Well, last Sunday was a challenging day. In a small community like ours, missing a couple of key people can way lay the best made plans. And still we managed to worship and share, to sing and pray, listen and learn, which are the really important things. Thanks to everyone for pulling together at the last minute. It was also challenging to say good-bye to our friends Soo Kim and Doug Lee as they return to Korea. Doug, Soo, and Hegene have become beloved members of our “family” over the past five years and we will miss them very much. We promise to hold a place for them and they promised to come back to visit.
This Sunday is known as Ascension Sunday in liturgical tradition. On the Sunday before Pentecost, we remember that the Christ ascended into heaven as recorded in Acts or returned to God as he predicted in John’s gospel. After the Ascension, when Christ was no longer plainly visible to his followers, the Holy Spirit descended on them, imbuing them with great power to carry on Christ’s mission in the world. In the Ascension story in Acts 1, the angels ask the dazed disciples why they’re standing there looking into heaven when there is work to be done on earth. This is a fair question to ask every follower who may be more focused on what is to come than what is needed now to usher in God’s Beloved Community.
In Adult Spiritual Formation, we will wrap up our study of the Parables with a look at “The Parable of the Talents.” Please join us for worship, education, and community time and bring someone along to share the day. At 2:00 PM, we will hold a memorial service for our beloved Marilyn Hunwick, which will be followed by a reception hosted by the family. If church members are wanting to help with the reception, please contact the church office.
Remember, our theme for this year is “All Are Welcome in this Place.”
For a little bit of context, let’s look at the verses which precede today’s text:
16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
Now it may be that the Athenians were superstitious people – people who covered all their bases by erecting a shrine “to an Unknown God,” just in case they had missed a god in the creation of their pantheon of deities. Or perhaps they were sophisticated enough to know that there were gods or dimensions of deity that would always extend beyond the human capacity to know. At any rate, the writer of Acts indicates that Paul was unhappy to find such a proliferation of gods throughout the city of Athens. However, he did not vent his anger with the Athenians over their polytheism in the same manner he would later with the Romans (Romans 1:18-23.).
Our focus scripture for this Sunday will be Acts 17:16-34. In this story Paul has stirred up trouble in Athens by preaching the gospel. He is called before the Areopagus, a kind of civic council, to account for himself and the claims he was making. He takes the opportunity to make a brilliant speech about the “unknown God” to whom the Athenians have erected a shrine. He goes on to challenge them to consider whether this might be an entry point to knowing the “living God” he serves, the One in whom we “live and move and have our being.” This is an inspirig tale and a powerful early witness to the faith tradition we claim as our own.
After Worship, we will hold the first cook out of the season and the weather is promising to cooperate. So, bring salad or a side dish to share. The rest will be furnished. Come early to help set up or stay after to help clean up.
Sadly this Sunday we will say farewell to Soo Kim and Doug Lee as they return to Korea. It has been a joy to have them sojourn with us the past 4+ years. We will miss them very much. We celebrate them in the service and at the cook out.
Remember, our theme for this year is “All Are Welcome in this Place.” Let’s make certain that it is so.
A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, May 7, 2017
Text: Acts 2:42-47
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day 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, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
I imagine that most of us would agree that this is not the best of times. Is it the worst of times? I can’t say for certain. There are many things within the current social and political scenes that feel pretty awful, about as bad as we can remember. The problem with judging this as the worst of times is that we lose sight of some terrible times that have gone before.
For instance, I have been reading Ron Chernow’s great biography of Alexander Hamilton. Interestingly, it is the work on which the contemporary hit musical is based. Let me tell you, the book is an excellent historical account of a key figure in the founding of this country, but it seems a highly unlikely source for a musical. I haven’t seen the musical, so I can only give credit to Lin Manuel Miranda’s genius from afar, for it must take genius to make music of such an account of a most challenging time in US history.
The political infighting in the late 18th century between the Federalists and the Republicans was fierce. Each side believed the success of the new nation was totally dependent on its point of view and each feared the other was selling out America’s new-found independence. The Republicans believed the Federalists were a front for the British monarchy and the Federalists saw the Republicans as tools of the chaos and bloodshed of the French Revolution. This was the beginning of party politics, and if you think today’s news conferences – fake or otherwise, tweets, leaks, hacks, and other political chicanery are bad, you should read about the terrors of politics in the 1790s. The diatribes, name-calling, mud-slinging, etc., was vicious and offered up under pseudonyms that purported to keep the authors anonymous. Libelous commentary and threats to honor were still settled with duels, one of which took Hamilton’s life. As I said, I can’t affirm with any certainty that this earlier time was worse than the present but it was surely not good.
This week we have seen the President abruptly end an interview with a respected journalist in a childish pique because he didn’t like the questions that challenged unsubstantiated claims he had made about his predecessor. We watched as he signed an executive order undermining religious liberty. Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee of Religious Liberty writes, “The vast majority of congregants and clergy from all religious groups oppose candidate endorsements in their houses of worship. Pastors will continue to speak truth to power and preach on moral issues, no matter how controversial, and they don’t need a change in the tax law to do it. But getting rid of the protection in the law that insulates 501(c)(3) organizations from candidates pressing for endorsements would destroy our congregations and charities from within over disagreements on partisan campaigns.”
For me, the most egregious event of the week was the passage in the House of Representatives of a health care bill that promises more harm than health for the many Americans. I was especially impressed with these comments by Massachusetts Congressman, Joe Kennedy. They seem intricately entwined with today’s text. He observes:
“It is among the most basic human truths: Every one of us, someday, will be brought to our knees. By a diagnosis we didn’t expect, a phone call we can’t imagine, or a loss we cannot endure.
That common humanity inspires our mercy. It fortifies our compassion. It drives us to look out for the sick, the elderly, the poor, and the most vulnerable among us.
Yesterday’s bill — yesterday’s devastating bill — does the opposite.
The bill is more than premiums and tax cuts. It is a cold and calculated world view: One that scapegoats the struggling, and sees fault in suffering. One dead set on dividing us based on who we love, where we come from, the direction of our faith and the size of our fortunes.
We must reject it.
We must decide, instead, to take care of each other — because, but for the grace of God, we will all one day wake up in need of a little mercy.
This nation’s character has never been defined by the power we give the already strong — but by the strength we give the weak.”
Is Kennedy right? Do we believe we are part of a “common humanity”? Has our national character overall been defined by the “strength we give the weak”? Would God it were so. It certainly sounds like gospel truth to me. I am not sure that it has ever been consistently American truth. But it does seem like Kennedy has caught some of the vision of that first community of Christ-followers in Jerusalem, what some refer to as the first church. In Luke’s, perhaps overly idealized, summary of what that community was like, the strength given to the weak was crucial – “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.”
It’s easy to look at this passage from Acts and read “communism” between the lines in big red letters. That’s what happened in Bible Study on Tuesday. Because of the great Cold War waged between American capitalism and state communism, it is still a dirty word in the vernacular, and this text raises old specters for those who remember. In his sermon, “A Vibrant Communism,” Australian Bruce Prewer begins by saying “Given the fears, suffering and massacres caused by the Marxist/Leninist/Maoist/Pol-Pot brands of political communism during the twentieth century, the word communism has been corrupted. Maybe irredeemable? Can I even dare use the word ‘communism’ without raising barriers and arousing hostility in many people? I guess I’ll know, by the feedback, after this sermon.”
Rather than focus on the worst of times, I would rather attend to the good news in today’s text. It is actually a favorite of mine. Even if Luke is embellishing what really happened among those first followers, this still seems to me to be a fitting account of the Jesus way. First and foremost, it says the early disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In other, words, they grounded their lives individually and communally in spiritual discipline. I know you’ve heard me say before that this sort of spiritual practice is vital to understanding and living out the gospel.
Then, because they engaged in this spiritual discipline, they were not only able to do “signs’ and wonders,” as Jesus had, they were able – at least for a while – to sustain a community in which they shared, not only their possession, but their lives. They could live communally, praying, breaking bread and eating together with “glad and generous hearts.” Isn’t that a wonderful way to describe a community – one that is characterized not only by giving strength to the weak but also by living their lives with glad and generous hearts? Maybe, in these troubled times, especially in these troubled times, we, as people of faith, as followers of Christ, ought to work at cultivating glad and generous hearts. I don’t mean we should stick our heads in the sand while the world crumbles around us. It is always appropriate to speak truth to power. But listen to the result of those first Christians living with glad and generous hearts. They experienced the “goodwill of all the people. And day by day God added to their number those who were being saved.” There was actually something salvific in their witness, something infectious in the spirit of joy and generosity with which they approached life.
Prewer, looking back at this first community, ends his sermon suggesting to his contemporary congregation, “Such idealistic communism would be truly a bit of heaven on earth. Those first Christians bravely and lovingly practiced it in Jerusalem. Think of the witness that such a caring and sharing way of life must have had on the community around them. Folk would really sit up and take notice. No wonder new converts were being baptized every day.”
Though holding all things in common, selling our possessions and goods and distributing the proceeds to those in need, may be a vision of God’s Beloved Community for which we are not yet prepared, we can still live our lives caring and sharing, building up our common humanity, giving strength to the weak, inspiring mercy, fortifying compassion, and looking out for the sick, the elderly, the poor, and the most vulnerable among us. And very importantly, because we have been loved, cared for, and blessed, we might live our lives, even in tough times, with glad and generous hearts. What do you think? Shall we give it a try? Amen.
President of Central Baptist Seminary, Kansas City, Kansas
On a recent road trip through southern Kansas, I witnessed a spring rite, the burning of the prairie. The billowing smoke and red glow of distant fires are quite the vista — and a sign of renewal. The distinctive smell permeates the environs, even in a speeding presidential Ford with windows tightly closed. Lightning strikes have lit up dead trees and overgrown pastures for centuries. Seeing the benefits, farmers and ranchers now set controlled times of burning so that new life may come.
It is hard to believe that from charred grasslands and withered, blackened brush can come a healthy ecosystem. Yet, that is exactly what happens. The prairie always blossoms with new vibrancy after this time of seeming ruin.
Somewhere in the back of mind I had begun a different sermon this week. I suppose it might have been a kinder, gentler one until a lone gunman entered a church and murdered nine people at prayer. Everything changed. At least, it did for me. Once more gun violence has reared its hideous head in our so-called sophisticated society. Once more racism runs rampant in a heinous act of bigotry. Once more we are at risk to wring our hands in dismay only to move on shortly after, shaking our heads and changing nothing. I don’t have ready answers to either racism or gun violence but I believe with all my heart that something has to change.
I look at the pictures and read the reports about the young man who perpetrated this evil and I cannot help but think, he did not love himself, so he could not love his neighbors. This is neither an excuse or rationalization for what he did. It’s just an observation of what I see as an exceedingly sad reality. I will not be so presumptive as to try to analyze Dylan Roof. I’ll leave that for others more experienced, more expert, than I in the present and for history to determine in the future. But I do know that his action did not stem from love for self or love for neighbor.
Let me leave my rant for the moment to consider the theme and text for today. Maybe it well help to bring some balm from Gilead, some healing to the wounds. Perhaps it will tell us something about how we might move forward in this troubled, troubling world. The portion of Acts 10 that Alan and Melanie read for us this morning does not make the lectionary. I’m not sure why. It tells a powerful story of double vision brought into focus through the work of love for self and neighbor.
First, we have Cornelius, a man of might and privilege, a high-ranking Roman official, a man used to giving orders and having them followed. Surely he evoked fear and disdain in those over whom he ruled. We know the Jews of this period had no love for their oppressors. But there was something different about this warrior. Luke writes that Cornelius was “a devout man who feared God…gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” Not your prototypical Roman officer. Something or someone had touched Cornelius at the depths of his being. He didn’t have all the answers, but somehow he knew he was a child of God. He also could sense God alive in those around him and thus his compassion. I suppose you could attribute his respect or love for himself to his position of power and influence. That must have been a factor. Still, Luke says something more was going on. It looks a lot like love.
When he has his vision, he doesn’t hesitate to send for Peter. From his place of privilege, it is not surprising that he would simply go after what he wanted. Note he has slaves and soldiers to do his bidding. But I also think he was eager to hear what God had to say to him, to teach him through the Apostle. It was a word he longed to experience.
Now Peter, over in Joppa, is about to have his own vision as God brings this odd couple together. He was hungry. His stomach was growling. He was ready for dinner but dinner wasn’t ready for him. He thought he would just stretch out for a bit, take a little nap before the meal was put on the table. His physical hunger invites the dream, and what a dream it is! Rutabagas, liver, pickled herring, limburger cheese – all those things he was loathe to eat – appeared before him. Definitely appetite killers. Yuck! If this is the menu, I’m starting my diet today!
OK, I’m being a little flippant. What appeared before Peter was not just stuff that he would find personally disgusting, it was all stuff by ancient law and sacred tradition forbidden for him to consume at all. It wasn’t just yucky. It was a little frightening. It was so shocking, it took three appearances before he realized the invitation to “kill and eat” was a serious one, not just hunger pangs or indigestion.
“Lord Almighty, no! I’ve never let anything unclean or profane pass my lips. My religious identity, my sense of self-respect, is wrapped up in keeping the law. How can you ask me to do such thing?” Is this some sort of test? Well, yes and no. Is God hoping Peter will say “no” and earn God’s favor? No, I don’t think God works like that. God’s not likely to trick us into doing the right thing. But God is asking Peter to take a risk, to step outside his comfort zone, far outside his comfort zone. Does he trust God enough to take a risk? Cornelius has. Will Peter reach out to meet him somewhere along the way?
I may be wrong, but I think it takes a measure of self-love to take such a risk. You see, this kind of self love is not self-absorption, not self-aggrandizing, not selfishness. It is a self-love, a self-respect, that leads to a certain righteousness, to right living, to right relationship with God, with self and with your neighbor. Brian McLaren writes about love for self. “God wants you to love you the way God loves you, so you can join God in the one self-giving love that upholds you and all creation. If you trust yourself to that love, you will become the best self you can be, thriving in aliveness, full of deep joy, part of the beautiful whole. That’s the kind of self-care and love that is good, right, wise, and necessary” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 224).
You hear that? “God wants you to love you the way God loves you…” There’s a challenge for us. Love the way God does – with infinite patience and amazing grace. “Don’t call profane what I have made clean.” Take a risk. Get outside your comfort zone. Join “in the one self-giving love that upholds you and all creation.”
So how does the story end? In Peter’s case, the messengers show up with Cornelius’s invitation, Peter decides to take the risk in the service of God’s call, he travels to Caesarea, the gospel is proclaimed and Cornelius and his household find salvation. How will we respond to such a challenging vision and risky call? Will we find the sort of love for ourselves that allows us to love others? Again Brian McLaren reminds us, “Where the Spirit is moving, love for God always, always, always overflows in love for neighbor. And according to Jesus our neighbor isn’t just the person who is like us, the person who likes us, or the person we like. Our neighbor is anyone and everyone – like us or different from us, friend or stranger – even enemy” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 216).
So it seems to me that Dylan Roof could not see, could not understand, could not embrace, his neighbor in love. But before we pass final judgment on him, we might ask ourselves where we, too, fail to see, to understand, to embrace in love, our neighbor. “Don’t call profane anything I have made clean.” We would never do that, would we? Love as God loves – yourself and your neighbor. Jesus said that everything depends on this, along with our love for God. In fact, are they not they not two sides of one coin? Is this not a bringing into focus any double vision about love in its essence? Out of a growing understanding, respect, love for themselves as children of God, Peter and Cornelius come together in Beloved Community. Will we commit ourselves to such gracious activity across all the lines that divide us and threaten to do us in, whether see them as sacred or secular?
Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr. and DePayne Doctor bowed their heads as Pastor Pinckney led them, along with other members of “Mother Emmanuel” AME Church in prayer. Tragically they were not able to finish their prayers last Wednesday, so I’m thinking this morning we might lift some words from Martin Luther King, Jr. on their behalf:
“Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
“I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
“Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
And if they take your life, then let the wounded body of Christ take up your prayer and sing your song. “Our lives,” yours and mine, “begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” And black lives matter. The lives of Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., DePayne Doctor and Pastor Clementa Pinckney matter. We cannot live with double vision here. We need to focus clearly on what matters. No more gun violence. No more racism. No more self-loathing. No more hatred of our neighbors.
I imagine as the service comes to an end, with heads still bowed and eyes closed someone began to softly hum that gently powerful refrain: “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart. Lord, I want to be like Jesus in my heart. Lord, I want to be more loving in my heart.” As an act of solidarity and hope, would you sing that last verse with me right now – “Lord, I want to be more loving…” Amen.
This week we have a long and powerful passage from the book of Acts to use as our text. Thanks to everyone who helped with the reading. Originally, I thought I would focus on the beginning of Acts, chapter 16, in which Paul and Silas wend their way toward Macedonia, led by the Spirit. Once in Philippi they seek out the other Jews and “God-fearers” living there to share the Good News. Here they meet a wealthy merchant named Lydia who not only responds positively to their witness but also takes them in. It’s a great story of conversion and hospitality. But in Bible study, Thelma suggested the title for this sermon – “A Night Well Spent” – and Doug noted that the text talks about prison and prisoners, a topic that is very much in the news today, so the sermon and service took a different direction.
Let me be clear from the outset that I am not suggesting a one to one parallel between this tale of Paul and Silas and we are seeing in the news today, but I do see parallels, if you will indulge me. Now I do have a few questions about this story we read. We know something about contemporary legal process through following the news and watching crime dramas. There is always right and wrong in these stories, someone is clearly innocent and someone guilty, right? In this story, as recounted by Luke, who are the bad guys and who are the good ones? It’s conflicted, isn’t it? Paul is our hero but he gets arrested. Isn’t the one arrested supposed to be the bad guy? In our own time we are coming to see that those arrested aren’t always the villains and those in power are not always righteous, are they?
What have Paul and Silas done to get themselves in trouble with the law? What exactly is their offense? Again, it’s conflicted, isn’t it? They were just minding their own business, walking their daily route to the place, down by the river, where their new community gathered to pray. But this strange girl kept following them and yelling at them. How do you think you might have responded if you had been in their sandals? It’s not difficult to imagine Paul’s annoyance. I think I would be annoyed if someone followed me down the street, calling me out.
“These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Actually, that’s not so bad, is it? She wasn’t calling them nasty names or making false accusations, was she? She was telling the truth. She was really lifting up their Good News, assisting them in their witness, helping to make their case. It must have been the loud way she was crying out that irritated Paul. The text says she was a fortune teller, she had an ability to read people and predict the future. What do you make of that? Was it a good or bad thing? Again, a conflicted situation. Apparently Paul decided it was an evil spirit that needed to be driven out of her. From Luke’s perspective, any such spirit was likely to be demonic. We don’t so much believe in “evil spirits” these days. We think more in terms of mental and emotional illness. But, whatever the label we put on it, Paul drove out that Spirit, he healed the girl, he liberated her, or did he?
After all, she was still a slave, wasn’t she? But now she was a slave without the gift that had made her unique and valuable. Luke’s story doesn’t say any more about her. You will have to complete the tale for yourself. Maybe she found some freedom, at least freedom and peace in Christ through the Good News of God’s Beloved Community. But I worry that her lot in life got worse, just because Paul was annoyed with her for telling the truth. Yes, I know that exorcism was common practice in those days; Luke and Paul are following Jesus’ own practice in liberating people from these “spirits.” I hope she was happier and healthier from that day on, but we just don’t know.
Moving on, what happens next? Are the girl’s owners thrilled that she has been healed, freed of her demon divination? Hardly. They are really ticked off. They have lost their lucrative prize, the source of their wealth. They are not happy at all. They grab Paul and Silas and drag them into the market place to appear before the local magistrates. In their anger, do they tell the truth? “These two fellows have taken our source of income. They have robbed us of what was rightfully ours.” That’s not exactly what we hear, is it? Instead of being honest about what has made them mad, they start slinging every angry allegation they can think of, a whole list of dubious and dishonest charges.
“These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” What do you see as problematic about these charges? In first place, they were not disturbing the city. They were strolling down the street, attending to their own affairs. It is true that they had this subversive message they were trying to spread around, this Good News of the Beloved Community of God, but they really weren’t disturbing the peace at the moment they were seized – except, perhaps, for the peace of a couple of slave owners. What they were disturbing was the exploitative scheme of these so-called business men to make money at the expense of a poor girl who was mentally and emotionally vulnerable. We never encounter a thing like that today, do we?
Oh, yes, they were Jews alright, but what does that have to do with anything, except to appeal to the bias and bigotry of their fellow Philippians? Paul and Silas are simply singled out for appearing different. Antisemitism, along with racism and any number of other “isms” we might name, should not be legal arguments, should they? This charge smacks of “racial profiling” on the streets of ancient Philippi, something we almost never see on our own streets today, right? And what of these “unlawful customs” they are supposedly advocating? The charge is brought without a shred of evidence that anything inappropriate is being done. They were just walking down the street, minding their own business. Was it that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time? We never see anyone busted on those grounds, do we?
By the time the “businessmen” have stopped slinging their slanderous charges, they have whipped the crowd into a frenzy, appealed to all the prejudice and stirred all the anger they can. I imagine the crowd becomes a mob, not unlike those who shouted, “Crucify him!” or “Burn, Baltimore, burn!” We know something of how anger and pain, frustration and fear can evolve into mob mentality, whether the cause is just or not. No one wants to listen and so eventually people lash out, right or wrong.
We don’t know exactly what motivated the mob in Philippi , but we do know that in this case, no one is interested in hearing Paul and Silas make their case. The magistrates have made up their minds, swayed by the mood of the mob and their own bias and bigotry. Our friends are simply whisked off to jail without another word. Is this justice? Is this a fair trial? I ask again, who is right and who is wrong here? Who is really guilty and who is righteous?
Whether or not this story is literally true – there were no reporters on the scene or video at 11 – it is still a telling tale, powerful in its witness to wisdom, truth and the grace of God to make a difference in human life, in partnership with faithful followers who are willing to take the Good News anywhere and everywhere. Though the situation may not be as grim, Paul and Silas, singing and praying in the bowels of a horrible prison, reminds me of Viktor Frankl’s observation that those who find meaning in life, who have something to hold on to, can survive the most horrific circumstances and eventually transform the world.
In this story, Paul and Silas bring the house down, quite literally. I don’t want to romanticize the earthquake, given the awful earthquake in Nepal last week. This shaking seems like a sort of deus ex machina in that chains are broken and doors opened but no other destruction is reported. Still, the idea that God holds real power to liberate is essential to the Good News. In this passage, we see God’s desire to liberate life wherever it is bound, in whatever circumstances. The liberation may not be realized perfectly in one particular moment, but the way is cleared for freedom as chains fall, doors open and spirits flee.
Something about this story that Paul and Silas come to share, the Good News they bring, the Christ to whom they bear witness, the God they serve, partners with the Spirit to bring about change. By rights, the prisoners ought to have fled, but they are all present and accounted for. Whether they are justly or unjustly imprisoned, they do not flee, all – the story says – so their jailer may find his own liberation. Improbable as this seems, it also tells a tale of compassion and grace, prisoners caring for the jailer and his liberation from his own binding. To make time and space for another, even at one’s own expense, is the sort of partnership that turns the world right side up.
A night well spent? You be the judge. I imagine Paul and Silas would say it was. Oh it was painful. The jail was rotten and their wounds ached, but somewhere, deep inside, they believed that the God who had liberated them and transformed their lives could work the same wonder in the lives of others. They gave their lives over to living out what they believed. The challenge for us is to do the same in our own time and circumstances. Will we give ourselves over to working for liberation, for justice, for peace, for the well-being of sisters and brothers everywhere, to bearing faithful witness to the coming of God’s Beloved Community in our lives and the world around us?
Can we practice emancipation and resistance?
Listening and seeing?
Hope and healing?
Can we weep and pray together?
March and sing together?
Organize and mobilize together?
Until we forge and formulate together
The balm of peace and right relationship.
The salve of opportunity and self-determination.
The ointment of community and love.
Make it so, we pray.
Let us make it so. Amen.
(Michael-Ray Mathews, Disinherited: A Prayer of Lament, Longing and Love)
Jesus never intended to start a church. It’s a curious thing that those of us who claim to follow him, all these many years after he walked this earth, are so focused on the church. It is the way we have come to bear witness to what we understand of his ministry among his people 2000 years ago. It’s pretty certain that he would not recognize what we have made of that ministry. More than one wag has opined that Jesus would not be welcomed in many churches today, if he even bothered to pay them a visit.
Still, Brian McLaren has tried to help us see, in this Eastertide, that Jesus’ ministry promised, or threatened, a “global uprising” in his time. McLaren is also challenging us to recapture that same sense of the urgent need for transformation on this planet today. Could we see our way to committing ourselves to such radical activity? to the kind of discipleship we considered last week? and, if we did, what would it look like?
By the time the record began to be written something called the church was beginning to emerge from the practices of those earliest followers of our faith tradition. Luke and Paul write about the early church as well as to its first congregations in various parts of the ancient near east. In today’s texts, each tells us something about how to be church. What they suggest comes closer to what Jesus taught and practiced than what the church generally engages in today.
The sub-theme for this week is “Alive…in the Uprising of Worship.” As we studied these texts on Tuesday, it struck me that they covered much more than worship. In these texts we get a substantial picture of what the church, at its best, might be. The problem, of course, is that these images and guidelines provide a significant challenge to how we do church today. What we see here is a way of being and doing church that comes much closer to the radical gospel that Jesus preached in the Galilean countryside and the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem, or at least this is how Luke and Paul see the Jesus’ Way.
I ruminated on these texts as I made my way to Berkeley after Bible study. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that here was a recipe for pastoral and congregational care, which is the focus of my classes at both the American Baptist Seminary of the West and Pacific School of Religion. So much of pastoral care and counseling, as I was taught and have taught it, focuses on problems. What’s wrong? What needs to be taken care of? What needs to be fixed? These are legitimate concerns and appropriate foci for the discipline. Surely the world is full of folk who suffer, struggle, hurt, wonder, wander, despair, need help, comfort, compassion, concern and care. What has changed since I last taught these courses, a number of years ago, is a bigger focus on congregational life and care.
When I was working on my doctorate and first teaching seminarians as a teaching assistant in pastoral care and counseling classes, we were eager to instruct the students in all the amazing and wonderful things we were learning about the human psyche and counseling technique. However, we soon discovered that much of this advanced training was only tangentially relevant to people who were training for the pastorate, for work in the church. The vast majority of them would rarely, if ever, sit down with parishioners to do formal counseling. Pastoral care and counseling would be done more “on the run,” around services and meetings and the everyday routines of life in a congregation. We found ourselves quickly adapting our teaching and role plays to situations that would have practical meaning for practicing pastors.
What is interesting to me today is how this trend has developed over the years. The concerns, the material for role plays, the topics for research and presentation are much more oriented to congregational life than they are toward individuals and their concerns. Not that these are ignored but the more integrated focus on what happens in churches is instructive to me as well my students. In the course of this semester, as we have considered the breadth of possibilities for pastoral and congregational care, it seems clear to me that a focus on what is or could be good, positive, affirming, blessing about both pastoral and congregational care would be worth considering. That is, in the vein of appreciative inquiry, what could we say and do that was enriching, enlivening, empowering about church life? As David Bartlett asks in the title of his book on the gospels, “What’s good about this news?” What is there to affirm and celebrate in Jesus’ radical word?
So this digression is to set the stage for how I taught my ABSW class last Tuesday night. We read each of these texts in turn and attempted to glean from them something about how to be church, something that would be valuable to us as pastoral caregivers and to our congregations as they engage in congregational care. We filled the chalk board up, down, across and around the edges. It was an inspiring exercise to consider the positive elements of care contained in these ancient words.
Since we didn’t have special music today, we’ve taken the time to read all three of these marvelous texts ourselves. So let us take a few minutes to see what we find here to teach us how to be church. Let’s begin with Acts 2, which some consider the original description of the first church. What do you see here that might help us be church in new, exciting, even radical ways?
They were “devoted to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer.”
They practiced “wonders and signs” (though we’re not too big on that.)
They “held everything in common.” (Sounds like a commune.)
They shared “from each according to their means to each according to their need.” (That sounds downright Communist. What do right-winged, fundamentalist literalists do with this text, I wonder?)
They spent “time in the temple.” (Sounds like regular worship to me.)
They practiced, no they lived out their faith with “glad and generous hearts.” (There’s genuine joy in the church alive and well!)
They had the “goodwill of the people.” (Oh my, today young people are turning their backs in droves because the church is so tied to narrow-minded bigotry, injustice, hypocrisy and abuse! Seems like we’ve used up whatever good will they had banked for us.)
Now let’s look at Corinthians. We know what a fragmented and contentious bunch they were. Paul was determined to teach them something about how to be church, bonded together in one body, the Body of Christ. What do you see in these instructions on how to be church?
First, “each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” (That is, everyone has something to share. We each have our gifts. We need to make room for one another.)
“Let all things be done for building up” each other and the community. (Underline this one at least three times.)
Practice setting “limits, taking turns, listening, silence.” (Since, we don’t do a lot with tongues or prophecy these days, could we find other areas in which to apply these disciplines?)
“God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” (Can those caught up in contention that leads to chaos learn to get along in the spirit of God’s ineffable peace?)
The Colossians were a different congregation. Paul here is not as determined to teach these folks a lesson as to affirm his love and care for them. What does he say to them, and to us, about how to be church?
I start with “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” and “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” (That is, fill yourselves full of peace, shalom, the well-being God gives so generously along with a large portion of that radically transforming good news so that it all radiates from every pore of your being.)
Remember you’re “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.”
Then, once you’re glowing from the inside out, “clothe yourself in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”
Oh! and don’t forget, “above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Well how can you beat that outfit for good taste and beauty!?)
Then, practice “forbearance and forgiveness, be thankful, teach, share wisdom, and sing with glad hearts.”
How to be church…friends this is quite a list, daunting perhaps. But what if it comes closer to Christ’s vision of the Beloved Community of God than anything we’ve ever known or practiced? There are lots of things about the radical good news that overwhelm us, that baffle us, that frighten us. Granted, but surely we know how to listen, to take turns, forgive and give thanks. Surely we could practice compassion and kindness, humility, meekness and patience. We know how to share and care and forbear, don’t we? Study, prayer, worship, fellowship, breaking bread – we’ve visited all those places, more than once. Building up one another and the community, working for peace, well-being, wisdom, the good-will of the people – haven’t we at least longed for these to be elements of our life together?
How to be church – well, there it is, a lot to think about and work on and yet all so eminently doable if we give ourselves to it. It may take discipline but we can practice this way of being and doing church, of giving congregational care, of living out Christ’s radical vision of God’s Beloved Community, without an advanced degree. Oh! and don’t forget that cloak of love, which binds everything – even us, church – together in perfect harmony. Amen.
Prayer: Lord, I believe. Help, Thou, my unbelief. Make these words more than words and give us the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.
The story of Pentecost always begins with a sound; the gathering of people and a sound. So often we focus on what is being said at the time in the story and ignore all the listening that takes place.
First, there’s a sound.
Second, people hear the sound.
An encounter with the Holy Spirit is predicated on a sound and listening.
I wonder what Peter was thinking that day…with all that noise.
When I read this account from Acts, it’s pretty clear that Peter’s first thought was, “Oh no! Everyone is going to think we’re drunk and it’s only 9:00 in the morning!”
But the Spirit moved and suddenly everyone needed an explanation.
I mean, look at this story.
Look at how many people notice.
Look at the text.
Everyone heard the Spirit.
Not everyone knew what it was, but everyone heard it.
The story of Pentecost is often told as if the most important thing that happened was the speaking in tongues…that people were empowered to speak. Indeed, it’s important. No doubt.
But first, first, they heard something. They listened.
“People will speak!” we cry out.
Language upon language upon language in an ecstatic bubbling proclamation.
Isn’t that cool?!
Today, I want us to understand that first there was something worth hearing.
The Spirit of God is worth hearing.
In 2010, Rev. James Forbes (former pastor of Riverside Church in New York City) spoke at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary’s commencement service. The famed Baptist preacher stood in the elevated pulpit of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, IL (a cathedral space just outside of Chicago) and addressed the graduating class and all who had gathered there that day. I was in attendance as a an alum and as local clergy. Dr. Forbes spoke of all the changes in the church but reminded us that it was not just in the church. It was everywhere. He gave us a list of all that was going on, a litany of change and discord. He spoke of it as a time of confusion of languages, of an inability to hear one another, of an inability to be civil and to listen. But, he said, the Holy Spirit is moving.
How do we know? Well, because everything is confusing
The Spirit is doing a new thing.
The Spirit troubles the water.
God’s Spirit is in the world
and it is up us to learn how to listen for it,
and how to listen to one another.
We have to listen to one another, he said, if there is to be positive, lasting change.
At American Baptist Seminary of the West’s commencement service this year, Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson preached to the students, faculty, and families gathered at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, CA. She spoke of her own discouragement at the present state of affairs in religious vocations. She had a long list of reasons to be discouraged, too. But in a stroke of homiletical skill she turned it all around. Dr. Jackson reminded us that the Spirit is moving, that God is doing a new thing, and that we must have ready hearts and minds to recognize what the Spirit is doing. She has great hope because God does not call people unless God has something for them to do.
We are not alone, O church. We are not alone.
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
All of it.
Not some flesh,
the good looking flesh,
the young flesh,
the tanned, toned, muscular flesh;
or those who aren’t drunk at 9:00am flesh,
but all flesh.
A recent Pew research study states that 95% of Americans claim to make their spiritual lives a priority. Let’s look at that statistic and take it seriously for a second. 95% of Americans claim to be spiritual, in-spirited, inspired, filled with God’s own breath. I have to think that the other five percent simply didn’t understand the question.
One of my favorite things about being Christian is that I get to say things like this: It is the last days, just like it was in Peter’s day.
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
My friends, it is always the last days.
The Spirit is always poured out.
Praise God for the end times!
Praise God for the Holy Spirit!
She just needs ready hearts to hear her. She needs someone to listen.
She needs someone to take her people seriously.
She needs someone to open their hearts
to the absurd possibility
that God is doing a new thing,
and that this new thing is happening everywhere.
Are we open to the Spirit? Or do we just think everyone is drunk?
The world needs people who are ready to listen. The world needs people who are ready to hear the truth…no matter how challenging the message might be. I believe that we, the church, are being called upon to listen.
Our question about the future of the church needs to change. When we hear “95%,” we need not ask, “How do we get them to listen to us? How do we get them in here?” What the world needs is for us to listen to it, to assume that the Spirit has been poured out upon all people.
What people need is someone who will listen to them as they tell their stories of encountering the divine. We need to listen to them.
Both of the commencement sermons I have mentioned here this morning have been offered in this time of transition and change. Seabury was in the midst of great change. It was graduating its last Masters of Divinity cohort before moving from the campus of Northwestern University to an office park near O’Hare airport, a shared campus in Ohio, and online. Fragmented. Dispersed. And Dr. Forbes asked us to listen, to get out out of our buildings and listen to people in the world. “Join the conversation!” he cried.
Likewise, ABSW as a member school of the Graduate Theological Union is witness to great transition as well. The GTU is increasingly inter-religious in focus. The Christian seminaries are struggling, yes, but the Islamic college is booming and a Hindustani organization has been announced as the newest member of the GTU. They begin teaching classes in the fall. They wanted a place where they too would be heard.
And it’s not only here in California, of course. Pope Francis recently announced that the Vatican will host a prayer service for peace between Christians and Muslims. This will be the first time in history that the Koran will be sung at the vatican. The Pope, I believe, is trying to show us how to listen, how to be open, to take risks, and to hear what others are saying. It very well may be that the pathway to peace assumes a posture of listening to one another.
Listening is an act of love.
It is an activity. You want to do something? Listen.
Do you want to change the world? Open your hearts and minds and listen.
Listen to the Spirit and be unafraid of the new thing that God is doing.
Listening is an act of love, of compassion. The world can feel fragmented. People are lonely…as they always have been. But the need seems more acute these days. Perhaps, you recall the social challenges that were outlined in the book Bowling Alone (2000). A simple example: The number of single-person households is up more than 100% from 1960 to just under 28%.
Think about that. 28% of American households are single-person homes. People live alone.
These are not all young people living alone.
Many of them are our elders.
People do live longer. Many live alone.
Is anyone listening to them?
The invention of social technologies such as Facebook or Snapchat are attempts to address the issue of loneliness. They connect us to one another in surprising ways and people are using these tools to craft new communities, to fashion opportunities to hear and be heard. Social technology is not a youth movement. It’s an attempt to stave off the loneliness, to find new ways of listening to one another.
“and your sons and
daughters shall prophesy,
and your young people shall
and your old people
The Spirit does not usher in a movement for some people.
This is a movement for all people.
Today the world is aflame like that day so long ago.
The Spirit is sounding, the very breath of God is moving out over our own chaos.
And people are talking.
All of them.
All at once.
Tongues of flame leap across the landscape.
They are in twitter feeds and lecture halls.
They are in cafes and along assembly lines.
They are in board meetings and sweatshops.
Young people are casting visions.
Old people are dreaming dreams.
It’s happening all around us.
But is anyone listening?
Are we listening?
I wonder if, like those who challenged Peter that day, we’re more ready to disregard what we hear. We can find any excuse to ignore the holy.
But that is not be our calling.
Open your hearts.
Open your minds.
Rejoice and be glad in what the Spirit is doing in the world around you.
Wisdom shouts in the streets. She stands in the public square.
The Spirit is poured out upon all flesh.
The world is in need of listeners, my friends,
people to offer one another the attention they so desperately need.
People need love, not programs.
People need someone to hear them,
not to tell them what to believe,
not to tell them what to think,
not to tell them anything except,
After a particularly trying week last week, this week has seemed calmer. Beautiful weather helps, as do the many words of affirmation and hope that people have penned. As followers of Jesus, we are caught up in the very specific challenge to love one another, in particular, our enemies. This is never easy and the closer, more real, more evil our enemies seem, the more difficult the challenge. I want to focus on two of the lectionary texts this week. The first is Jesus “new commandment” as recorded in John 13, to “love one another as I (Jesus) have loved you.” That little qualifier at the end of the sentence throws the challenge of love into an entirely different dimension. We know something of love from our individual collective experiences, but to love as Jesus loved? With the same compassion, forgiveness, grace? That is going to take some work!
I see the story of Peter and Cornelius, as recounted in Acts 11, as a very specific illustration of what “loving as Jesus loved” might look like. Peter is challenged to grow far beyond his comfort zone in the service of a God who is much more inclusive than Peter had ever imagined. “You just keep bringing the good news, Peter. God will make sure there is room at the table for everyone who hears and desires to join in the feast.”
We also have the privilege of having Robert Wilkins with us Sunday to share an update on the American Baptist Seminary of the West. Robert, who heads the YMCA of the East Bay is a delightful person. I hope you will all stay to hear him in the Adult Spiritual Formation hour.
See you on Sunday at 10 as we as we gather as Christ’s beloved community. Invite someone to come with you.
May God’s new thing flourish within us and among us. Pastor Rick