Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Boundaries of Grace

5 Easter
Narrative Lectionary, Year C

Acts 15:1-17

            The disciples are determining the purpose of their congregation. Is it to make Gentiles (Greek, Roman, any non-Jewish believer) into Jews? Or is it to take people of all stripes who are prepared to act in the name of Jesus and to move forward and out in faith? The purpose might seem clear to us, but it was as fraught a discussion as we occasionally find in congregations and in denominations today. This is the first synod assembly (so to speak) recorded in the early church and they have real issues on their hands.

            They have to determine the boundaries of God’s grace and the marks of the recipients of that grace. They are trying to respect the traditions and history of those gathered, history that is part of how God’s work and presence in the world has been revealed.  The disciples are also trying to understand the exponential pace at which the Spirit is bringing people into faith.            

            In this critical time, they are trying to determine how to tell who is included and what is required of those who say they believe? Should they be brought into the community of faith via circumcision, the sign of one of God’s earlier covenants with Israel? Are there dietary restrictions or certain worship rites? How will the new believers show their dedication to the Way of Jesus?

            How do we know who has received God’s grace? If there are no visible physical markers, perhaps there are markers in one’s life. Surely a person who is especially blessed has received God’s grace. After all, we hear that phrase, “There, but for the grace of God, go I” applied to people for whom we have sympathy, who are struggling in some way. When the nuance of that phrase is unpacked, it reveals that if God’s grace has kept us from a certain circumstance, then any unfortunate suffering soul is clearly without God’s grace. There, but for the grace of God… implies that there are places and people that are without God’s grace. And we can tell because of how they are suffering.

            The family that can’t receive food stamps (SNAP) because they are a few dollars over the income limit… The woman or man who makes the choice to sell sex because it seems easier than other options… The person who gets hurt or killed on a trail you’ve hiked many times… The person who gets caught in a bad spot that you went through only minutes before… The person who took the flight that crashed, but you just missed… The person who dies from suicide, a desperation you’ve felt before… The person who dies from complications of a surgery that you sailed through…

            There, but for the grace of God… except were any of these people without God’s grace? Would we dare, would we presume to say that God did not care about these people? That God’s Spirit was withdrawn from them? That they were forsaken? Either the grace of God is open and expansive and all-encompassing… or God is capricious and malevolent and extends mercy to a select few (who can live into very exacting standards).

            We want to believe the former- in a gracious God. And yet we live in a world that acts on the latter premise- that God’s favor is spotty. If it was expansive, why would there be suffering in the world? And then the worst of both beliefs- that God’s grace is for all, but you have to reach a state by pulling yourself to it.

This is precisely the problem that Peter points out in Acts, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers.  And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

            We are specifically warned against testing God’s grace through judging our neighbors circumstances. Specifically warned against believing that a person’s struggling, suffering, pain, or despair is reflective of God’s opinion of them. There is only one way to show that we are not testing the grace of God. We trust in grace and so we act upon it. God’s work in our hands… God’s grace in our actions… God’s mercy in our words and deeds.

            By trusting in God’s faithfulness, as revealed in Jesus, we are brought into the same river of faithful action that swept up the first disciples. The grace of God extends to all, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. In the community of the Way of Jesus, here and elsewhere, we preach the love of God for all and we practice it with one another. Then we carry it out to the world that wants to believe that physical health, financial well-being, and mental stability are the obvious markers of God’s grace, when any of these things may fail. There, but for the grace of God… goes no one. Surely a God who would go to the lengths of coming into the world as person to teach and to heal and then to be resurrected… surely that God desires that all people should experience the light of grace.

            The purpose of this assembly is steep ourselves in the faithfulness of God, to absorb trust and hope and then to stride out- refreshed by Word and water, community and communion. Strengthened, we set to the work of revealing that no one is outside of God’s grace. We feed, we clothe, we advocate, we listen, we invite, we pray.

            If we are not doing these things, then we are testing God. We are testing whether God’s grace is sufficient for all people. We are hoarding the gifts we have received and waiting to see what the Lord will do. God does not fail tests. God will not fail our neighbor, but we can shortchange ourselves in responding to God’s invitation and being frontline witnesses to the way that God’s grace makes all things new.

            The purpose of the church is to bring people together into the Way of Jesus and then to live that Way in the world. The inclusion of Gentiles, as they were, into the community of the faithful was a revolution we cannot comprehend. The Spirit does not stop its work of reformation and renewal, of provocation and invitation. The grace of God is on the move and disciples, then and now, are called to be at the frontlines of the work of boundary expansion.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Washed and Fed for the World

Easter 4 (Narrative Lectionary, Year C)
21 April 2013

Acts 8:26-39

The Holy Spirit does not hold to geographic boundaries. The Spirit does not hold to racial lines or ethnic markers. The Spirit does not detour to avoid the people we’d prefer not to see, not to hear, not to sit beside, or have included in our gathering. In the passage from Acts 8, that person is the Ethiopian eunuch. A eunuch is a man who does not have functioning testicles- either because they did not develop or because he has been maimed. A eunuch’s ability to reproduce has either withered on the vine or been pruned.

A eunuch is still a Jew, but may have been excluded from the assembly. Thus, for the purposes of temple life and worship, a eunuch is a man who is essentially a woman. And women don’t get to offer sacrifices. They don’t have standing. One’s blessings come through one’s husband and one’s ability to be receptive to his offerings, so to speak. (This is just awkward for everyone, but this eunuch is important. So stay with me.) A eunuch cannot fulfill the “actions of a man”(so to speak), so he does not get the privileges of being a man… including gathering in the assembly of the faithful. (Deut. 23:1)

Now, in your reading of Isaiah, you may recall a little song about eunuchs with a different tune. The prophet writes: Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain,“ I am only a dry tree.” The prophet goes on to say that God will give a memorial better than children to faithful eunuchs, to faithful people. It might have served for God to mention that in one or two other places, since repetition is one of the main ways we learn, but sometimes I think God says to us, “How many times do I have to tell you this stuff?” (Isaiah 56:3)

            The Ethiopian eunuch is a servant in the queen’s court, chosen for that valued position because of his sexual safety. He will not overthrow the government because he cannot have children to continue his line, so (presumably) it would not be worth it. He obviously understands himself to be Jewish because he has traveled to Jerusalem for worship, for worship in the community that may not receive him. He goes to be present with people who are, mostly, of much lower social status than he is as a royal servant. The man has his own chariot and copies of Scripture. Even Peter doesn’t have that!

            Now consider this: how badly would you have to want to worship to travel hundreds of miles to go to a place that wouldn’t receive you to worship a God whose people have conspired to exclude you from the fullness of community? How much would you have to crave sacramental life to be enriched by just being close to it, much less participating? How much would you have to desire to know more about God’s salvation, which might not include you, to be reading a scroll of Isaiah on a bumpy chariot ride back to your home country? Does anyone here have that much desire? Is anyone here willing to allow the Spirit to be that powerful in his or her lives?

            And Philip appears- running alongside the chariot. Philip, who has been assigned to be a part of the food distribution in the Jerusalem meeting houses, is now speaking to someone who might as well be from the ends of the earth. Philip says, “Do you know what you’re reading?” and then goes on Isaiah’s servant song in the light of Jesus Christ. When Isaiah wrote it, it was understood in to apply to God’s servant Israel and Israel’s people. The Spirit’s interpretive expansion helped the early followers of Jesus to understand him (and their own call) as the servant who suffers for the sake of God’s work in the world.

            Moved by this interpretation, moved by this Bible study, the Ethiopian eunuch stops the chariot and says, “Here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He is so transformed by hearing Philip’s discourse on Jesus that he cannot wait to be included in the community through God’s promise in water and word. Baptism will change his allegiance, and his alliances, but it will be worth it because he will be drawn, clearly, into the story of God that the Spirit has been whispering in his ear.

            Does anyone here desire baptism that much? Does anyone long to revisit their baptism? Have you held yourself back from just splashing your face in the font- to remember, to clear your vision, to wake you up to your life reorientation in Christ? We trust that God loves and uses people who are not baptized, but in the Christian community it is the marker of beginning and belonging. It is a moment we can revisit again and again- a moment when the salvation we work out with fear and trembling became tangible. We are supposed to crave this moment- remembering it and desiring it for all around us.

Along with holy communion, the baptismal font give us a different lens for seeing ourselves, the people around us, and the people who we encounter outside of these doors- the same expanding circles of Spirit-inclusion that are in the Acts reading (the people in Jerusalem, the people in Judea, the people in Samaria, the people in Ethiopia and beyond). These sacraments, two places where we are assured of Christ’s presence, make us citizens in the kingdom of God with work to do right now. Part of that work is sharing the message that is implicit in these acts of communal washing and eating together- the message that all people are children of God.

When the world says, “racial minority”, we say “child of God.”

When the world says, “sexually suspect”, we say “child of God.”

When the world says, “illegal immigrant”, we say “child of God.”

When the world says, “homeless by choice”, we say “child of God.”

When the world says, “Palestinian or Israeli”, we say “child of God.”

When the world says, “mentally ill”, we say “child of God.”

When the world says, “terrorist”, we say “child of God.”

            The naming of our people, our friends and our enemies, as children of God puts us in the position to do the work of Christ. Work of feeding. Work of peace-making. Work of creating equality. Work of ensuring justice. The work of making God’s presence real by revealing that presence through the actions of God’s people. I am not saying we make God real through our right actions. I am saying that who God is becomes understandable through the clear actions of the people who call themselves people of God.

            In a world full of terror, natural disasters, and preventable human tragedies, there are people who crave good news. There are people who need advocates, though they may be in the wrong. There are people who are certain that they will never belong to the community of God- but they read the story anyway. In a world with this kind of longing, how do you account for the hope that is within you? Do we dare to cheapen God’s grace by assuming that the font and the table exist merely to assure us of God’s affection for us?

            These are dangerous places. They change the way we see the world and the way we see all children of God. We should approach these places with trembling- longing for the truth of their promises and afraid of what faithful participation will lead us into doing?

            The Holy Spirit does not hold to geographic boundaries. The Spirit does not hold to racial lines or ethnic markers. The Spirit does not detour to avoid the people we’d prefer not to see, not to hear, not to sit beside, or have included in our gathering.  And the Spirit does not, cannot, will not, pass by you


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Dying For and Dying To (Sermon, Easter 3)

Acts 6:1-14, 7:44-60

            Once there was a church full of people who loved Jesus and who tried to love one another. They had the best of intentions in all they did, in worship and in serving others. They even hosted a food pantry of sorts with fresh food that was passed out so that all could eat and be satisfied.

            Of course, behind the scenes, things were less rosy. There were some who wished that church could be the way it always was. Too many changes made them upset. They felt that the congregation needed to slow down, heed what had always worked, and focus on their community.

            There were others who felt that innovation was needed, that the church needed to be more open and outward-focused. These people were interested in different styles of worship and new areas of service. They struggled with how slowly things seemed to change and were frustrated by their inability to change everything all at once.

            Then the leaders wanted to help, but were stretched in too many directions. Not all the homebound were being visited, not everyone who needed help was being seen, and when the leaders focused more on administrative tasks- the worship suffered. The community struggled to get things done, to get things right, and to get along with one another.

            This description, of course, is of the church in early Acts. The Christians who were from Jewish backgrounds had memories of the temple worship and a sense of tradition. They were the ones who had always “belonged” and they felt that honoring those traditions was critical to the future of the community that followed Jesus. The Hellenists, Gentile Christian who spoke Greek, were newer to the community, but were equal contributors. They showed up and volunteered and were truly dedicated. They felt that in return for their dedication- their families and relatives should receive the same considerations (like being a part of the distribution of goods).

            The apostles and leaders in the community wanted to be dedicated to teaching and preaching about Jesus, but when they get caught up in the other workings of the community- they aren’t able to study and pray in a way that leads to effective leadership. In order to remedy that situation, they divide up some of the tasks. In particular, seven men are appointed to head up the food distribution- the passing out of goods that everyone has brought together for the good of the order.

            Stephen is one of those seven. He is assigned to distribute food, but he cannot refrain from preaching as he does it. Instead of just handing out the bread and the fruit, he talks about why they are doing this and the motivation behind their community living. He makes some people very angry by pointing out how they are still ignoring the work of God in the world, just as people have done since the world’s beginning. He offends the wrong people and they kill him. He dies for and in the Lord. (And he does so with Saul looking on and approving.)

            Despite the struggles and divisions in the early church over all kinds of things, the Holy Spirit continued to work through them so that people continued to be brought to the faith. Yes, more of them died. Many more were killed for their faithful actions. It had little to with what they believed and lots to do with what they were willing to do to be a part of God’s work of justice and peace in their towns and cities. In order to live out the way of discipleship, some died for the faith and some died to their ideas of the faith.

            Everyone who decided to follow the way of Jesus had to let go of certain ideas, certain convictions, certain assumptions about the world, about other people, about life in community. They had to die- to perish the thoughts- so that the new life of Christ could grow in them. That new life comes with a lot of extra growth that needs much room.

           The community of Christ today is called to the same new life. What are we willing to die to so that the community of Christ will grow? Do we have the conviction of Stephen to continue to talk of Christ, even when it’s not officially our job and when it makes others angry? Are we willing to let go of the way things have always been so that things may become the way God is shaping them to be?

            What would you give up to see new people learning about the love and life in God? What about our life in Christ would you die for and what should you die to?

            We cannot expect that the God of renewal and reformation intends for the church to remain the same. We cannot hope that the Spirit of fire and water will leave things unaltered and unaffected by time and circumstance. We dare not rest on the idea that the Christ of healing and justice will allow us to sit back and organize our creeds while the world struggles in darkness.

            The life of faith is a life of action. A life of action has seasons of growth and seasons of dying. What in this community, in the larger church, in each of our lives is dying so that God’s new growth can spring forth?

            Despite the divisions, the arguments, and the deep grief over change, the early church worked forward in the Spirit to keep the way of life in Jesus the Christ alive and changing their world. We are called to no less of a life of action in discipleship. In fact, we are called to the very same life of healing, sharing, and working for justice. And the very same Spirit is at work in us… carrying us through deaths (of people, of ideas, of traditions) and bringing forth new and abundant life.


This sermon was inspired by this blog post by Jan Edmiston: I've been thinking about this since I first read it- weeks ago. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Miracles, Not Magic

Easter 1: Luke 24:1-12

            Who is missing in the gospel reading?


            Where is he?

            How do you know?

            Where are the disciples? Not at the tomb.
 (Despite Jesus having told them.)

            The women go to the tomb and there are two men there, messengers, who tell them that Jesus is risen. That he is living- no longer entombed, but alive and out and about…

            They go back to tell the disciples what happened and the disciples shout, “Hallelujah” and build a church.  The disciples immediately fall to their knees and thank God. The disciples immediately get out a scroll and begin to put together the Apostles’ Creed.

            Or… instead… the disciples… the people who knew Jesus best, who knew best what he’d said, who’d loved him and had been praying for the events of the last three days to NOT be true. They said the women were full of … baloney. The English translators protect us from the weight of the Greek. It’s not that the disciples thought it was an idle tale… It is that they thought the women were crazy, delirious, insane and were feeding them a line of sugar.

            How is it that the disciples did not believe them? And, lest you hurry to defend Peter, some of the early translations of Luke don’t have verse 12. Many just end with “to them, it was b… an idle tale.”

            If the disciples were not able to believe right away, why do we expect that of ourselves?  Faith in the resurrection… of Jesus and of ourselves in Christ… faith in the resurrection is not magic. It’s a miracle.

            We who still feel the sting of death… who see pain the world… who wrestle with injustice… that we would believe in the resurrection is truly a miracle. That the church would last is a miracle. That people who sometimes are so aggravated with each other can embrace and say, “Peace be with you.” It’s a miracle.

That someone who watched their spouse struggle and die after a long illness can find love again… Miracle.

That someone can get out of bed again after the death of a child… Miracle.

That a child can be born one month, two months, three months, four months early and live and be well… Miracle.

That people in this room right now have survived cancer, divorce, miscarriages, broken hearts, heart attacks, major surgeries, deployments, discrimination, betrayal, unemployment, loss… and yet you are here… believing that forgiveness is possible, that hope is strong, that resurrection is true… Miracle.

            We are here now because eventually what seemed like an idle tale… became clearer, more obvious, more trustworthy, more inspiring, more believable. What is true is true… whether or not we believe it- however, sometimes we have to grow into that belief. We have to experience the miracle for ourselves. And it is a slow process.

            Easter is a season- not a day. We have to wrestle with the idle tale… test it… and keep our eyes open for where God is encountering us. Jesus was not in the tomb that first Easter. We do not know where he was until later that evening. But he was somewhere. He was then as he is now… encountering people in acts of kindness, acts of grace, acts of mercy… things are small miracles in themselves.

            You see, for God… a God that is all-powerful, all-loving, a God that is forgiving and merciful… raising Jesus from the dead was nothing. That is not hard. Helping us to believe in it… that’s work. That is the work that only God can do. Faith is a gift that only God can give. And that we would act on that faith… that we would show kindness… mercy… forgiveness… that work in us could only happen through the Holy Spirit.

            It is because of God’s work in helping us to believe in resurrection… of the body, of relationships, of creation… that we are able to work for justice, for healing, for equality, for release of captives, and for peace among people. It is because of God’s work in helping us believe that we are here today… doing things that look crazy… but are meaningful because of what we have been helped to understand is true. True today and forever. Miraculous today and forever.

            What if you don’t believe or you struggle with believing or even you sometimes wonder just a little? Does it mean God isn’t at work in you- that God hasn’t given you faith? Do you think God is done with you? The disciples… pillars in the faith… had to wrestle with what seemed like an idle tale. And Jesus met them, each in different ways, with forgiveness and healing. And, Jesus does no less with each of us as we live out our life’s Easter season in learning the truth of God’s work in the world.

            Faith in the work of God isn’t magic and it isn’t easy. It is a miracle and it is work. To make a body disappear- any magician can do that. To bring a body to life again- we know some ways that happens. To bring a body to life as a sign of hope and forgiveness, of renewal and future expectation, and to help people trust in that resurrection… that’s a miracle. The miracle of grace. The miracle of Easter.

Christ is risen.

He is risen, indeed.