The Arguments of the Apostles, or, the First Meeting of the Membership Committee

So I had a really hard time getting traction on this week’s text. And I finally realized, it’s because it is the minutes of a committee meeting. And that just doesn’t preach. I have to come up with something to say about something that most of us seek to avoid at all costs. But when I thought about what committee it is that’s meeting, I realized it was the membership committee, and that reminded me of several stories that have been in the news lately. There is a church in Seattle, a large non-denominational congregation called Mars Hill, that has cut off a member from the community because he had an extra-marital affair. The pastor has threatened everyone in the congregation with the same fate if they have contact with this man for any reason other than to admonish him for his failings and encourage his repentance. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a court has just decided to turn over the keys and the ownership of a congregation to the 67 members who remained affiliated with the ELCA (our denominational body here at Peace), while over 700 others were shifted to “associate” member status, because they had affiliated with a new Lutheran denomination in reaction to the ELCA’s change in policy regarding ordination of gays and lesbians. In St. Clair last year, a UCC congregation was kicked out of the softball league because their pastor was openly bisexual. Two weeks ago, the Facebook pages for ELCA clergy lit up like Times Square when a synodical bishop was arrested for vehicular manslaughter and driving while intoxicated. Reactions ranged from grief to vitriol, as people struggled to understand how someone so connected to our hierarchy, could fail so badly.

In a way, the whole Bible could be read as the minutes of the membership committee.

Four thousand years ago, God spoke to Abraham and gave him a promise. It’s recorded in Genesis 12 – “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And God gave Abraham a sign, the mark of circumcision, to identify those who were his descendants, members of this great nation, the in-crowd. And so began the debate over who counted as descendants of Abraham, inheritors of the promise.

Thirty-five hundred years ago, God spoke to Moses, and gave him a promise, a promise to share with all the people of Israel. It’s recorded in Exodus 20 – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” And God gave the people a sign, the law, to identify this people as God’s own, as those who owed allegiance and worship to no one else, as a free people. And so began the debate over who kept the law well enough to be considered in, who kept the law well enough to be counted as saved, who kept the law well enough to be called free.

Two thousand years ago, God became human, became Jesus of Nazareth, and lived among us, and died on a cross, and broke the bonds of death for us. And before he died, he established a new covenant, made a promise. It’s recorded in several places, but we read it most recently on Maundy Thursday, in Luke 22 – “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” It is the promise of forgiveness of sins for all people. And a sign was given for this promise, too. The Holy Spirit, who works faith in us, faith that we live out when we celebrate the sacraments of baptism and communion. And so began the debate over who could participate in these sacraments, who was in and who was out, what it meant to be saved, who could be in the community of the church, who could be called Christian.

Some have said that Acts of the Apostles, could have been called Acts of the Spirit, which is true. But I think it could also be called Arguments of the Apostles. Because so much of this book is the story of how the Apostles are busy arguing while the Spirit is busy acting. How the Apostles are constantly having to run to keep up, as God’s Holy Spirit runs ahead of them, drawing everybody in, while they sit around holding committee meetings about whether this is okay or not. As they are in today’s reading, while the Spirit is out claiming Gentiles for faith, the sign of the new covenant. And the apostles run to catch up, stumbling over their own notions of God’s proper activity, stumbling over their own preconceived ideas of who is in and who is out, based on what we can do, rather than on what God has done.

But this is, in many ways, the story that we have claimed. The story of God read through the minutes of the membership committee. But that is not the only story here. Because, while we humans have been busy paying attention to our own actions, the things that we can see and do for ourselves, things like circumcision and keeping the law, however imperfectly, or raising up kings, or baptizing and sharing bread and wine where we see fit; while we people have been steadily excluding and eliminating people from our activity, God has been running ahead of us.

God blessed Abraham, so that all nations would be blessed through him, blessed to be a blessing.

God freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt so that they could share that freedom with others, welcoming the widow and the orphan and the alien, and caring for them, taking care of others who have been oppressed or forgotten.

And then, in Christ, God fulfilled these promises. God blessed all nations through Abraham’s descendant, David’s descendant, Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ, freed all nations from the slavery of the law, writing the law on their hearts and giving them the authority to share that salvation with everyone. At the beginning of the Book of Acts, the risen Christ tells his disciples to take this good news out, to share it, to spread it far and wide. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It’s not a command. It’s a promise – you will be my witnesses, to the ends of the earth. And the sign of this promise is not like the others – it is not something that we can do, though we try; it is not something that we can prove, though we would like to; it is not something that we can test in others, though we do our best. The sign of this covenant, of this promise, is faith. It is the work and action of the Holy Spirit, bringing each person to faith. And as much as the early church wanted to, as much as we want to, it is not something that we can measure, not by circumcision or by the measure of the law or by the raising up of kings. It is not even something that we can asses in the breaking of the bread or at the waters of baptism. Because faith is a relationship, a relationship with the living God. It is not to be judged, it is to be lived.

Which is where community comes in. The community where people are invited to live out their faith, to experience their relationship with God as a gift of the Spirit. To experience the love of God with others living out this covenant, this promise that we have received. The Christian faith community is invitation, rather than exclusion. The life of the Christian community is about recognizing the boundaries that the Spirit is already breaking down, and pushing through them, knowing that God is leading the way. The Spirit is in charge, and we are given the privilege of going along for the ride. This is the promise of faith, this mark of the covenant. You have been marked for this gift. You do not have to do anything more, faith is being worked in you, even as you sit there wondering and doubting and listing to yourself all the ways that you have fallen short.. You do not have to decide who else is worthy, who else has been marked, who else has the sign. That is the Spirit’s work. And God’s grace, the grace that we saw so clearly on that Easter morning 2000 years ago, that grace that we experience at this table and in the waters of baptism and in the life of the community, that grace is busy reconciling everyone and everything to itself; That grace is at work in the life of the church – in Seattle, bringing hope even in the life of a community torn by judgment; in Wisconsin, bringing unity even in the grief of a community broken by disagreement; in St. Clair, bringing a way forward even for a community shattered by doubt; bringing forgiveness and grace to the life of a bishop struggling with addiction, pain, and heartbreak; here in this community, here in you, forgiving you, embracing you, inviting you in. The grace of the Spirit goes ahead of us, paving the way for us, even as we, in our broken fumbling, stumbling way, try to keep up.

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Arguments of the Apostles, or, The First Membership Committee Meeting of the Local Christian Church

Aside

So I had a really hard time getting traction on this week’s text. And I finally realized, it’s because it is the minutes of a committee meeting. And that just doesn’t preach. I have to come up with something to say about something that most of us seek to avoid at all costs. But when I thought about what committee it is that’s meeting, I realized it was the membership committee, and that reminded me of several stories that have been in the news lately. There is a church in Seattle, a large non-denominational congregation called Mars Hill, that has cut off a member from the community because he had an extra-marital affair. The pastor has threatened everyone in the congregation with the same fate if they have contact with this man for any reason other than to admonish him for his failings and encourage his repentance. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a court has just decided to turn over the keys and the ownership of a congregation to the 67 members who remained affiliated with the ELCA (our denominational body here at Peace), while over 700 others were shifted to “associate” member status, because they had affiliated with a new Lutheran denomination in reaction to the ELCA’s change in policy regarding ordination of gays and lesbians. In St. Clair last year, a UCC congregation was kicked out of the softball league because their pastor was openly bisexual. Two weeks ago, the Facebook pages for ELCA clergy lit up like Times Square when a synodical bishop was arrested for vehicular manslaughter and driving while intoxicated. Reactions ranged from grief to vitriol, as people struggled to understand how someone so connected to our hierarchy, could fail so badly.

In a way, the whole Bible could be read as the minutes of the membership committee.

Four thousand years ago, God spoke to Abraham and gave him a promise. It’s recorded in Genesis 12 – “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And God gave Abraham a sign, the mark of circumcision, to identify those who were his descendants, members of this great nation, the in-crowd. And so began the debate over who counted as descendants of Abraham, inheritors of the promise.

Thirty-five hundred years ago, God spoke to Moses, and gave him a promise, a promise to share with all the people of Israel. It’s recorded in Exodus 20 – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” And God gave the people a sign, the law, to identify this people as God’s own, as those who owed allegiance and worship to no one else, as a free people. And so began the debate over who kept the law well enough to be considered in, who kept the law well enough to be counted as saved, who kept the law well enough to be called free.

Two thousand years ago, God became human, became Jesus of Nazareth, and lived among us, and died on a cross, and broke the bonds of death for us. And before he died, he established a new covenant, made a promise. It’s recorded in several places, but we read it most recently on Maundy Thursday, in Luke 22 – “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” It is the promise of forgiveness of sins for all people. And a sign was given for this promise, too. The Holy Spirit, who works faith in us, faith that we live out when we celebrate the sacraments of baptism and communion. And so began the debate over who could participate in these sacraments, who was in and who was out, what it meant to be saved, who could be in the community of the church, who could be called Christian.

Some have said that Acts of the Apostles, could have been called Acts of the Spirit, which is true. But I think it could also be called Arguments of the Apostles. Because so much of this book is the story of how the Apostles are busy arguing while the Spirit is busy acting. How the Apostles are constantly having to run to keep up, as God’s Holy Spirit runs ahead of them, drawing everybody in, while they sit around holding committee meetings about whether this is okay or not. As they are in today’s reading, while the Spirit is out claiming Gentiles for faith, the sign of the new covenant. And the apostles run to catch up, stumbling over their own notions of God’s proper activity, stumbling over their own preconceived ideas of who is in and who is out, based on what we can do, rather than on what God has done.

This is, in many ways, the story that we have claimed. The story of God read through the minutes of the membership committee. But that is not the only story here. Because, while we humans have been busy paying attention to our own actions, the things that we can see and do for ourselves, things like circumcision and keeping the law, however imperfectly, or baptizing and sharing bread and wine where we see fit; while we people have been steadily excluding and eliminating people from our activity, God has been running ahead of us.

God blessed Abraham, so that all nations would be blessed through him, blessed to be a blessing.

God freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt so that they could share that freedom with others, welcoming the widow and the orphan and the alien, and caring for them, taking care of others who have been oppressed or forgotten.

And then, in Christ, God fulfilled these promises. God blessed all nations through Abraham’s descendant, David’s descendant, Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ, freed all nations from the slavery of the law, writing the law on their hearts and giving them the authority to share that salvation with everyone. At the beginning of the Book of Acts, the risen Christ tells his disciples to take this good news out, to share it, to spread it far and wide. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It’s not a command. It’s a promise – you will be my witnesses, to the ends of the earth. And the sign of this promise is not like the others – it is not something that we can do, though we try; it is not something that we can prove, though we would like to; it is not something that we can test in others, though we do our best. The sign of this covenant, of this promise, is faith. It is the work and action of the Holy Spirit, bringing each person to faith. And as much as the early church wanted to, as much as we want to, it is not something that we can measure, not by circumcision or by the measure of the law or by the raising up of kings. It is not even something that we can asses in the breaking of the bread or at the waters of baptism. Because faith is a relationship, a relationship with the living God. It is not to be judged, it is to be lived.

Which is where community comes in. The community where people are invited to live out their faith, to experience their relationship with God as a gift of the Spirit. To experience the love of God with others living out this covenant, this promise that we have received. The Christian faith community is invitation, rather than exclusion. What if the life of the Christian community is about recognizing the boundaries that the Spirit is already breaking down, and pushing through them, knowing that God is leading the way? What if the Spirit is in charge, and we are given the privilege of going along for the ride? This is the promise of faith, this mark of the covenant. You have been marked for this gift, because you are here. You do not have to do anything more, faith is being worked in you. You do not have to decide who else is worthy, who else has been marked, who else has the sign. That is the Spirit’s work. And God’s grace, the grace that we saw so clearly on that Easter morning 2000 years ago, that grace that we experience at this table and in the waters of baptism and in the life of the community, that grace is busy reconciling everyone and everything to itself; That grace is at work in the life of the church – in Seattle, bringing hope even in the life of a community torn by judgment; in Wisconsin, bringing unity even in the grief of a community broken by disagreement; in St. Clair, bringing a way forward even for a community shattered by doubt; bringing forgiveness and grace to the life of a bishop struggling with addiction, pain, and heartbreak. The grace of the Spirit goes ahead of us, paving the way for us, even as we, in our broken fumbling, stumbling way, try to keep up.

From Why? to Why Not?

If you’ve spent any time in the company of young children, then you have spent some time contemplating the question “Why?” It is the consummate question of childhood. Why is the sky blue? Why is Mario wearing a different colored hat than Luigi? Why does summer seem so far away? Why does Christmas only come once a year? Why Imagedoes 8 come after 7? Why? Why everything?

It is not given to me to have the answers to every one of these questions. But they are the substance of all conversation in my house. It has certainly been the substance of all conversation in the world this week. Why? With everything that piled up into this week, bombings, poisons, accidental explosions, politics, a city shut down, a manhunt, media coverage that exposed us to images that we can’t unsee. Why? Why? Why?

I think this is the question at the heart of the today’s reading from Acts. At least the first half of it. Here is this man traveling away from Jerusalem. He has had, let us say, a difficult life. He is a eunuch. Which means, let’s see, how to put this delicately, he is more like a steer than a bull. Um, in cat terms, he has been “fixed.” He will never marry, never have children, and this was probably not his choice. This was likely a choice made for him at a very young age. In the ancient world, eunuchs had a very particular role and status and social standing. They were important in courts because they could be trusted – both trusted around the women of the court, since dalliance was not an option, and trusted with the secrets of the court, since they could not become kings themselves – kings need heirs, and a eunuch cannot have them, so a eunuch cannot be a king.

What’s more, this particular eunuch has found an interest in the Word of God. He is interested enough that he is traveling to Jerusalem for worship. Yet he is not a Hebrew, and he cannot be an actual proselyte, he cannot be welcomed into the assembly of the Lord, according to Deuteronomy, because of this decision that was made for him before he was old enough to know what it meant. So he is an outsider in every way – ethnically, physically, socially, familialy, sexually. There is no way in which he belongs anywhere. And the question of Why? probably seems a pretty appropriate question to ask.

He is reading the book of Isaiah now, as he rolls through the countryside on this wilderness road. And he has come to the passage of Isaiah 53 that talks about the Suffering Servant. Now, Christian tradition has interpreted this passage as being about Christ, about Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. But if you were an outsider, an Ethiopian and a eunuch, whose suffering had been created for the sake of the welfare of your king or queen and their kingdom, you might read Isaiah 53 a little differently, and you might wonder if the suffering servant had any relation to yourself. Particularly the part about how his line of descendants has been ended. So the question that the eunuch asks Phillip, when he says, “about whom does the prophet speak?” is actually something close to, “why me? Why have I been made an outsider? Why have I been made to suffer on behalf of the kingdom? Why?”

It is the old, familiar question. It is the one that we all ask, even when the week has not looked like this one. Why? Why me?

When the diagnosis comes, when the heart breaks, when our world crumbles around us in the way that this broken world always and inevitable and eventually does at some point, the question that we are left with, no matter what our faith, tends to be, why?

Philip’s answer to the Ethiopian is to speak of Christ. They have a conversation, roaring along in a chariot, bumping over the wilderness road. We don’t actually know what Philip said, how he explained the good news about Jesus and what that meant in relation to Isaiah and the suffering servant.

Maybe he told the eunuch that the suffering servant was Jesus himself, who had suffered on behalf of the whole world.

Maybe he told him that Jesus was another suffering servant, like himself. That in the life and death of Jesus, God had come into the world in order to understand the depth of suffering of someone like this Ethiopian, that God had come to know what it was to be rejected, to be the outsider, to long for inclusion in the assembly, and this gave the Ethiopian courage.

Maybe Philip said that inside and outside no longer had any bearing on the world, because God had come into it, had brought the outside in and turned the inside out, and overcome death and the grave, which renders inside and outside and every other category utterly moot.

Maybe Philip invited the eunuch to read a little further along in Isaiah, 3 chapters later, where the Lord promises that eunuchs, even eunuchs, are no longer shut out.

Whatever it was that Phillip said, the Ethiopian eunuch’s world was turned around.

And his question turned from “why?” to “why not?”

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

It is my favorite question in all of Scripture. What is to prevent me from being baptized? Why not?

And the human answer to the question of “Why not?” is fear. Fear is what causes us to throw up roadblocks and to build walls and to designate insiders and outsiders. Fear of ourselves; fear of others; fear that our faith is not strong enough to withstand the beliefs of others; fear that our sense of comfort or complacency or self-satisfaction will be disturbed by the harsh realities of a world in which people see things differently; fear that they might have a point.

That is the answer to “why not?” That is the answer that we have always given to the Ethiopian’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized.”

All kinds of things are to prevent you: age, race, gender, sexuality, denomination, dogma; but they are all of our own devising, the result of our fear, the walls that we build to keep others out. They are human things.

What is to prevent me from being baptized?

God’s answer is a flatfooted claim. Nothing.

Not one. Single. Thing.

You are welcome to the waters.

Are you a baby who can’t make a “decision” for Christ? Come on in.

Are you handicapped, physically or mentally disabled? Come on in.

Are you an outsider because of rules that hold you back from inclusion? Not anymore.

Whatever you carry, whoever you are, however you look… sound… feel, however you ache, whatever your language or history or tastes. You Are Welcome.

That is God’s answer.

I think it’s great that we should read this passage on a day when we celebrate the ministry of Lee Lapointe. It is a significant detail of this story that the person bringing the Word to this outsider is Philip. Philip is one that we met last week, though we were more interested at that point in Stephen. But if you remember last week’s story, there was a dispute among the members of the church, over how the food was being distributed. And the people chose 7 leaders to step forward from among the people to oversee the work of the kitchen. Stephen was one. Philip was another.

And when the Holy Spirit went looking for someone to bring the Word to this outsider, the Spirit did not look in the list of ordained and rostered apostles. The Spirit did not look to the upstairs room, where the twelve were busy devoting themselves to prayer and serving the word. Instead, the Spirit found a doer. The Spirit looked into the kitchens, and selected Philip, called him away from serving in the kitchens and sent him to preach and to bring the sacraments to those who most needed them – those who had been cut off from them by their social or geographic position. The Holy Spirit looked for someone like Lee.

Lee, who served in the kitchen for many years, who made the kitchen her ministry, bringing joy to the world through her kitchen service. And when the Spirit needed someone to bring the Word and the Sacraments to this community, the Spirit looked into the kitchens and found a doer. The Spirit called her to come out of the kitchens and to bring the Word to those who needed it most, to those who were cut off from their communities, because they were sick, because they were hospitalized. The Spirit called her to come out of the kitchens and serve a different kind of meal, to bring the bread and wine, the Body and Blood, to the people of God.

And there were probably a lot of answers to the questions of why not? Because she’s a woman. Because she’s a layperson. Because she’s getting on in years. Because, because, because.

But God’s call will brook no refusal. And Lee had the courage of her baptism to support her. And if you are a baptized, named and claimed Child of God, what is to prevent you from serving God’s Word? What is to prevent you from speaking God into any and every place it is needed? What is to prevent you from sharing the love of God in Christ, from speaking the gospel, from tearing down every barrier and crossing every boundary, in the name of God, for the sake of your neighbor? Well, the human answer is obvious – fear. There are all kinds of things that could hold you back. Age, gender, race, situation, health, geography, but they all come down to fear.

What is to prevent you? God’s answer is a flatfooted claim. It is a claim on you, and on me, and on Lee, and on each and every person who lives or has lived or will live. You are a child of God. You are God’s own beloved. Fear has no jurisdiction here. Death has no jurisdiction here. Human definitions of who is in and who is out, have no place here. The only thing that matters is God’s answer. The only thing that matters in Christ. And nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What is to prevent you?

Nothing.

Of Saints and Church Kitchen Arguments

If you have been following along since September, you know that we are using a different set of readings this year, following the narrative story arc of the entire Bible. In September, we started with Creation in the Book of Genesis. We read about Abraham and Joseph, the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the Golden Calf; we learned about how Israel came to have a human king, and how that human king turned out to be more human than they had bargained for; we read from the prophets Jonah, Isaiah, Jeremiah,  Daniel, and Joel; and then we dove into the New Testament, reading our way through the Gospel of Luke, beginning with the announcement of Jesus’ birth, through Christmas, the Baptism of Jesus, his ministry in Galilee, and then his journey toward Jerusalem. All the way through the Book of Luke, Jesus is journeying toward Jerusalem, especially from chapter 9 on, and we followed that journey throughout the season of Lent. Then time, like the narration of Luke, slowed down, and we walked through the painful and horrifying events of Holy Week, as the crowds turned against Jesus and he was turned over to the Romans and crucified. And then, two weeks ago, we found an empty tomb. And that empty tomb changed the whole story. That empty tomb makes redemption the story.

Now we find ourselves in the Book of Acts, or the Acts of the Apostles. At the end of Luke, after the tomb is found empty, the risen Christ appears several times, finally ascending into heaven right before the eyes of the watching disciples. This is both the last story in Luke and the first story in Acts. Jesus tells the disciples, “You will receive power from the Holy Spirit, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And having received these instructions, the disciples immediately…went back to their upstairs room and formed a committee.

But eventually the promised Holy Spirit did come, and things got rolling for the early church. They began to do what Jesus had commanded, and spread the Gospel. The church in Jerusalem grew, and began to get new people in. And, as usually happens when organizations or communities change and grow, there were tensions. And it may not surprise you to know that these tensions finally came to a head with an argument in the church kitchen. [vs. 1-8] 

For those of us who are reading it 2000 years later, I think there are a couple of helpful items to note. First of all, community is hard. It was hard then, and it is hard now, and it will be hard long after all of us have moved on. Divisions happen, factions form, the Greeks come in and have ideas about change and new liturgies and moving the pews around, and the Hebrews have been doing things fine all along, and they don’t want to change. And, as usually happens, the dispute that finally breaks out in these tensions, appears to be about something relatively small, but significant. And probably not what people are actually cranky about in the first place. But the take-away here is, I think, that conflicts happen in community, even in Christian community. It is not un-Christian to disagree, or even to complain. In fact, it might be your gift, what you were put here to do, to be the catalyst for change, for growth, for the spread of the word.

The second thing I notice about this section of the passage is what can happen when people are given the chance to use their gifts. So often in congregations, we look for people to do jobs simply because we think those jobs are supposed to be done. We have a notion that “real” churches have these things: acolytes, ushers, altar guilds, benevolence committees, there are a thousand ministries and committees that we could list, and so we look for warm bodies to fill up the council and names to fill in the blanks on our sign-up sheets. But I think this passage points us in a different direction. “Real” churches, it seems, call forward the gifts of their members. “Real” churches, according to Acts, form ministries based on the needs of the community. We have been placed by God in a particular place, and there are particular needs here to be served. What’s more, we have been given very particular gifts. This is the work of discernment, to listen to the needs of the people and the community, and to call forward the gifts of the Body of Christ. This is hard work. It is not easy to learn together how to serve one another. But look what the Scripture says happens when we stop trying to be the community we are supposed to be, stop trying to be the church we think we ought to be, and instead become the church we are called to be, the church where people serve according to their gifts. “The Word of God continued to spread; the number of disciples increased greatly.” Stephen’s ministry seems to point us forward – not to imitate Stephen and try to make a ministry exactly like his, but to listen to the needs and the call, and to be the community that God is leading us to be.

Unfortunately, the path of Christianity is not an easy one, even when we are listening to God and following our giftedness. Which begins to be apparent in the next section of this story. [vs. 9-2]

Now, Stephen’s reply was actually 40 verses longer than what we have here, but suffice it to say that Stephen recounted the history of Israel, the same history that we have been reading through since September. And what Stephen is getting at is, this is the story of God’s activity in the world, the story in which we all find ourselves, and still, we turn away and pretend that we know better. He brings his point home in the second half of the speech. It’s not well-received. [vs. 44-60]

What is most amazing to me is that Stephen’s death actually becomes the catalyst for the spread of the gospel. Up until this time, the disciples had been obeying Jesus’ command as far as spreading the Gospel in Jerusalem, but they had not gone beyond. But from this moment forward, a persecution begins in Jerusalem, at the hands of Saul, who stood there and watched and approved of the killing of Stephen. And this persecution scatters the church of Jerusalem, who begin to leave the city, taking the Gospel story with them. And so begins the spread of the word to Judea and Samaria and all the ends of the earth.

Today we have heard the story of one life, the story of one saint. He saw himself standing in the midst of the story of God, and he followed his gifts, served God and the people, and shared the Word. He lived in community, and faced the difficulties of that life, and through those conflicts, the community grew and the gospel flourished. But when he told the story, when he shared the story and placed himself within it, when he claimed God’s story as his own, he ran into trouble. Those who thought the story was only for them turned against him and killed him. And yet, out of that, the gospel flourished and grew and spread. So that even Saul finally saw the light, and his life was drawn into the story and turned on its head, and he became Paul, and spread the gospel further than anyone in history, using his gifts in the service of God in ways that he never could have foreseen.

You, too, are one saint. One blessed person, named and claimed by God, endowed with particular gifts, placed in a particular place, and invited into the story. You are living somewhere between the Book of Acts and the Book of Revelation, and your story is a part of God’s story. Your life is a part of God’s life. Maybe you’re a gardener, or a musician, or an accountant, or a mother, or a father, or a linguist, or a jewelry maker, or a poet, or a teacher, or a student, or  a complainer, or many of these things, all wrapped into one, along with any of a thousand other things. Maybe you are not sure what it is you are called to do these days. Wherever you find yourself in all of this, you are indeed a saint, named and claimed, and called into God’s story, a story about empty tombs, a story about God’s word spreading in the most unlikely of places, a story of conflict and disagreement and even death that are turned into growth and renewal and redemption, a story where an individual saint, a saint like Stephen, a saint like you, makes all the difference.

Finding Jesus in Spite of Ourselves

Aside

On Friday evening, our Confirmation class and I were guests at the Shabbat service of the Central Reform Congregation, down near Forest Park. A friend of mine from Washington, Holly, is a member there, and she arranged for us to meet with Rabbi Susan for a half-hour before the service started. Rabbi Susan showed us around their beautiful building, and explained some of the significance of the materials and the architecture of the space.She took us into the sanctuary and showed us the altar area (though it had a different name), and Rabbi Ed took out their Torah and opened it for us. It was a beautiful piece of history, a ImageTorah that was rescued from the holocaust, with a history of its own, handwritten on animal skin parchment, pieced together with animal sinew thread, unrolled and read using a special rod, a yad, to keep it from being spoiled by the oils on our hands. And it was so kind of these Rabbis, in the moments before their worship service was to begin, to take the time to welcome us and show us these things, and tell us their stories, inviting us to become a part of these stories ourselves.

Still, it is awkward to participate in the worship service of another community, especially a service that is conducted largely in another language, even one that I ostensibly learned in seminary. Their words are not ours, their songs are not ours, and their liturgy (which they call keva) is not ours. They have generously prepared special worship booklets for non-Jewish guests, booklets that explain each movement of the service and its significance, as well as giving translations for the Hebrew words, but it is difficult to find one’s place in this worship service. Even though the stories are familiar, the same stories that we have received through our Old Testament Scriptures, it is hard to feel completely at home there. After all, when I worship, as a Christian, I have a tendency to look for Jesus. And he is a lot easier to find when someone mentions his name from time to time. After all, humans need things to be made clear and obvious for them. We usually need things to be made explicit for us to get clued in.

Like these two walking to Emmaus. They are so sad, walking this long road, seven miles, and their grief is weighing them down so much that this seven mile journey, that should have taken 3 hours, 4 at the most, has taken them all day. They don’t arrive at Emmaus until it is almost evening. And when the stranger comes alongside them on the road and asks what they are talking about, they are so sad that they have to stop. They can’t continue until they have told the full grief of their hearts. The story of their Jesus, the one they believed would be their Messiah, the one that they had hoped would deliver them from the Romans, and how he was handed over and crucified. And now his tomb is empty, and they can’t find him. They are looking for him, they are hoping for him, and they can’t find him.

What strikes me about these two is that they are so learned, so well-versed in the story. They have the dogma down, and they know what the deal is supposed to be. They know who Jesus was, and what he preached, and that he was a prophet, and they can explain their hopes in Jesus. They have it all down pat. And yet, when the risen Christ is standing in front of him, they do not recognize him.

I don’t doubt that you the feeling. You know what it is like to long for a sign, to pray for a moment of clarity, to stand still on the road, while your grief gets the better of you, so that you can’t go on, can’t even take another step, until someone comes along to help, until God answers your prayers. And even then, even when someone comes along to show us the way, when our prayers are answered, we fail to see it.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the guy who was caught in a terrible flood. Before the flood came, the officials ordered everyone to evacuate the town, before the river overflowed its banks. But this man, being a faithful Christian, decided, “I will trust God. If I’m in danger, God will save me.” The neighbors stopped as they were evacuating, and told him, “We have room in the car. Come with us!” But he said, “God will save me.” As he stood on the porch watching the waters rise, a rescue team in a boat came by and urged him to climb in so they could ferry him to safety. And he replied, “God will save me.” Eventually, he was forced onto the roof of his house, where a police helicopter found him. They dropped him a rope ladder and encouraged him to climb up, and still he refused. “God will save me,” he insisted. Not long after that, the house broke up in the flood, and the man was swept away and drowned. When he got to heaven, he demanded to see God. “I put all my faith in you!” he scolded, “Why didn’t you come and save me?” And God replied, “Son, I sent you an evacuation warning, a neighbor’s car, a boat, and a helicopter. What more were you looking for?”

On the journey, on our road to Emmaus, on our path through life, it can be so hard to see where God is working. And so often it is because we are so certain of how God ought to be working. Like the disciples walking their grief, plodding the seven miles to Emmaus, so certain that Jesus was supposed to be a military deliverer, an earthly king, so clear about what their vision of a Messiah was, that they couldn’t see the Christ standing in front of them, opening the Scriptures for them. Like the man in the flood, knowing exactly how he wanted God to act, and failing to see God act, repeatedly, all around him. Like me, sitting in a Jewish service, trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus, surrounded by the stories of his childhood and the rituals of his people, as we worshipped His Father, and sang His prayers.

I think it may have been the dancing that shifted me. Or maybe it was singing the words of the sh’ma, from Deuteronomy 6:4, “hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” A passage that inspired the tattoo ImageI got last summer. Maybe it was the message, the teachings of Rabbi Susan and Rabbi Ed, both of which struck me and stuck with me. Whatever it was, at some point, I discovered that I had stopped looking for Jesus, I had stopped examining the service for evidence of the story as I understood it. Instead, I found that I had been called into the story. I was engaged in worship, I was a part of the story of God, in this place. And when I realized that, my eyes were opened, and I recognized him.

That’s what happened in the breaking of the bread there in that house in Emmaus. That’s what happened to me in my worship on the Jewish Shabbat. That’s what happens to us, so many times, maybe daily, throughout our lives. It is the moment when we stop trying to explain and dogmatize and theologize, it is the moment when our expectations fall away, that our eyes are opened, and we have an encounter with the living God.

This is why we have sacraments. Water, wine, bread, oil, these are all parts of daily living. They are ordinary things, things that you have in your home, most likely. There is nothing inherently holy about them. And yet, in their utter ordinariness, they become holy. We encounter them in the moment of worship, where they are promised as signs of God’s presence, and they are elevated, and in their elevation, they elevate our daily lives, and change them. They become instances in daily living that open our eyes to the presence of the living God, among us, a connection between our worship life and our family life and our work life and our play life, that reminds us that our story is a part of God’s story, that we do not only encounter God in the moments when we expect God, in the one hour per week that we spend inside the walls of a house of worship; that we encounter God constantly, that God is constantly meeting us on the road. And it is in the moments when we discover our story within God’s story, that our eyes are opened, and we recognize Christ.

When Grace was a baby, she had colic. She was a tiny little preemie, less than 5 pounds, screaming her tiny little head off for 5 hours every night, making far more noise and causing far more anxiety than any 5 pounds has a right to. And I discovered that if I held her in the crook of my arm and rubbed her forehead, she would calm down for a while. A few years later, I sat at the bedside of a dying woman in a hospital in Minneapolis. She was fretting and worried and kept asking me to read the 23rd psalm to her. And as I read, I made the sign of the cross on her forehead. And she calmed down. A few years later, I joined in my first baptism, of a baby whose twin had died in utero, and I made the sign of the cross on her head in oil, and said, “Julia, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” In a few minutes, you will be invited forward for the rite of healing, and hands will be laid on your head, and your forehead will be marked with the cross. These are ordinary, extraordinary moments, the soothing of a child, the comfort of the dying, the claim of baptism, the anointing of healing. They are all signs that point to Christ, they are moments when we discover our story within God’s story, and our eyes are opened, and we recognize Christ.