament.

“Grieve that we don’t have it, grieve that we aren’t yet one.  Worry about it, wonder about it, and redouble—make that re-triple—our efforts, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

In the book of Acts, St. Peter quotes the prophet Joel, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (v. 17).  People will prophesy, see visions, dream dreams.  Signs will appear in the heaven and on earth: “blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” (vv. 19-20).

It sounds like a 70s disaster movie!

But wait for the finale.  “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v. 21).  Calling on the name of the Lord.

We are freed from the compulsion to make a name for ourselves.  We are liberated, knowing that our Lord has cherished and named us like none other in the cosmos.  It is a name of endearment, known only to the Holy One.

Let all of you understand, you are the child of God.  There can be no better name than that.  That is the one language we speak.

 

[1] Rabbi Shai Held, “Tower of Uniformity: What Really Went Wrong at Babel,” Christian Century 134:23 (8 Nov 2017), 12.

[2] Held, 13.

[3] Brent Strawn, “Unity, Diversity, and the Holy Spirit,” Journal for Preachers 40:4 (2017), 13.


in religion, but not of religion

Presbyterians don’t emphasize this so much, but when I was in the Assemblies of God, I heard plenty of sermons that asked, “Have you had your Damascus road experience?”  Can you pinpoint a moment in your life in which you could say, “I once was lost, but now am found.  Here I am, Lord!”

The awakening of faith can be a very subjective thing.  It can be hard to pinpoint from the outside.  For many, it is a gradual growing awareness.  That is, if it happens at all.  But however it does happen, it is a gift.  Sometimes it is a gift delivered in a drastic fashion.

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For the Lord to get Paul’s attention, it took something quite drastic!  (By the way, I’m using the name “Paul,” since Saul was later known by that name.)

As we begin Acts 9 with his description, we’re actually picking up from a verse in chapter 8.  “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (v. 3).  And now, with verse 1: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”

There is a sadly comical aspect to this portrayal of Paul.  Honestly, doesn’t this guy have anything better to do?  He’s pictured like a brute beast, like a wild animal.  This guy has some major anger issues!  Like the bull in a china shop, he’s been doing some serious damage.

Paul has been hurting and terrorizing those whom, in the future, he will love dearly as his sisters and his brothers.  But as I say, that’s in the future!

There is one he is hurting most of all.  We’re told, “He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’  He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’  The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (vv. 4-5).  The risen and ascended Lord passionately identifies with his people.  Because of his great love, what hurts them brings him torment.

How different is Paul’s response from that of Ananias in verse 10.  Where Paul says, “Who are you, Lord?” Ananias says, “Here I am, Lord.”

It isn’t that Paul doesn’t understand the faith.  He is very well versed.  Later in Acts, he says that he has “belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee” (26:5).  He knows this stuff backwards and forwards!  He has the data, but he lacks the experience.  That is, he lacks the experience of God’s love.

For me, that’s something I really value from my time with the Assemblies of God.  For someone who lived too much in his head, the Pentecostals were a needed corrective.

At an interim ministry training event, a video was presented of the late Edwin Friedman, who was a rabbi and a therapist.  In the video, he is commenting on the fallacy of expertise.  He is talking about our emphasis on information and technique.  Or perhaps I should say the overemphasis on information and technique—the overemphasis on experts.  It’s possible to be paralyzed by continuously gathering information before we take any meaningful action.  Sometimes we need to learn to trust ourselves.

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[more words of wisdom from the late great Neil Peart--the drummer from Rush, if you didn't know]

Friedman speaks of the pursuit of data as a form of substance abuse.  I had never thought of it that way.  Too often, I have greatly abused that substance!  It can have the downside of making one indecisive.

Data and experience can be phrased, for lack of better terms, as head knowledge and heart knowledge, or spirit knowledge.

Graham Standish served as a Presbyterian pastor for many years.  He is now the executive director of a spiritual counseling center.  He published an article called “Shepherding SBNR Sheep: How to Create a Church for the Spiritual but Not Religious.”[1]

For devoted churchgoers, “spiritual but not religious” is often seen as those unwilling to make a commitment.  It actually has many connotations, clearly, some more positive than others.  Those who identify themselves that way often speak of their distrust of the church, of institutionalized religion, and so on.  Some perceive a lack of authenticity.  Some look at the church and see a bunch of phonies.  To what extent that perception meets reality is a different discussion.

Standish begins his article with a sort of confession.  Speaking of the time he was a pastor, he said, “I privately classify myself as being ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR).  I know it doesn’t make sense, but somehow it feels right.  No matter how long I’ve been the pastor of a church, I’ve always been more ‘in’ religion than ‘of’ religion.”  I imagine he would still classify himself as such.

It looks like he’s using the word “religion” to mean the data it contains.  He’s using it to express doctrinal content.  There’s nothing wrong with doctrine, in and of itself.  It’s necessary; it’s simply a body of teachings.  But if doctrine is separated from a loving experience of God, it can become deceptive and even dangerous.

I’ve never really considered myself to be religious.  I guess that’s a quality I share with our SBNR friends.  To me, being called “religious” is not necessarily a compliment.  In his zeal to imprison members of the early church, Paul is definitely religious.

Those who are in religion, but not of religion, “want to experience what’s true rather than be told what is true.”  Standish talks about one of his parishioners who said, “Most churches tell you what to think.  [Our church] encourages you to think.”

I should warn you.  When we encourage others to think, we may hear some stuff we would rather not hear.  In today’s passage, there are two fellows who hear stuff they don’t want to hear.  There’s Paul, hearing how he’s been horribly wrong, and he’s been persecuting his Lord.  And then there’s Ananias, who hears that it’s his job to welcome Paul.  (“Lord, you do know that he’s done some really bad stuff?”)

Standish addresses something we’re familiar with: asking people certain questions in order to join the church, “such as ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?’  There’s nothing wrong with expecting this, although it puts the SBNR in a quandary: do I say ‘yes,’ even if I don’t know quite what that means, or do I wait till I know what it means?  And what if I never know what that means?”  He says that “healthy relationships lead more people to an experience of the holy than does rational theologizing.”

Trying to convince people into faith by using a line of reasoning is often not the best approach.  And yes, arguing with, and shaming people doesn’t work so well in demonstrating the love of Jesus.   In our scripture, Ananias says, “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” (v. 17).  Vision and the Spirit go together.

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Look at how our passage ends.  “For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (vv. 19-20).  So not only is Paul’s sight restored—not only do the blinders come off—but Paul finds his voice.  Paul, in effect, joins those who are in religion, but not of religion.  That’s what happens when we experience what the data is about.

I want to mention one more thing that’s in the article.  It deals with how open we are to those unfamiliar with our language, our jargon.  We should realize “that while Christian language and [expressions] help those within a religious tradition to speak a common language of faith, that…language also creates a barrier” for those who don’t understand it.  “In effect, it helps us if we are willing learn the language of other faiths, and to learn how to translate certain concepts into our own language.”

When I was in seminary, I had Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).  What that often entails is a student chaplaincy at a hospital, which is what I did.  One of the things our supervisor would often ask of us would be to express our faith without using “God talk.”  That is, don’t use religious words.  When you’re in a hospital, you’re dealing with the entire public, people from all backgrounds.

Another way of looking at it would be: can you talk about faith by focusing on the experience, rather than the data?

On the matter of God talk, there is something I have mentioned before.  It deals with an invitation Banu and I received to stay a couple of days at a camp and conference center about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh.  We were asked to do some workshops while there.

During one session, I issued that challenge to the folks at camp: describe your faith without using God talk.  For instance, what does “Jesus saves” mean?

Some of them gladly welcomed the test and gave it a good “faith” shot!  For others—not so much.  And when I started pushing them on it, some got irritated; it was even written on their faces.  Some of them let me know their displeasure.  They were not happy with me.

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I observed how reaching out to those outside the four walls might mean learning a different language.  I don’t know if they didn’t believe me or just didn’t care.  It does require change.  Do you know what we call something that doesn’t change?  Dead.  Life, by its very nature (even at the chemical level), requires change.  That’s a word for us, also.

My guess would be they just wanted to have a nice, relaxing weekend with their friends.  They didn’t need to be given this bit of uncomfortable work.  In my defense, this little exercise lasted maybe twenty minutes, but that was enough to tick them off.

(There is a nice postscript to this story.  That night, they broke out the board games.  Even the folks who got annoyed with me were happy when I joined in.  Playing games can be incredibly therapeutic!)

How can we talk about our own experience?  How can we tell our story?  We all have them, and none of them are any less valid than those of others.

The poster boy for a story of willingness to change is Saul, later known as Paul.  His decision to embrace change was a literal turn from death, at least, the death of others.  Verse 19 says, “For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus.”  These were the same people for which he begged permission to place under arrest and drag back to Jerusalem (where they would not be treated like honored guests).

We could make the argument that Paul himself was on the road to death.  Be careful with whom you ally yourself.  Choose life or choose death: blessing or curse.

Still, back to my previous question.  How about our experience?  Are we in religion?  Are we of religion?  Are there elements of both?  As I said earlier, can we talk about faith without using God talk?

Here are questions that go a bit deeper.  How are we when it comes to letting God work through us?  How are we at being a vessel of the Spirit?

Ananias laid hands on him and prayed.  “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.  Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength” (vv. 18-19).

Let us eat the food given by God which strengthens us on the way.

 

[1] alban.org/archive/shepherding-sbnr-sheep-how-to-create-a-church-for-the-spiritual-but-not-religious/


embezzling the Spirit

The scripture reading in Acts 4 and 5 presents what many people have often described as an early look at Christian communism.  Before anyone gets too excited, understand I’m not talking about the tyrannical political system we became familiar with in the 20th century.  I know that “communism” is a word that raises a red flag.  (Yes, a “red” flag!)

1 acWe see language like “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions” and “everything they owned was held in common” (v. 32).  Chapter 2 has similar descriptions of the community.  “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (vv. 44-45).

That actually sounds communist.  That is, it sounds commune-ist, as in living in a commune.

We’re not talking about any element of force here.  There isn’t any government mandate; there isn’t anything done at the point of a sword.  Rather, “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.”  This is a community bound by love.  It looks like it’s taking care of everyone.  “There was not a needy person among them” (v. 34).

I would like to make a couple of side comments on all of this.  I do have respect for folks who choose to live communally.  (Understand, that excludes cults and brainwashing and places where people are held against their will!)  Many communes demonstrate a life with a healthy perspective on putting people before property.

Having said that, I’m not sure the early church in Jerusalem really was a commune.

Questions of commune set aside, building community is not easy.  Sometimes people speak of it in romanticized terms, but community involves characters of all sorts: crabby and gabby, serious and delirious, careless and cautious.  It seems inevitable there will be those who give and give and give and apparently don’t get much in return.  And then there are those who live by the motto, “It is more blessed to receive than to give.”

As they say, it takes all kinds.

At the center of it all are the apostles.  They’ve been acting as a sort of clearinghouse for the dispersal of funds.  They didn’t get that job because of any economic training they received.  They didn’t take any extension courses.  Instead, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (v. 33).

2 acThat word “power” in Greek is δυναμις (dunamis).  It’s where we get our word “dynamite.”  Does anyone remember the 70s TV show Good Times?  It included the Evans family elder son, J. J., who often proclaimed he was “Kid Dyn-O-Mite!”  I don’t suppose any of the apostles would claim that title for themselves!

They use that great power in giving testimony, in giving witness, to the resurrection of the Lord.  (“Resurrection” makes this a fitting theme for the Easter season.)  Something about resurrection is that it’s not a one-time thing.  Resurrection is ongoing.  These early disciples, the Jerusalem church, demonstrate resurrection power.  The Holy Spirit is moving among them.  As we see, “great grace” was upon the community.

As we might know about community, there are those who simply get it.  They know what goes into building it, and they’re willing to step up and take part.

Everyone is important in the eyes of the Lord, but there are those whose presence, and whose absence, is especially felt.

One such person in that early church is a Cypriot named Joseph.  We’re told he is a Levite, a member of the priestly tribe of Levi who traditionally would help with ceremonial duties.  He has made a really good impression, because he has been given the nickname, “Barnabas,” “son of encouragement.”  He’s the guy who will help you when you’re feeling down.  He’s the one who will reassure you.  “You can do it!”  He is the encourager.  (That sounds like the name of a superhero—the Encourager.  He’s the one who’s in your corner.)

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[photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash]

Barnabas plays no small role in the book of Acts.  If this were a movie, we could say his agent did a good job in getting him the part.

After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul (later known as Paul) goes to Jerusalem, but the disciples there don’t trust him (9:26-28).  They know about his past, how he persecuted the church.  But Barnabas steps forward and vouches for him.  “This guy is okay.  He’s the real deal.”

In chapter 11, news has come regarding the church in Antioch: the number of believers is said to be growing quickly.  They want someone to check it out.  Here’s how the scripture reads: “News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.  And a great many people were brought to the Lord” (vv. 22-24).  He also accompanies Paul on his first missionary trip.

I really like that.  Barnabas is known to be a good man, filled with the Spirit and faith.  He is a good man.  I don’t know what more can be said.  It’s hard to beat being called a good man.  True to his reputation, he sells a piece of land and brings the money to the apostles.  He wants to contribute to the cause and help those in need.  Thus endeth chapter four, and we move to chapter five.

4 acBut then…  You know Bonnie and Clyde?  Well, they ain’t got nuttin’ on Ananias and Sapphira!  Unfortunately, this part of the story does not end well.

We start off on a good note.  Just like Barnabas, they sell a piece of property and bring the profits to the apostles.  They’ve done their fair share in helping the community.  However, there is a problem.  The two decide to hold back some of the money, even though they said there would be more.  One of the meanings for the word translated “kept back” (νοσφιζω, nosphizō) is “embezzle.”

Peter knows something is up—maybe it was divine inspiration, or maybe he simply did the math.  He confronts Ananias, letting him know he could have given whatever amount he and his wife chose.  It was up to them.  He asks a rather blunt question: “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?” (v. 3).  He lets him have it.  “You haven’t lied to me.  You haven’t lied to us mere mortals.  No, my dear fellow, you’ve lied to God!”

What follows next has been the subject of controversy down through the centuries.  Ananias keels over and falls down dead.  Did Peter intend this?  Did he in some way cause it to happen?  If so, does the punishment really fit the crime?  It does seem to be a bit of an overreaction.  Peter’s ethics are called into question.

There have been numerous explanations about this.  Don’t worry, I won’t attempt to go into all of them.  Some say the pair have broken an oath to God and to their fellow believers, in that they agreed to pool their resources—without embezzlement!  Such oaths often included self-curses if they were broken.  “May God strike me down if…”

Others say Peter plays the role of prophet.  His words pierce Ananias into his very soul.  Others say when Ananias’ craftiness is exposed, he simply has heart failure!  So, there’s no great mystery.

Whatever the case, Peter seems to be a bit fuzzy on notifying the next of kin!  He arranges a hasty burial for Ananias without his wife’s knowledge.  (By the way, the name Sapphira is where we get our word “sapphire.”)  She shows up three hours later, and Peter gives her a chance to tell the truth.  A similar exchange happens, and she’s buried next to her husband.  On the bright side, at least Ananias and Sapphira are together forever!

Our passage ends, “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (v. 11).  I would think so.

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My earlier comment on Bonnie and Clyde notwithstanding, we should be cautious on how we judge Ananias and Sapphira.  As the noted 20th century British theologian F. F. Bruce said, “be careful: the temptation to seek a higher reputation than is our due for generosity or some other virtue is not so uncommon that we can afford to adopt a self-righteous attitude towards poor Ananias [and Sapphira].  Let us rather take warning from [their] example.”[1]  Their story is a cautionary tale.

What can we learn from this?  Is it as simple as Barnabas choosing love and Ananias and Sapphira choosing fear?  Did they go with safety and security over the apparent uncertainty that comes with genuine openheartedness?  Did they put their trust in material possessions to provide security?

Can we imagine another culture teaching that—one with which we might be quite familiar?

I’ve heard it said one good way to defeat the power of money and possessions over us is to give them away.

Luke is the author of Acts.  In his gospel, he tells the story of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus about eternal life.  He says he has kept all the commandments.  Jesus responds, “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (18:22).  I don’t think Jesus was laying down a law for everyone and for all time.  He told him what he needed to hear.  Jesus recognized the grip the young man’s wealth had on him.

That can apply in a different way, and it regards our possessions after we have shuffled off this mortal coil.  Including the church in your will is a meaningful and needed way to benefit those who remain and those who come after.  It is yet another way of worshipping the Lord.  It is yet another way of giving to the community, indeed, the community united by the Holy Spirit.

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[photo by Alex Martinez on Unsplash]

Aside from matters of material possessions, we can see how Ananias and Sapphira chose to hold back.  Don’t we also do that, to one extent or another, in one way or another?  Are we not too often guilty of embezzling the Spirit?  And yet, thanks be to God, even when we hold back from the Lord, if we remain open to the Spirit, God is gracious.  There is always opportunity for service—and for the love that conquers fear.

 

[1] F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 113-114.


wearing the bandana

On the night of November 12, 1995, I walked home from the Baskin-Robbins where I worked while at seminary in Philadelphia.  Banu and a friend of ours were in the apartment.  I went to the bedroom and sat down.  Very soon, I entered what was like a waking dreamlike state.  The air seemed almost tangible.

I’m not sure how much time went by, but the next thing I knew was Banu looking at me, saying she had been calling me.  She had a look of concern on her face, and before I knew it, paramedics were taking me by ambulance to the hospital.  By the time we arrived, I was completely lucid.  After examining me, the doctor suspected I might have a blood clot.  After testing, they discovered I had a brain tumor, so that meant surgery, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy (a lot of chemotherapy).

1 acI was left with a scar on my head where the incision was made.  I took to wearing a bandana, first to protect the incision, and then to hide the scar.  (By the way, I had bandanas of many different colors!)  Three months later I was in our apartment with Banu and another friend, and the same thing happened.  It turned out to be a staph infection—so another surgery, with the incision in the same place.  This time, the scar was more pronounced.  It was quite visible.

(I took to dividing my life into BC and AD, based on that first surgery on the 14th: Before Cancer and After Diagnosis.)

As I mentioned, I would wear a bandana on my head, and I did that for two and a half years, well after it was medically necessary!  Of course, the radiation caused me to lose my hair, but that wasn’t the main reason I wore them.  I didn’t like that scar, and I didn’t want other people to see it!  Even after we went to Nebraska to serve our first church, I still wore them for over a year.

I think I could describe that time with the bandanas as a liminal time or a liminal space.  What, you may ask, is “liminal”?  It comes from the Latin limen, which means “threshold.”  We’re familiar with the word “subliminal”—below the threshold.

As Richard Rohr puts it, “Liminal space… is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next…  It is a graced time, but often does not feel ‘graced’ in any way.  In such space, we are not certain or in control.  This global pandemic we now face is an example of an immense, collective liminal space.”[1]

His friend Sheryl Fullerton says of liminal space, “The old touchstones, habits, and comforts are now past, the future unknown.  We only wish such a time to be over.  We may be impatient to pass through it quickly, with as little distress as possible, even though that is not likely.”[2]

Liminal space is often not much fun at all.  We might compare it to the pain of growing up.

If we handle this liminal space well, we are more open to developing, to discovering.  We allow “room for something genuinely new to happen.”  Actually, it’s going to happen anyway.  It’s a question of will we welcome it, or will we be dragged kicking and screaming!  I think my refusal to discard the bandana was a sign of kicking and screaming.  I was reluctant to say goodbye to that part of my life.  (The BC.)  I would never be the same again.  But guess what?  That’s okay!

I began with this rather lengthy introduction, as trivial as it might seem.  I want to draw an analogy to a passage in the book of Acts.  The story of Stephen reflects a dramatic shift in the life of the early church.  There is indeed a liminal space, an in-between time, in which change darlin’, is a-comin’.  The church will never be the same again.

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In chapter 6 we see what’s coming down the pike.  Verse 1 says, “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists [that is, the Greek speaking believers] complained against the Hebrews [who actually spoke Aramaic] because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.”  The ethnic balance is shifting; the demographics are changing.

The church leaders see trouble on the horizon, so they arrange for “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” to whom they can entrust this ministry of social justice, this ministry of compassion (v. 3).  One person stands out, our dear friend “Stephen, full of grace and power, [who] did great wonders and signs among the people” (v. 8).

He draws the wrong kind of attention.  Stephen is becoming a pain in the rear end for many of the powers-that-be.  He is hauled in to appear before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council, and give an account for himself.  For most of chapter 7, he gives a history lesson, starting with Abraham.  Things are going well until he gets to the temple, saying, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (v. 48).  The folks he’s talking to do not want to hear that.

But he goes even further.  “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.  Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?  They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers” (vv. 51-52).  They really do not want to hear that.

And so we get to the point where they see red and start grinding their teeth.  Things are looking grim for Stephen.  He’s in for a world of hurt.  That change in the church I mentioned earlier—that liminal space and time—is now coming into sharp focus.

Joel Kime comments on this.  “Right at that moment, something amazing happens, an astounding event that can help us learn to think differently when we are in the middle of pain.  Stephen, as we read in verses 55-56, has a vision of God.  And what’s more, he has the audacity to tell the people what he sees!  What can we learn from this?  Though he was facing a perilous reality, Stephen is 100% focused on God.  In the midst of his liminal moment, he was still attuned to God.”[3]

3 acThat’s what I touched on earlier.  That “not yet” time can bring with itself confusion, anguish, suffering, maybe even embarrassment.  Stephen is a good role model.  “What can it look like for us to focus on God, right in the middle of the uncertainty, the pain, the struggle?”

Again, that can involve us as individuals, a family, a church, or indeed the whole world.  This time of coronavirus is a time of wearing the bandana.

Stephen rips off his bandana.  As he prepares to meet his Maker, he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  And then, in Jesus-like fashion, while drawing his final breath, he cries out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (vv. 59-60).

While all of this is going on, we’re introduced to “a young man named Saul.”  He’s keeping watch over of the coats of those throwing stones.  He gives a thumbs-up to the entire affair.  In The Message, Eugene Peterson put it this way: “Saul was right there, congratulating the killers.”

Here’s where we get to another of those liminal spaces, those liminal times.  Brutal persecution breaks out, with Saul doing his part by hauling believers to prison.  Again, here’s how Peterson put it: “And Saul just went wild, devastating the church, entering house after house after house, dragging men and women off to jail.”  I often wonder how I would fare under such vicious treatment.  Would I cave in and renounce the faith?

After this baptism of fire, “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (v. 4).  When all is said and done, the forces of evil cannot defeat the forces of good.  It might take a long time.  It might take a great deal of perseverance, but those who stand will be empowered by the Spirit.

In these strange times, we are being called to persevere.  We are leaving one way of being and will be emerging into a future that has yet to be revealed.

Fullerton says, “Like Jonah in the belly of the sea monster, we are led where we do not want to go—not once, but many times in our lives…  In the unknown space between here and there…life happens.  And, if we attend, we can feel the Holy Spirit moving with us in a way that we may not be aware of in more settled times.”

Is it possible, in some bizarre, unwelcome way, the coronavirus can actually be seen as a gift?  Please believe me, it’s not a gift I want!  But it’s here, and there’s not much we can do about it.  We can’t take it back to the store and get a refund.  (Partly because very few stores are open!)

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We’re told by Fullerton, “we can learn to let reality—even in its darkness—be our teacher, rather than living in the illusion that we are creating it on our own.”  We encounter “a disturbing time and space that not only breaks us down, but also offers us the choice to live in it with fierce aliveness, freedom, sacredness, companionship, and awareness of [holy] Presence.”

I again find myself being challenged.  Maybe I am wearing that new bandana presented by the pandemic.  Maybe I want to cover up a new scar.  Maybe I’m too slow to deal with the new reality that’s unfolding.  Maybe I’m not the only one wearing a bandana.

However, there are opportunities.  On Easter, my mother and sister, who live in Tennessee, tuned in.  My newfound family in Florida did the same.  And of course, we’re joined by the folks in Cohocton every Sunday.  Many of you have friends and family joining us.  That’s just one aspect of these crazy, strange times.

One thing we’re being taught is to slow down.  That comes with its own challenges.  We are being forced to make connections in new ways.  We need to stay true to that, to “live in it with [that] fierce aliveness, freedom, sacredness, companionship, and awareness of [holy] Presence.”

As we accept that unwelcome gift, we can join with Stephen as he proclaims, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

 

[1] cac.org/between-two-worlds-2020-04-26

[2] cac.org/the-liminal-paradox-2020-04-29

[3] joelkime.com/2020/03/25/what-to-focus-on-when-you-are-in-pain-acts-68-83-part-3


offering with Spirit

Here’s a newsflash: churches do things differently, and that includes passing the plate.  In the Assemblies of God (where I had my first life-changing experience of church), and other churches, the language of an annual pledge for giving isn’t often heard.  At least, I didn’t hear it.  I became more used to hearing things like, “Give what the Lord lays on your heart.”  Sometimes I heard calls for a literal tithe, ten percent, to be offered for the work of the church.  (Some people debated if it should be before taxes or after taxes!)

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Something else I heard of on a fairly regular basis was the “prosperity gospel,” or prosperity theology.  It is especially demonstrated by many televangelists.  It’s the idea that God financially rewards those who have enough faith.  Sometimes preachers will refer to giving to their ministry as sowing seeds.  The more you sow, the greater the harvest you will reap.  Oh, and you might hear, “God has promised me a private jet.  I need this jet.  Will you believe with me and stand on the promise of God and support us in this vital mission to spread the gospel all over the nation and all over the world?”

(By the way, we’ll come back to strong-arming people out of their offerings!)

We Presbyterians (and others in the so-called mainline churches) aren’t exposed to the prosperity gospel quite so much.  Still, it’s really not anything new.  It’s even in the Bible—though not that anyone prayed for a jet.  Take Job, for example.  When he lost all of his livestock, all of his wealth, and then suffered the loss of all his children, and then his health, his friends concluded he must have sinned.  (Actually, that was after he professed his innocence.)  He must have done something wrong.  If he would only repent, he might see the return of his fortune.

There is something in the human spirit that drives us, that impels us, to please a God who apparently, in an almost whimsical, capricious fashion, will withhold blessing if we don’t measure up.  We are put on the scales, and if we are found wanting, then something will be taken away.

One more note about Job.  If you skip to the final chapter, we see that the Lord is angry with Job’s friends.  “[Y]ou have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7).  The idea that God acts like a vending machine—insert money and a goody comes out—is upended; it is rejected.

2 lvIf that’s true, then what do we do with scriptures throughout the Bible that mandate giving to God in order to find blessing?

Let’s go back thousands and thousands of years ago, when humans began to have some awareness of a reality beyond them, when they eventually began to worship deities.  Sacrifices were deemed necessary to guarantee good hunting, to ensure healthy crops, to assure health for themselves.  It’s the vending machine mentality.

And as we’ve already seen, that mentality, that spirituality, does appear in the scriptures.  There is indeed a tug of war, a back and forth, a struggle to walk the path.  There is the vending machine.  Yet contrary to that, there is the call to act in faith, to act in faithfulness, to act in gratitude, to be thankful.

In particular, the prophets denounce the approach of offering the proper gift, saying the proper words, going through the proper motions, but without it coming from the heart.  The outward form of worship, without a concern for holiness, for justice, for love, is useless and empty.

That’s true with the call for the first fruits in Leviticus 23.  The word of the Lord comes to the people: “When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest.  He shall raise the sheaf before the Lord, that you may find acceptance.” (vv. 10-11).

If it feels like we’re still in transition from the “give to the deity, so that you may get back” mentality, that would not be totally wrong.  In the following verses, it is stipulated what’s involved in bringing the first fruits.  Along with the sheaf, a lamb is to be brought for sacrifice, a lamb “without blemish.”  There is also a grain offering, one of “choice flour.”  Translation: if you are to give to God, then you are to give your best.

I wonder if that applies to donations.  We’ve all done this, haven’t we?  You know, you’re going through your belongings and deciding what to give away.  There’s the “donate” bin and the “trash” bin.  Sometimes you get them mixed up—no big deal.  It’s going to the thrift store; they don’t know the difference!

3 lvHere’s a crazy thought: what about buying brand new items and donating them!

But back to the sheaf of the first fruits of the harvest.  Just a few verses later we read, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God” (v. 22).

Wouldn’t that fit into the category of performing the proper form of worship and pursuing a concern for holiness, for justice, for love?  By not hoarding every scrap of produce, of product, there is an effort made to provide for everyone.  By not maintaining a mercenary economy—by building into the system care for the poor and the alien—holiness, justice, and love are given at least an equal standing with the profit margin.

Along with the poor, there is the alien, the foreigner, who is valued as a member of society.  The foreigner is to be held in esteem.  The refugee is to be held in esteem.

Pointing out how God’s peace is found in these structures of laws of worship is part of what prophets do.  Among the various approaches that can be used, there is one that seems to have greater meaning and effect.  Richard Rohr addresses this.[1]

“Prophets, by their very nature,” he says, “cannot be at the center of any social structure.  Rather, they are ‘on the edge of the inside.’  They cannot be full insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either.  A true prophet must be educated inside the system, knowing and living the rules, before they can critique what is non-essential or not so important.  Jesus did this masterfully…”  We will see an example of that in a few moments.

Rohr continues, “Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value.  A prophet critiques a system by quoting its own documents, constitutions, heroes, and Scriptures against its present practice.  This is their secret: systems are best unlocked from inside, and not by negative or angry people.”

The prophets want their traditions to expand, evolve, and frankly, just get better.

In the New Testament era, we see the apostle Paul model this approach.  He calls himself “a Pharisee, son of Pharisees” (Ac 23:6).  He is “a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Ph 3:5).  He is thoroughly educated in and familiar with the system.  He is also able to see where the system falls short, indeed, how it can crush people.  The vision of Jesus the apostle Paul has enlightens him to these truths.

4 lvIn Acts 20, Paul is saying goodbye to the leaders of the church in Ephesus.  He has lived there almost three years.  They are heartbroken at the news he is leaving them.

Among his final words are the reminder that he commends them to God and to the message, the good news, which will build them up.  He also reminds them, “I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions” (v. 34).  Paul gives them a challenge.  “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak” (v. 35).  He shows the proper use of money and resources.  As with the first fruits of the Hebrews, the harvest must benefit all.

And then, he finishes the thought with “remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

If you do some checking, you’ll find that these words appear nowhere in the gospels.  They’re more in tenor with Jesus’ overall teachings.  For example, in Luke 6 when Jesus is talking about loving one’s enemies, he says, “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great” (v. 35).

Obviously, the few writings we have about Jesus do not contain everything he said.  These words of wisdom are among them.

Toward the end of John’s gospel, we have the modest statement, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25).  There isn’t enough room in all the world!  I think there might be a tiny bit of exaggeration at work.

We do have some of Jesus’ words, and they continue our theme on money and its uses, for good and for ill.  They appear at the beginning of Luke 21, and they go like this:

“He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.  He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on’” (vv. 1-4).

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In Doug Pagitt’s book, Flipped, he brings up this story of the poor widow.[2]  Jesus points out that the wealthy are contributing to the temple fund out of their abundance, money they won’t even miss.  However this widow, with her two coins, is putting a major dent in her finances.  Indeed, she is left destitute.  The moral of the story, the way it’s often presented, is that we should praise and imitate the widow; she’s making a big sacrifice for God.

Our friend Doug speaks about a visitor to their church who shows up while they’re having a discussion about this story.  I love the line this fellow comes up with.  “I think you have that story totally wrong.”  Now that’s the kind of guy you want at a Bible study!

But it’s true.  Those other folks, in terms of the amount of money they’re giving, are doing a great deal.  But when you look at percentages of what they have, it’s almost a pittance, a drop in the bucket.

Here’s where we come back to strong-arming people out of their offerings.  The system of the temple, with the religious and political structures that go with it, can be a beast.  It can chew you up and spit you out.  Think of the poor souls who are swindled by the prosperity preachers.

Still, we need not go to the extremes of people being bullied or scammed.  We can expand our vision and ask, as noted earlier, is money offered in a spirit of holiness, justice, and love?  Do we share our resources in that spirit?

We could come at those questions from many different angles, but I would like to make an observation from these last few days.  Actually, it’s not my observation, but that of one of the mothers of the dance students who have been staying at the PERC [Presbyterian Event and Retreat Center].  She wrote down her thoughts in a letter, and I’m quoting part of it.  (She gave me permission!)

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[This photo was not taken in the summer!]

She speaks of last year having been “in a pretty rough place mentally and emotionally.”  But then she underwent “a transformation,” and a big part of that was “the respite [she] was given at the PERC.  There is a peace that exists at the mansion that is nothing short of healing.  It is home and family and rest.”

She says she couldn’t wait to come back this year, noting, “Toxicity has a way of creeping in while going through daily life.  I needed to come to refocus and renew.  I needed my whole family to have that opportunity as well, because I can describe my experience all I want, but that doesn’t lead to understanding.”

When her family returned this summer, they were offered lodging that was, let’s say, underwhelming.  Reflecting on that, she notes, “When I knew that we needed to have a different experience than what we arrived to, I knew I could just make a phone call and be welcomed with open arms.”

Here’s how she finishes: “The PERC is not just a building, there is a presence there that is palpable.”

Friends, that is what sacred space is all about.  Sometimes we need to get out of the way and allow the Spirit in to create that sacred space.  We are seeing that happen at the PERC.  We are seeing that happen right here.

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Give with holiness, justice, and love.  Give what the Lord lays on your heart.  Amen!

 

[1] cac.org/the-edge-of-the-inside-2019-07-09

[2] www.dougpagitt.com/writing


Spirit-filled language

For about the first five years after my conversion, my coming to faith, getting saved (although we still are being and will be saved—it’s not a one and done thing), I was in the Assemblies of God.  I never was the stereotypical Pentecostal.  I never got the hang of throwing my hands up in the air and shouting, “Hallelujah!”

But I’m grateful for my time among the Pentecostals.  As one who usually lives in his head, I gained a heartfelt faith among them.  And I developed an appreciation for when the Spirit really gets going in worship.  I learned that while singing certain songs, it’s okay to clap your hands.  (Amazing!)  I really love the hymns set to classical music, but sometimes you’ve got to go with the flow and start moving!

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I start by mentioning the Pentecostals, because when my faith journey led me to the Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants, I sometimes would hear the Holy Spirit described as the silent member of the Trinity.  Reflecting on my experiences with the Assemblies of God, I would have never described the Spirit as silent!

Having said that, we should remember that the Holy Spirit acts in many different ways—something the Pentecostals also acknowledge.  In John 3, Jesus says, “The wind [the Greek word[1] can also be “spirit”] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (v. 8).

In Acts 2, we have the image of the Spirit “like the rush of a violent wind” (v. 2).  You can’t put the Holy Spirit in a box.  Sometimes we think we can legislate or regulate the Spirit, but using a box leaves us with a bunch of stale air.

How appropriate this is for the feast of Pentecost.  It comes from the Jewish feast of Weeks or Harvest, which was celebrated fifty days after Passover.  (The word “Pentecost” means “fifty.”)  Just as with Passover, people came from near and far for the festival of Pentecost.  In our scripture text, when the Jewish believers speak in other tongues, travelers from many nations hear them praising God in their native language.

The Holy Spirit isn’t tongue-tied.  To borrow on Jesus’ image about the wind blowing where it chooses, when you hear the sound of the Spirit, there’s no telling what language is going to be spoken!  It will be whatever is needed.

(Quick question: what’s the largest number of people ever to fit into a car?  According to chapter 1, about 120.  They were all in one Accord.)

The bit about the car aside, there is something wonderfully unexpected about this event.

Danielle Shroyer, pastor of Journey Church in Dallas, says about this, “I have no idea what plans they had for the future of the faith up there in that room, if they had any at all, but there was no paper napkin with this mess drawn on it.  Because nobody in their right mind would consider anointing a whole house full of prophets in the span of one day.  Nobody except the Spirit of God.”[2]  It’s almost as crazy as trying to squeeze all those people into a car!

In the Bible, prophets are those who have a word from God—it’s not something they just invent.  As these people come streaming out of the house, they are delivering words from God.  Even though they don’t understand what they’re saying, other people do.  They hear them proclaiming “God’s deeds of power” (2:11).

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Something demonstrated by these Pentecostal prophets is that God speaks our multitude of languages.  We aren’t expected to speak one uniform language.  That goes beyond the actual words we use.  Here’s a good example: when we hear something we really agree with, we might say, “Now you’re speaking my language!”  So we’re also talking about cultures and sub-cultures.  We see that in our country; we can even see that in our local community.

But guess what?  The Spirit flows through and embraces all of that!  We can see it in the community which begins to form as a result of the Pentecost event.  We can see it in Peter’s sermon, which explains what’s going on—an explanation that is badly needed, since some in the crowd are convinced that the folks speaking all these different languages have been hitting the bottle!

As a result of Pentecost, the scripture says about three thousand become followers of Jesus.  Verse 42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

What can we say about this community, the early church in Jerusalem?  It looks almost like heaven on earth.  People are in awe of them; wonders are being done through the apostles.  They share all things in common.  (If that really is “all things,” I’m not sure how I feel about that one!)

“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (vv. 46-47).

Maybe it’s inevitable, but this particular version of community does not last for long.  Maybe the community gets too large for a specifically “communal” way of life to work.  Many believe that it is descriptive, but not prescriptive.  That is, it’s a picture of how it was, not how it necessarily had to be.

Matt Skinner comments, “The idea of community simultaneously attracts and repels most of us.  We long for the life-affirming benefits that community can bestow, but we resist the demands that community makes.”[3]  There has always been a powerful strand of individualism in our country; that’s both good and bad.  We often go too far in that direction.  I can think of ways in which I myself am probably more American than Christian.

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Being filled with the Holy Spirit gives the disciples a new vocabulary.  They begin to speak a Spirit-filled language.  The Spirit gives them a boldness they did not have before.  Previously, they were filled with fear of retribution.  After what happened to Jesus, some had given up hope.  “You know, it was a lovely dream, but it’s time to be realistic and get back to business as usual.”

But with the coming of the Spirit, everything changes.  People get fired up.  Those dreams begin to come true.

Still, before we get too carried away, we are reminded of something.  David Lose presents what he calls “two of the paradoxes of Pentecost.”[4]

The first one is that “the Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them.”  With the coming of the Spirit, they aren’t allowed to go back to business as usual.  They can no longer focus on looking inward, focusing on themselves.  They are compelled to look outward.

The Spirit still does that today.  Lose says, “Our congregations will not discover themselves until they give themselves away.  No amount of time spent on developing a mission statement or devising new member campaigns can substitute for looking around one’s neighborhood and asking, ‘Who needs us?’ and ‘What can we do with our resources to bear God’s love to…the world?’”

Along those lines, his second paradox of Pentecost is, “The Holy Spirit doesn’t prevent failure but invites it.  Or, to put it slightly differently, the Holy Spirit invites us to find fulfillment and victory in and through our setbacks and failures.”

I’m reminded of Banu’s and my ordination service.  At the end of the service, both of our pastors gave us charges.  My pastor instructed me to tell my story of being in a distant land.  (He was referring to my faith journey and also my experience with brain cancer.)  This is what Banu’s pastor told her: “I charge you to fail.”  If we’re afraid of failing, we’ll never risk anything.  We’ll be content with business as usual.

Our friend David has a problem with the saying, “Failure is not an option.”  He believes “that kind of mindset is paralyzing too many of our congregations.  Failure is not only an option, it is inevitable.  The problems this world—and our congregations—face are too great, too complex, and too significant to imagine that we will hit upon the best solution the first time out…or maybe ever.”

We’re reminded that “success will not always look like success, and victory may often come disguised as defeat.  The question isn’t whether we’re successful, but whether we’re faithful.”  Obedience to the Holy Spirit can lead us down paths that we otherwise would avoid.  That’s the trick of learning to speak Spirit-filled language.

Elsewhere, the apostle Paul says, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Th 5:19).  I like how the Revised English Bible puts it: “Do not stifle inspiration.”  This is addressed to the community at large.  This is addressed to the church.

Still, I’m forced to ask myself, “How often do I speak Spirit-filled language?  Do I quench the Spirit?  Do I stifle inspiration?”  Again, this includes more than the actual words that come out of the mouth.  Spirit-filled language comes from the heart of a Spirit-filled person.

Borrowing from today’s prayer of confession, I must admit that too often I hold back the force of the Spirit.  I fail to listen for God’s word of grace.  I need God’s mercy.  I need my timid life to be transformed by the power of the Spirit—and to be filled with a flaming desire to be a faithful person, doing God’s will for the sake of Jesus Christ my Lord.

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I imagine that I’m not the only one here who needs to ask those questions and to have the grace of that transformation.  I imagine that I’m not the only one who needs that fire to be stoked once again—if it even has been lit!

So be a feather set loose in the wind of God.  Let the wind of the Spirit blow on any dying embers and be fanned into a flame.

 

[1] πνευμα, pneuma

[2] thq.wearesparkhouse.org/new-testament/pentecostcnt

[3] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=52

[4] www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1575


crafting another way

When Banu and I were at seminary, there were three floors in the main building set aside for residence.  We lived on the third floor (mind you, in separate rooms before getting married!).  Up on the fourth floor, there were a number of students from India.  Constantly emanating from the community kitchen was the unmistakable scent of curry.  I think the aroma had seeped into every counter and shelf.  That strong smell would waft up and down the hallway.

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When you live with people from all over the world, you learn about a lot of different cultures.  And that could mean learning to appreciate—or at least to tolerate—the smell of curry, whether you like it or not!  (By the way, I do like curry—just not a whole lot of it at once!)

Try not to salivate too much, because I’ll be returning to the subject of food in a few minutes!

Speaking of different cultures, Luke, the author of the book of Acts, mentions a variety of them, as he and his friends travel around the Roman Empire.

In today’s reading, we hear about Tabitha, who lives in Joppa (modern day Tel Aviv).  He calls her “a disciple” (v. 36).  It’s the only time in the Bible that the Greek word for “female disciple” is used (μαθητρια, mathētria).

We’re introduced to her while the apostle Peter is in Lydda, a nearby town.  While he’s there, Tabitha dies.  Knowing that he’s in the neighborhood, some people send word, giving him the sad news.

Luke makes a point of giving us her name, which means “gazelle,” in both Aramaic (Tabitha), and in Greek (Dorcas).  Luke’s the only New Testament writer who is a Gentile.  He has life experience in bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile.

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[“St. Tabitha” by reinkat]

Tabitha might be the same way.  One idea is that this woman with two names has, in her ministry, worked with people from all kinds of backgrounds.  She’s a “cultural hybrid.”  She’s at home in her own culture, but also in the cultures of the people around her.[1]

In other words, she has taken the time to expand her identity.  She can relate to many different people.  And she has done this in a loving way.  That’s why, as we see in verse 39, after Peter shows up, “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”

We’re told that “Peter put all of [the widows] outside and 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” (v. 40).

As you can see, the lectionary appoints this text for the season of Easter.  (Which makes sense, with all of this rising from the dead business.)  Because of that, it’s been said “wherever the power of death is overcome by the power of resurrected life, we see again the power of God alive in God’s world.”[2]  In raising Tabitha, Peter is showing—and he himself is being shown—how the Lord is crafting another way, a new way.

I use that word “crafting” quite deliberately.  It speaks to the sense of art and beauty that we see.  Tabitha crafted wonderful garments to share with others who both admired and needed them.

The Acts of the Apostles, according to some people, should be called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.”  That wouldn’t be a bad name!  The Spirit is evident in what the young church is doing, in both success and failure.  The Spirit is certainly evident in the raising of Tabitha, but even more importantly, the Spirit is evident in the beauty that is her life—and also in ours.

Ac 3Aside from the drama and spectacle (raising the dead, speaking in tongues, etc.), the power of the Spirit is seen in the halting, stumbling efforts that this community of people from various backgrounds demonstrates in their life together.  Jürgen Moltmann calls them “the Pentecost community,” and he says they “always have ‘more than enough.’”[3]

Why is that?  “Because the power of the resurrection and the Spirit of fellowship have liberated them from the fear of death and from anxiety about life.  If God is for us, if God is in our midst, between each and all of us, then there is no longer any want, in any sector of life…”  [The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.]

“That is the message of the Pentecost community in Jerusalem, which made so many rich.  And that is their message to us as well.”

One of the amazing things about the Holy Spirit is that there is always more than enough.  Can we trust that?  Can we trust the call and receive the courage it takes to be a Pentecost community?  So often, we operate from a mentality of scarcity, and it affects everything we do.  We miss out on abundance of Spirit, generosity of Spirit.  We miss out on celebration of Spirit.

Luke makes a point about this at the end of our passage.  I like the way he closes the chapter.  After Tabitha is raised, just as in Lydda, celebrations begin.  Hear verse 42: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”  For sure, that’s a cause for celebration.  Do we honestly think he’s talking about a bunch of folks with long, grim faces?

Ac 4Then, seemingly out of the blue, Luke ends the chapter by tossing this in about Peter: “Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner” (v. 43).  What’s going on with that?  Why should we care about his lodging accommodations?  Did his trip advisor screw up the itinerary?  Maybe a one-star rating is in order!

No, I think we can see a bit of another, a new direction of ministry.

As a tanner, one who makes leather, Simon is engaged in an unclean line of work.  That’s “unclean” in a literal sense.  Handling dead animals all day tends to make one dirty and stinky.  I imagine some of you know more about tanning than I do—which isn’t much!  It’s likely he would also be ritually unclean.  That is, he would be ritually impure, unable to worship in a proper, acceptable way.

So what might seem to be Luke’s casually throwing in a random comment turns out to be anything but random.  Peter, quite knowingly, stays in an unclean place.  Peter should be disgusted by Simon the tanner, with his filthy, stinky job.  But Peter sees Simon as more than a tanner; he recognizes him as a brother in Christ.  It hasn’t been an easy transition.  To move beyond what he’s been taught his entire life doesn’t come without effort and difficulty.

And it’s while he’s staying with Simon that he has a vision of God ringing the dinner bell, saying, “Come and get it!”  (I told you I’d get back to food.)  Hmm, so what’s on the menu?  Critters that fly around; critters that are creepy and crawly; critters that root around in the dirt.  In other words: delicious.  But then we have that ritually unclean business.

So Peter’s going nuts, breaking laws right and left.  But some laws should be broken.

It’s probably easy for us to dismiss ritual purity laws when it comes to stuff like food.  What about rules that say you can’t associate with certain kinds of people?  And you better not stay at their house!  Seriously people, in today’s society, we have to be vigilant against the transmission of cooties.  There’s a good reason for these guidelines.

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In reality, there can be a real problem with codes of purity.  The way they exclude and separate people becomes unjust and hard-hearted.  And in the book of Acts, that painful truth slowly dawns on Peter and his friends.  In the next chapter, when he is called to visit Cornelius, the centurion, Peter says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28).

What purity codes do we enforce?  In what ways do set up rules to keep people away?  How do we shun people, thinking that in doing so, we are serving God, even defending God?

Banu has noted, “I am always amazed about the churches where the main mission statement lists these words—‘Welcoming, friendly congregation…’  Then one wonders why nobody really pays any attention to the words.”  I’ve wondered about that myself.  Are they welcoming, regardless of socio-economic, sexual, racial, political, athletic, culinary orientation?

Peter and his friends, including the risen Tabitha, are learning to allow the Holy Spirit to craft a new way for them.  They are learning to allow the Holy Spirit to craft them into something beautiful.

Even though they are trying to follow where the Spirit leads, it is still quite unsettling to stay with the process and not rush through it.  Sometimes, staying with the process can seem tedious, maybe even painful.

Our prayer is to work towards paying attention to the movement of the Spirit.  We want an environment in which the wondrous promises of God will continue to be realized.  At times the journey of transition is arduous; its tasks may seem tiresome.  And if we learn anything from Peter staying with Simon the tanner, it might even be stinky!

Still, if we think of the Spirit as the master artist, and ourselves as the ones being crafted, again, it’s not a good idea to rush the job.  When we hinder or resist the movement of the Spirit in our lives and among each other, we rob ourselves, as well as the world around us, of the full expression of what we can be.

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We are crafted to face the truth about ourselves, no matter how beautiful that might be!

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1625

[2] www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Living-Power-John-Holbert-04-15-2013.html

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1983), 131.


watery welcome

The 3rd of August 1986.  The Assemblies of God church in Tennessee I used to attend.  Suddenly, I’m immersed in warm water; I’m being treated to a full body bath.  (Fortunately, my bladder is not overflowing!)  I’m being held by my pastor, who is intoning words about the Holy Trinity.  (At least, I trust he is.  I can’t hear him under water.)

1 lk 3In case you haven’t already figured it out, I’m describing my baptism.  I was 21.  There were two people before me: a boy probably 8 or 9 years old, and a woman roughly 40 years older than me.  The three of us participated in what we Presbyterians and many other churches refer to as the sacrament of baptism.  My old denomination calls it an ordinance.

Very briefly, an ordinance is a practice that demonstrates a believer’s faith.  A sacrament (in this case, baptism) is a practice, that through the means of the Holy Spirit, grants entry into the church universal.  Infants and young children are baptized with the understanding that God sends the Spirit, welcoming them into the covenant of the family of God.

Our Book of Order puts it this way: “Both believers and their children are included in God’s covenant love.  The baptism of believers witnesses to the truth that God’s gift of grace calls for our grateful response.  The baptism of our young children witnesses to the truth that God claims people in love even before they are able to respond in faith” (W-3.0402).  At some point in time, of course, they should respond in faith, however that happens.

And maybe that provides a good transition.  We are claimed in love.  Ultimately, that’s the most important reason to enter the waters of baptism.

As we read today’s gospel text, St. Luke’s version of the baptism of the Lord, it looks like love is completely off the table.  Earlier in chapter 3, John the Baptist unloads on the people approaching him.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (vv. 7-8).

I like how the recently deceased Eugene Peterson put it in his paraphrase The Message.  He had some fun with it.  “Brood of snakes!  What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river?  Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment?  It’s your life that must change, not your skin.”

2 lk 3Okay, so where’s the love?  Let’s back up a little more.

The story of the baptism is torn from its context.  At the beginning of the chapter, we see Luke, as he likes to do, giving a recitation of who is currently in the government.  Emperor Tiberius…Pontius Pilate…Herod, and so on.  He provides the political framework.  In response to John’s message, the crowds, the tax collectors, the soldiers all ask, “What should we do?”

Luke doesn’t go into this, but we learn from Matthew and Mark that John wore a garment of camel hair and a leather belt—dressed like prophets of old, especially Elijah.  He ate locusts and wild honey, which are nutritious, but being in the desert, not a wide variety of food is available.

In describing John, Mark Stenberg starts right there.[1]  “In Luke, John the Baptist is not some weird, crazy hick.  He is a political prisoner…  Not only did John the Baptist speak the truth about Herod’s wicked accumulation of money and power, he also was a direct threat to Herod’s economy.  He was teaching tax collectors and soldiers not to extort or bully the people.  He was teaching people to share their stuff.  All of this was too much of a threat to Herod, to his system.  So The Baptist is locked up.”

Herod doesn’t take kindly to John’s upsetting the apple cart, to his baptizing and making waves!

Luke gives a very specific reason for John’s arrest.  John the Baptist “proclaimed the good news to the people.  But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison” (vv. 18-20).  John told Herod marrying his brother’s wife was a no-no.  His criticism of Herod could have provided the pretext, the perfect excuse, to toss him into prison.

It might seem strange to have this note about Herod in the middle of the passage.  We’re talking about baptism before and after it.  What’s going on?

Some people say there’s no problem with the sequence of events.  John’s been baptizing and saying he’s not the Messiah; the Messiah is yet to come.  Herod throws him in jail.  So who baptizes Jesus?  Is John paroled and then arrested later on?  I don’t know if there are many people who go along with that.  The explanation commonly given is that the Holy Spirit baptizes Jesus, however that happens.

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Another viewpoint is Herod is inserted to show the result of John’s ministry—and that he refused to back down.  By extension, with our baptism and baptismal promises, we might find ourselves in trouble.  To be sure, it’s extremely unlikely we would get tossed in jail!  Still, there are places in the world where that happens.

Having said that, it’s simply a question of Luke not mentioning John’s name as the one who baptizes Jesus.  And this does matter.  Luke emphasizes the role of the Spirit in baptism.  All four gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—include the story, but they present it in different ways.  The one major commonality is the descent of the Holy Spirit, which is reflected in our theology of baptism.

We observe the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant.  It’s a time of remembering baptism and the promises made at baptism.  It’s a time for renewal.  Included in the prayer of thanksgiving are the lines, “We rejoice that you claimed us in our baptism, and that by your grace we are born anew.  By your Holy Spirit renew us, that we may be empowered to do your will and continue forever in the risen life of Christ.”[2]

That connection of the Spirit with baptism is especially made with the epistle reading in Acts 8.  We’re told that the apostles Peter and John laid their hands on baptized believers, and they received the Holy Spirit.  At least in this case, something visible must have happened, since an onlooker named Simon wanted to pay them for the power to do that himself.  There was some kind of sign, possibly (or probably) speaking in tongues.

Our scripture passage ends with all the people being baptized…  Jesus is baptized and is praying…  the heavens are opened…  the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove…  And then this: “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (v. 22).

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Father Richard Rohr

It’s that final bit I want to look at.  Last of all, there is a heavenly voice, claiming Jesus as the Son and the Beloved.  “With you I am well pleased.”

We have wonderful words of welcome and acceptance.  Earlier I said the best reason for baptism is being claimed in love.  (Where’s the love?  Here it is!)  It is the ultimate claim in love, the claim God extends to us.  It is the ultimate welcome and acceptance.

Regarding welcome, Richard Rohr speaks of what he calls “the first permission.”[3]  He wonders if we’ve ever met someone who didn’t seem comfortable in their own skin.  He suggests, “Maybe that person seemed to possess an inexpressible sadness, or was unusually apologetic, or was possibly surly and brittle.  Consider the possibility that, as a child, when that person first came into the world, he [or she] was not given the first permission—permission to exist.

“Many people have never been given this foundational permission—either spoken or unspoken.  No one ever held their face, looked in their eyes, and said, ‘Welcome to the world, dear little one.  I’m so happy you’re here, that you exist.  I love you.’”

The questions are posed to us: “Did I receive the first permission?  How have I given the first permission to others…?”  Has anyone (and how have they) expressed joy that we alive?  Can we look at the people around us and say, “I am glad that you are alive.  I welcome you!”?

I mentioned the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant.  There are pastoral dimensions to the reaffirmation.  It’s not just something we do because today is Baptism of the Lord.  We saw how God extends promise and welcome to us in baptism.

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posted by Katie Klosterman on Pinterest

There are also promises reaffirmed which we make to each other.  At a baptism, the congregation is asked if they “promise to guide and nurture…by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging [those to be baptized] to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church.”[4]  That’s no small thing.

Extending that watery welcome comes with a price.  If we welcome someone, it means we have to follow up on it.  Maybe that’s one reason why John the Baptist (in his cantankerous way) rebuked the people, calling them slithering snakes.  He wanted to let them know what baptism means.  It’s not a ritual to undergo to deflect public pressure.  It’s not something to just “do.”

Is there love involved in his ranting and raving?  One thing we can say is he doesn’t make it all about himself.  He isn’t boastful; he doesn’t take the credit where the credit is not due.  “I’m not the one you’re looking for,” he tells them.  “I’m just paving the way.”

So those promises are difficult.  In my own baptism, I knew I had walked through a door, but I hadn’t arrived.  I was just at the beginning.  Every day, we’re just at the beginning.  That also applies to those of us who were baptized as infants.  We are welcomed by God into the family.  Becoming aware of that when we’re older means learning that we’ve walked through that door.  The Spirit has led us, and we are always at the beginning of the adventure.  It’s a wondrous adventure, with the joys and sorrows that go with it.

With the ears to hear, we hear that voice extending those words of welcome and acceptance.

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[1] thq.wearesparkhouse.org/new-testament/baptismofourlordcgosepl

[2] Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 470.

[3] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 58.

[4] Book of Common Worship, 406.


decisions, decisions

Life is all about making decisions.  You’ve already made a few of them so far this morning.  Decision number one was whether or not to get out of bed.  (That’s assuming, of course, you didn’t stay up all night!)  Following that were other decisions, involving stuff like getting dressed, eating breakfast, going to church, maybe even praying!

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Rush, the Holy Trinity of rock (okay I added that last part!)

A lot of our decisions we make without really thinking about them.  Others require great effort and attention.  Some we eagerly embrace; others we avoid like the plague.  Still, as the rock group Rush once said in their song, “Freewill,” “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice!”

Our scripture reading in Acts describes a decision made by the eleven remaining apostles—remaining, that is, after Judas’ death following his betrayal of Jesus.  Peter is the one who raises the issue, feeling that the original number of twelve needs to be restored.  So they decide to select a replacement.

(By the way, our scripture reading in the lectionary omits verses 18 to 20: all that juicy stuff about how Judas dies!  Once again, the folks who compiled the lectionary wanted to protect us and our delicate sensibilities from all those grim and garish details.)

I have a question to ask: how do you feel about this whole undertaking of replacing Judas?

This decision has received mixed reviews over the years.  On the one hand, it’s been seen as an act of faithfulness.  The young church sees itself as the new Israel, with twelve apostles corresponding to the twelve tribes.

On the other hand, it’s not that Peter and the other apostles are doing a bad thing.  They clearly have good motives.  They establish what appear to be sound criteria.  They make sure that the new apostle is someone who’s “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (v. 21).  It must be one who’s been there through thick and thin—from the time of Jesus’ baptism until the present day—someone who can provide witness to the Lord’s resurrection.

Two candidates are proposed.  The first is “Joseph called Barsabbas,” alias “Justus,” and the second is Matthias.  They pray that the one God has chosen will be revealed, and they cast lots—in effect, they roll the dice—to get the result.  And the winner is: Matthias!

I said this business has gotten mixed reviews.  Some feel Peter’s use of Psalms 69 and 109, claiming they predict Judas’ deception and their response to it, is a bit loose.  Still, it’s also true that upon reflection, the church saw how the Holy Spirit spoke through certain scriptures looking ahead to the Messiah.  (Having said that, I had teachers who lamented how some people see in the Old Testament every piece of wood and random comment pointing to Jesus!)

But that’s not the main reason the apostles’ decision has been critiqued.  To put it simply, it looks like they go ahead without hearing from God on the matter.  Our gospel reading in Luke 24 shows Jesus, just before his ascension, telling them to wait until the Spirit is poured out upon them.

Lacking any definitive guidance, they plunge ahead and use a method that’s been around for ages—casting lots.  It does seem to be relevant that, after Pentecost, lots aren’t mentioned anymore.  The Holy Spirit directs the young church.

2 ac 1Still, it’s hard to be too critical of them.  I can see why they might feel like they needed to take some kind of action.  Some of them may have been getting a little antsy.  Peter himself was known to be rather headstrong at times.

So I ask again: how do you feel about all of this?  Faced with a decision like this, I wonder how we would fare.

In a way, it’s not fair to ask what you think of the apostles’ decision.  There’s the saying about not knowing what’s happening with someone until you’ve walked in their shoes.  We’ve all been criticized for decisions we’ve made by people who really don’t know what they’re talking about!

Let me tell you a little story about someone who faced a major decision in his life.  As a result of his struggle, the world is better off for it.

I’ve mentioned him before, the 16th century Spanish officer, Ignatius of Loyola.  If you recall, he was a wild young man; he loved chasing the ladies.  While fighting the French, a cannon ball, passing between his legs, tore open the left calf and broke the right shin.  (I also said something about that projectile.  If it were one foot higher, well, he wouldn’t have been worried about the ladies!)

While bedridden doing physical rehab, he requested some of his favorite reading, stories of knights and chivalry.  None of those were on hand, so what were brought to him were stories of Christ and the saints.  He experienced his conversion while reading those books.  In time, he became the founder of an order known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

What’s relevant right now is that in his book, The Spiritual Exercises, he includes a section entitled, “Discerning the Spirits.”  His use of the word “spirits” reflects a medieval concept; today, we might call these interior movements of the soul a combination of inclinations, attractions, imaginings, thoughts and feelings.

One guide to understanding Ignatius is Stefan Kiechle, a German Jesuit who wrote a book called The Art of Discernment: Making Good Decisions in Your World of Choices.[1]  It’s a very readable book, and it helps you to see what a wise person Ignatius was.

Ignatius stresses the need, when approaching a decision, to become “indifferent.”  That’s not “indifferent” as we tend to think of it.  It’s not an attitude that says, “I couldn’t care less what happens!”

For Ignatius, indifference is “a state where people no longer desire health more than sickness, wealth more than poverty, a long life more than a short life, honor more than dishonor, but instead they desire what brings them closer to the ‘end for which [they] are created.’  Therefore, one ought to be prepared to accept personal setbacks if they benefit a higher goal.”[2]

He sounds a lot like St. Paul, who in Philippians 4 says, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (vv. 11-13).

Ignatian indifference is inner freedom.  Only those who have faced up to their own disordered desires—Paul might say “works of the flesh”—can be truly free.  The greater freedom we have, the better our decision making will be.  Still, we rarely achieve perfect clarity in our decisions.

“Apparently sound decisions are impossible unless one can reflect with a minimum of interruption…  The moment we enter silence, our inner self comes to life…  People who are constantly talking and keeping busy never pause to listen.”[3]  (That too often sounds like me.  When I mean to have a time of silence, I focus on the random thoughts that float through my head.  The trick is noticing them, and then just letting them go!)

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So far, the advice from Ignatius might sound pretty stern.  In that respect, he’s keeping true to his roots as a soldier!  But he’s quick to emphasize the need for love.  When approaching a decision, even one (or maybe I should say, especially one) causing fear or anxiety, I should “ask myself if I’m making my choice lovingly.”[4]  I need to make my choice lovingly.  A loving spirit helps dissipate the cloud of negative forces that confuse and confound us.

We all have weaknesses; we should acknowledge them.  For example, do I tend to jump right in, or do I put it off as long as I can?  Do I have an exaggerated sense of self-worth; do I strut around?  Do I think I’m totally worthless; do I shrink and try to hide?  Do I tend to ignore reality in favor of some dream world, whipping out the rose-colored glasses?  Do I insist on looking at the dark side of everything, always finding something to gripe about?  We all have our favorite traps.

“Yet the fact remains that only those who make mistakes will learn something; only those who dare will mature as a result of the experiment—an important word in Ignatius.”[5]  It’s easy to sit back and criticize.  God wants us to lovingly stand up and get involved.

We are created in the image of God.  That means plenty of things, but one of my favorite examples of God’s image in us is a sense of humor.

(Humor seems to belong to humans alone.  Still there are some animals, like chimpanzees, who seem to find some stuff funny.  But not my dog.  He never laughs at my jokes.  Although, there might be several reasons for that!)

Ignatius also stresses the need for humor.  When we develop our sense of humor, it enables us to entertain other ideas.  We’re not so rigidly dead set on one course of action.  If we can’t laugh at ourselves, we become rigid and intolerant.  Still, when it comes to laughing at oneself, some of us have more material than others!

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So there, we need a good sense of humor.  Oddly enough though, a full and healthy sense of humor carries with it the ability to mourn.  And somehow, the ability to mourn is also a part of wise decision making.  Our Jesuit friend Kiechle tells us: “People who have to choose between two good alternatives are frequently attracted to both of them.  Once an alternative has been selected, the other alternative that has been rejected will have to be mourned.  People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long to the [rejected] alternative…  One who keeps reproaching oneself for having made the wrong decision after all, feels dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[6]  We must be able to say goodbye.

What kind of decisions are we facing?  Let me suggest one possibility.

Certainly, we’re not in the same situation as those early disciples, but they have suffered a loss.  I don’t know that anyone here has betrayed the Lord—at least, not in the outward death-dealing way Judas did.  (We all have our own ways of betraying the Lord!)  Still, I don’t think it’s a controversial point to say we wonder about expanding our own number.

If I can push the comparison a little further, drawing on the idea of casting lots, are we prone to relying on our own methods, and being a little less charitable, relying on gimmicks?!  (I didn’t come up with that on my own.  In one of the previous churches we served, a session member, thinking of increasing the membership, said that very thing: “We need a gimmick.”  And that was suggested more than once!)

So there’s that.  I know this happens next Sunday, but after the day of Pentecost, the disciples learn what it means to be led by the Spirit.  And we live after the day of Pentecost.  Understand, that doesn’t mean we drift around, waiting for the Spirit to move us.  If you recall what I said about Ignatius, he provides one example of what it means to test the Spirit, to test the spirits.

As we saw earlier, the Spirit is the promise of Jesus after his ascension.  The Spirit guides us in our decisions.  Part of that means failing, but then still trusting.

When we make decisions and say, in an unnecessarily hurried way, “Let’s just get it done, already,” it limits the power of community.  When one of us takes it upon ourselves to speak for the entire community, it chokes the Spirit.  That is why it is so important as a community to test the spirits, both individually and within community.  And that begins right here in worship.  God speaks in ways we have not even begun to fathom.

Trusting in that is a pretty good decision.

 

[1] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005).

[2] Kiechle, 32-33.

[3] Kiechle, 69.

[4] Kiechle, 79.

[5] Kiechle, 91-92.

[6] Kiechle, 76-77.