Sunday, May 25, 2014

God's Sidekick--a sermon on Philippians 1

Rev. Teri Peterson
God’s Sidekick
Philippians 1.1-18a
25 May 2014, Easter 6, NL4-38

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.
Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.

Batman and Robin. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The Lone Ranger and Tonto. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Harry and Hermione and Ron.

There’s nothing quite like a good sidekick, is there? They help us relate to heroes, and put a human face on brilliance. Their foibles make the story interesting and give us a glimpse into what it’s like to be part of something amazing. They do the hard work of putting a plan into action, and they know that all the glory is going to the hero, not to them.

All week I’ve been pondering Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and how he talks about how we “share in the gospel” but it is God who began the work in and among us, and God who will bring it to completion. Sometimes people translate this “sharing in the gospel” line to say “partners in ministry” and that conjures up for me this mental image of the Church—the Body of Christ—as God’s sidekick.

I know, it sounds weird. But I suspect that if Paul had the concept of a sidekick to work with, he might have used it, because it’s such a great image.

So what makes a good hero-sidekick story work?

First, a good sidekick knows that they’re the supporting character. It’s the hero who has the mission, and the sidekick helps carry it out. Harry is the one who can see the path to ridding the world of darkness, but he needed Hermione’s research and Ron’s unfailing friendship in order to walk that path and to inspire others to walk it too.

In our case, it’s God who has the vision—for the kingdom to come on earth and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. We’re the ones who are supposed to put the vision into action. It’s not our ideas, our plans, or our mission: we’re the workers who do God’s will. Or, as Paul put it: the One who began a good work among us will bring it to completion. We are the partners, not the leader. God is the generator, and we’re the workers.

Second, a good sidekick acts as sort of an interpreter of the hero to the people, and of the people to the hero. Imagine the stories of Sherlock Holmes without Dr. Watson—they’d be almost incomprehensible, and we probably wouldn’t much like Sherlock. Watson interprets for us, giving Holmes a more human and more likeable aspect than we might otherwise see—and he does the same in the other direction as well.

Isn’t that what the Body of Christ does when we talk about God? Every time we proclaim the gospel, we are trying to interpret God’s character and God’s good news for people who do not understand, and people who see only the harsh God often portrayed in the media. The Church, as God’s sidekick, is to offer people a vision of Christ. As Paul said, to “let love overflow more and more, to grow in knowledge and insight” and to help others see the God we know in Jesus Christ. Paul says that our task is to proclaim Christ in every way, and to rejoice. It won’t be easy—it’s never easy for the sidekick to do that hard work, and Paul is, after all, writing this letter from prison, where he awaits trial. Yet still he says he dares to speak the word with boldness. Isn’t that our calling as the Body of Christ—to speak God’s word of grace, of love, of justice? To be the image of God, reflected into the world? How will people know what God is like if we don’t tell the good news?

Third, a good sidekick always lets the hero get the glory. Sure, it may seem that Hermione did all the work, or like Don Quixote would have just gotten his arm cut off by a windmill if left to his own devices. Sometimes it seems unfair that the sidekick doesn’t get the praise and recognition for all their hard work…but ultimately, they know that the steam running this engine comes from the hero, and that’s where they always point.

The sidekick has a big job, and the biggest part is to always direct people’s attention back to the hero. Paul reminds us constantly that everything we do is “for the glory and praise of God.” Even his imprisonment is for Christ—meaning it is dedicated to Christ, for God’s glory. You may remember that when he was in prison before, he and Silas spent the evening singing hymns, dedicating that time to worship and praise of God! Everything is about spreading the gospel, not about Paul. The same needs to be true of the Body of Christ—everything is about God and God’s glory. When the church seeks recognition for itself rather than for Christ, we’ve stepped out of the sidekick role and made it about us. This story is always about God. Paul writes to the church in Philippi—the church meeting in the home of Lydia, the dealer of purple cloth—and he says he prays that they will be pure and blameless, working through Christ for the glory and praise of God. It would have been easy for them to work for themselves—after all, they have a wealthy patron, and their city was the site of a miracle when God freed Paul and Silas from prison, and the church is growing there by leaps and bounds. But Paul reminds them over and over that the job of the Church is to follow The Way, and to be a signpost for others to follow The Way. When we think we have become the way, we get ourselves into trouble.

The hardest thing about being the sidekick is that the job never ends. It is our 24/7 task to give glory to God, to tell the good news of Christ’s love, and to work toward the Spirit’s vision rather than our own. We are to rejoice and give thanks in all circumstances—not for all circumstances, but in the midst of all things, whether we celebrate or struggle, it’s about God. And here’s the thing: God is love, and love never fails. Which means that while we are busy doing our sidekick thing, always pointing the way to God, God is a much better hero than any of those other stories—because there is no circumstance in which God’s Church will be abandoned or set up for failure. God will never turn back from us, but instead sits beside us in the struggles and cheers beside us at the celebrations.

Because the one who began a good work among us will bring it to completion. The one whose vision we pursue, whose mission is our life’s work, will be working in and through and beside us all the way, even when the road seems impossible. While I don’t know what God’s completed work will look like, we do know from Scripture that it will involve peace that passes all understanding, love overflowing more and more, seeing clearly face to face.

For now that is all work in progress—God’s word and God’s work, being carried out through our voices and our hands. Because that’s what a good sidekick does.

May it be so.

Monday, May 19, 2014

To the Unknown--a reflection for May 25

(published in the Abingdon 2014 Creative Preaching Annual)

Acts 17.22-31

To The Unknown…

Most of the time, we are taught to fear You. Not knowing means we cannot prepare, cannot control, cannot manipulate, and those limitations mean we are afraid of what You might do and especially what You might require of us. We like to know things. Our intellects are practiced and ready to rationalize nearly anything, as long as it fits on a linear path and follows a defined plan.

But You defy our intellects. You remain shrouded in mystery even as You surround us and support us and seek us. Your breath is our breath, but we cannot figure out how. Our life is Your life, but we cannot explain the mechanism that makes it so. We long for connection to something greater, to You, and yet we tell ourselves it cannot be. So we build our altars, read books crammed with big words, and push aside hope because it is impractical.

Still You keep coming around, swirling and pushing and pulling and calling and inspiring and providing in ways we cannot understand. We look for the who/what/where/when/why/how, and You tell us a story. We ask for step-by-step instructions in what to do next and how to please You, and You offer us instead Your very self, made flesh to live our story alongside us. We seek a list of good deeds or appropriate sacrifices to get what we want, and You remind us that You, not we, are God, and nothing we can do will change Your grace or Your providence.

Perhaps we are right to fear the Unknown. Or perhaps what we really fear is what You mean for our lives. If it’s true, if our life, movement, and existence is held by You, is in You, then we cannot be separated, we cannot be cut off, we cannot truly be lost. No wonder You demand everything of us—changed hearts and lives to go with our changed minds. No wonder You offer so much of Yourself to us—even life, suffering, death, and more. While we have been busy creating rules for how You can work, You have been busy loving us into life.

Perhaps You are not scary after all. And perhaps You are also not completely Unknown—and so we seek, and grope, and hope to find you “nearer than our breathing, closer than hands and feet” (Alfred Tennyson, "The Higher Pantheism"
from The Holy Grail and Other Poems [London: Strahan, 1870]).

no pain no gain?

Recently I've heard a couple of teachers (on different, though related, subjects) say that, as adults, we do not learn from positive experience the same way we learn from painful experience.

At the same time, I've read and heard several times about how successful organizational (and personal) change is about building on strength and celebrating success, even small success.

And of course lots of what we know about children (and about animals, now that I think about it, haha) involves practicing positive reinforcement.

And yet there's something about change and transformation (two different things) that really do require us to face up to discomfort, and go through it, rather than avoid it.

Of course, avoiding discomfort is practically our culture's national pastime.

And yet pastors are taught that our job is to both comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable...because God's transformative work involves both.

So why do we insist that it only be comfortable? We want church to be warm and friendly, to meet our needs and to make us feel good. A moment of discomfort has us skipping the next few weeks, and pretty soon every time we come we're frustrated by something that's different, or challenging words, or the fidgety person in the next pew (whose fidgetiness we'd gotten used to when we sat there every week, but now that we're out of the habit, we just can't take one more moment of rustling the cough drop wrapper).

Why do we insist that the gospel be warm and friendly, when a straight-up reading of any one of the four accounts of Jesus' life will bring us up short?

Why do we insist that the Body of Christ give us warm fuzzies, when we know perfectly well that any human community, and any worthwhile relationship, requires work and compromise and continual hope, prayer, and effort?

One of my least favorite sporty sayings is "no pain, no gain." It feels like a fast track to getting injured, to ignore the pain signals my body is sending. I wonder if the saying is even true--is pain necessary for growth?

Well...Jesus talks about transformation with metaphors like pruning, refining fire, and death. So...maybe. As much as I don't want to think about it this way, the teachers who say that transformation--not just the change we make with our willpower, but the kind of transformation that comes from the Holy Spirit, the kind of transformation that lasts, the kind of transformation that makes us agents of the Kingdom--will hurt, at least a little (I mean, it might be stretching-hurt, it might be breaking-open-hurt, it might be grief-hurt)...they might be right.

Now to just trust that it'll be worth it.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Good New Days--a sermon on Acts 17

Rev. Teri Peterson
good new days
Acts 17.16-34
18 May 2014, Easter 5, NL4-37

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there. Also 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.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we too are his offspring.” 
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.


Once upon a time, Athens had been the center of learning. It had been well known as the place for intellectuals in every field, brimming with ideas about mathematics, philosophy, government, and the arts.

By the time Paul arrived in Athens, those bright days had dimmed into the past. The center of power had shifted to Rome, and Athenians were left trying to recapture what once was. They filled their city with statues and shrines, and filled their time with ideas and debates, hoping desperately that something would bring them back to the days when they were bursting at the seams with young people, money, power, and vitality.

The people of Athens tried everything. They made statues and sacrifices and offerings in every place and to every god they could think of. They worshipped at the altar of memory, of success, of fashion, of the latest trends and the oldest mysteries. They covered all their bases, hedging their bets even with an altar to an unknown god—just in case they might have missed one along the way.

It was a strategy of desperation—doing everything that used to work, grasping at the straws of what others were doing, and all along the way creating gods that would serve them if they would just offer the right thing at the right time. The Athenians found themselves full of activities, bound by extremes, and longing for something they couldn’t quite put their finger on. While the Epicurean and the Stoic philosophers—as far apart on the spectrum of philosophy as you can get—debated in the marketplace, the people gorged themselves on any crumb that might bring back the good old days.

When Paul walks in and says “I see how religious you are,” he’s being a bit sarcastic. They are religious—in the sense that they do a lot of things that look religious. But they aren’t, in the sense that they have completely missed the point. The point of religion is to connect human beings to the divine, and that connection happens not through buying God off or through endless activity, but through relationship and mystery and spirit. But Paul’s sarcasm isn’t so overt it turns people off—it’s sarcasm for us, the reader, but to the Athenians it was an acknowledgment of their hope.

Paul builds on that hope—he takes a bright spot: an altar to a god unknown, a desire for more, a longing for a new story—and combines it with their own familiar words in order to offer them The Truth: God, who created all things, cannot be controlled by us, no matter how many statues and sacrifices we make. God, who created all things, is so close to us that it is impossible to know ourselves apart from the divine. And God, who created all things, is doing a new thing even right now, while we are busy trying to recreate the past.

My favorite part of Paul’s proof is this: if we are God’s offspring, made in God’s image, then why do we think that God could be contained in a statue, imagined and created by us? Or, since we’re not really statue people, maybe we should ask why we, who are created by God, made in God’s image, called God’s children—why do we insist that God can be contained by our church buildings, our scriptures, our theological systems, our religious rules, our long-standing church programs, our worship bulletin, our petty squabbles, our favorite pews? Paul looks around Athens, as he would probably look around many of our churches, and is distressed at the ways people fill up life with things that will always be a poor substitute for the kind of relationship with God that comes through walking the way of Christ.

It’s so interesting that the Athenians, even in their seeking, could not see God already in their midst. Their own poets said “he is not far from each one of us.” Their own altars had a sense of mystery. It was clear that their attempts to get their way by controlling the gods were ineffective. It had to be obvious to them that the past was never coming back—I mean, even their public discourse had descended into arguments between polar opposites. And yet it had not occurred to them that maybe God, in whom we live and move and have our being, was also living and moving and being in a more dynamic, rather than static, way. It had not occurred to them to look around and see what God was doing, or if there might be a future just as bright as the past. They spent so much time looking at yesterday that there was no room for tomorrow, no matter how much they might seek.

When Paul started talking about resurrection, and how God had done something completely new and unexpected by raising Jesus from the dead, many of them went away. The concept was ridiculous, and the implications were too much to handle. If God does things like that—things so completely uncontrollable and unbound—then what does that mean for those who want to be in relationship with God? If God can’t be bought, or appeased, then how are we supposed to relate? If God is God—loving, just, and faithful—no matter what we do, then what exactly are we supposed to do? It seems that if the relationship with God is not a transaction, where we control at least a portion of the situation, then it’s not worth it. It’s too much—and the Athenians weren’t the only ones to think so. Ever since that day they met Paul, people across time and place have heard this story and decided to turn away—sometimes we have turned away by constructing elaborate theological systems that allow us to feel like we have some control, and sometimes we have turned away by simply insisting it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes we have turned away by believing the church is a building we visit, like a shrine to an idol, and sometimes we have turned away by using the words of scripture to pretend that God’s grace is not available to some. There are many ways to scoff at what God offers, because we cannot comprehend unconditional love.

To be in relationship with God, the One who created all things and who raised Jesus from the grave, is to admit that all that other stuff we cling to is actually an idol—whether it is our memories of the past, our stuff we can’t bear to let go of, our image of how religion should work, or our insistence that God’s grace must be earned. God’s love is the true reality—cling to that!

To be in relationship with God who created all things and raised Jesus from the grave is to admit that we find our truest selves when we rest in God’s care, not when we frantically fill our lives with everything that used to work or that seems like a good idea. Sometimes the deepest relationship comes from silence and Sabbath rather than endless speech and activity.

To be in relationship with God who created all things and raised Jesus from the grave is to admit that we have created God in our own image, rather than living as those created in God’s image—and then to repent, to turn around and walk Christ’s way instead.

It took a little while for those who followed Christ to be called Christians. At first, they were simply called Followers of The Way. Sometimes I think I’d like to reclaim that name, because it so clearly reminds us that to follow Christ is a way of life, not simply a way of thinking. To follow The Way is to do what he did, to love as he loves. To follow The Way would mean there was no room for idols, because their weight is quickly seen for what it is: not worth it. To follow The Way is to be always on the move, going wherever the Spirit is going, always looking forward to where God is calling. Or, as Paul put it, to search and grope and find that God is as close as our own breath—and is always leading us forward into the kingdom, into the good new days God has planned.

May it be so.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

set free--a sermon on Acts 16

Rev. Teri Peterson
set free
Acts 16.11-40
11 May 2014, Easter 4, NL4-37

(take two)

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘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.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, ‘Let those men go.’ And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, ‘The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.’ But Paul replied, ‘They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.’ The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed. 

I wonder if they thought about her.

The enslaved woman who started all this—did Paul and Silas think about her while they were being beaten, or while they were in prison singing, or while they were telling the good news of Jesus to the jailer, or while they were using their privilege of Roman citizenship in a show of nonviolent resistance?

Or was she just an irritant to be brushed off and forgotten?

We like to read this as if she is yet another person set free from a demon by the power of Christ’s name. And that is true, but it is not the whole truth. The text does not tell us if she was truly set free, or if she was just made disposable to her owners. After all, she was a slave who used to bring in money, and now she doesn’t, and her owners are angry about that. What will happen to her? 

Scripture doesn’t tell us what happened to her. She just disappears, as if she’s nothing more than a way for Paul and Silas to make a point in the prison and with the magistrates.

But to God she is a precious child, carrying God’s image. To God, she has a name, and a story, and value beyond what income she can generate. And that means that she has value to us as well. We who follow Jesus can never simply assume that some people are collateral damage, that some people are disposable, that some people matter more than others.

Paul and Silas’ trip to Philippi had started well. They’d gotten to know the town a bit, looking for the places where the light of Christ was already shining, where the Spirit was already visible. Once they found that bright spot, they were able to begin work there and let the light spread. That bright spot happened to be down by the river, where the women worked and prayed. Philippi was a Roman colony, so it did not have a synagogue but it did have a vibrant economy. Down at the river, they encountered Lydia, a wealthy merchant woman whose business was dirty but profitable work, extracting costly purple dye from small snails. The work meant she was unclean according to Jewish law, but she was a Gentile anyway. In fact, she’s often considered the first European convert to the Way of Christ. The Spirit was already moving in that little community by the river, and when Paul and Silas brought the story of God in Christ, they immediately embraced it in both word and deed, with radical hospitality and grace.

A fledgling church began in Lydia’s home, and news must have spread. By the time the slave woman gets on Paul’s last nerve, they’ve been there for a while and are beginning to be known. But they are still Jews in a Roman colony—outsiders. And that makes it easy to accuse them when they lash out and hurt someone’s bottom line.

As they sang in the darkness, did they think about her? Were they praying for their freedom in Christ to become literal freedom for themselves and for her? Or was she forgotten?

Freedom did come for them. The earth shook and the doors open and the chains fell to the floor. The jailer knew that their freedom meant his own expendability was now front and center—and Paul knew this too. As the jailer’s despair deepened to match the pitch-black darkness of a maximum security prison in the dead of night, a voice came out of the dark. Imagine the freedom he must have felt, to hear the words “we are all here.” It’s almost a resurrection story all over again, with life coming out of death in the middle of the night. In fact, not even “almost”—it is a resurrection story, for where the jailer previously thought his life was tied only to the value of his work, he now rejoices in knowing that he, and everyone, is a part of the Body of Christ.

So I wonder if they thought about her?

Was she part of the Body too? Later in his career, Paul will write that if one member of the body suffers, all suffer together with it. Is that true for this woman, so easily cast aside? Is it true for the thousands of women and men and children whose names we will never know but who live their lives chained to sewing machines to make our lives easier and cheaper? Is it true for the Nigerian mothers weeping for their daughters while we spend twenty billion dollars on cards and flowers and gifts for our own mothers? Is it true for the hundreds of thousands of people sold, like this woman, into sex slavery? Do we all suffer together with those whom Christ loves but we ignore as useful at best and disposable at worst?

When the magistrates try to brush off Paul and Silas as an irritant, sending them away in secret, Paul uses his privilege in exactly the way Jesus teaches us to resist oppressors: by highlighting their cruelty through turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile. He brings up his citizenship for the first time in the story, and forces the leaders of the colony to come out and make a scene, apologizing for their wrongdoing in public where everyone can see they were in the wrong. It’s a brilliant move that puts the good news of God’s story of freedom front-and-center in the town square, at the same moment it highlights the weakness of the Empire’s assumptions and its mob justice.

Did they go look for her? Did they try to set her free in a literal sense now that she was spiritually free? Because spiritual freedom is important, but it’s only one part of freedom. God didn’t just set the Israelites free in their hearts, God led them out of Egypt. God didn’t just tell the disciples that death had now power, God raised Jesus from the dead and freed him from the tomb. Paul and Silas had all the spiritual freedom they could want, yet still the earth shook and the doors of the prison opened.

Conversely, it’s easy to assume our freedom because we have no literal shackles. But we are just as bound. Whether we are shackled to our socio-economic status, to our insistence that our desires be met at every turn, to our complicity in a world system where some people are disposable, to our history, or to our material possessions, or to any other impermanent thing that has tricked us into believing it is ultimate…Christ has come to set us free. It may be earth-shaking, it may be hard, it may take a massive shift in how we see ourselves and others, but God’s will is always for freedom, for justice, for grace, for peace—in other words, for good news for all, not just for some. For as often as we do it to the least of these, we do it to Christ. And the least of these have names, and stories, and value as children of God, regardless of their value to our economy or interest to our media.

As we seek the freedom and hope that Christ came to give, and remember that with that freedom comes a responsibility to one another, I invite you to pick up a little piece of that responsibility by committing to pray for another member of the body. In these baskets are the known names of the Nigerian schoolgirls who are still missing. Take one or two, and hold them fiercely, surrounding them with the light and love of God that breaks open prisons. For until their prisons are opened, ours can never be. And while you’re praying for them, confess also the ways in which our own system benefits us at their expense, whether economically or geographically or socially or politically. May the earth shake loose our shackles and theirs, until all the world is set free by this Truth: Christ is risen, he is risen indeed—and freedom is coming.

May it be so.

1. Deborah 

2. Awa 

3. Hauwa 

4. Asabe 

5. Mwa 

6. Patiant 

7. Saraya
8. Mary 

9. Gloria 

10. Hanatu 

11. Gloria 

12. Tabitha 

13. Maifa 

14. Ruth 

15. Esther 

16. Awa 

17. Anthonia

18. Kume 

19. Aisha 

20. Nguba 

21. Kwanta 

22. Kummai 

23. Esther 

24. Hana 

25. Rifkatu 

26. Rebecca 

27. Blessing 

28. Ladi 

29. Tabitha 

30. Ruth 

31. Safiya 

32. Na’omi 

33. Solomi 

34. Rhoda 

35. Rebecca 

36. Christy 

37. Rebecca 

38. Laraba 

39. Saratu 

40. Mary 

41. Debora 

42. Naomi 

43. Hanatu 

44. Hauwa 

45. Juliana 

46. Suzana 

47. Saraya 

48. Jummai 

49. Mary 

50. Jummai 

51. Yanke 

52. Muli 

53. Fatima 

54. Eli 

55. Saratu 

56. Deborah

57. Rahila 

58. Luggwa 

59. Kauna 

60. Lydia 

61. Laraba 

62. Hauwa 

63. Confort 

64. Hauwa 

65. Hauwa 

66. Yana 

67. Laraba 

68. Saraya 

69. Glory 

70. Na’omi 

71. Godiya 

72. Awa 

73. Na’omi 

74. Maryamu

75. Tabitha 

76. Mary
77. Ladi 

78. Rejoice 

79. Luggwa 

80. Comfort 

81. Saraya 

82. Sicker 

83. Talata 

84. Rejoice 

85. Deborah 

86. Salomi 

87. Mary 

88. Ruth 

89. Esther 

90. Esther 

91. Maryamu

91. Zara 

93. Maryamu

94. Lydia 

95. Laraba 

96. Na’omi 

97. Rahila 

98. Ruth 

99. Ladi 

100. Mary 

101. Esther 

102. Helen 

103. Margret

104. Deborah

105. Filo 

106. Febi 

107. Ruth 

108. Racheal

109. Rifkatu

110. Mairama

111. Saratu 

112. Jinkai 

113. Margret

114. Yana 

115. Grace 

116. Amina 

117. Palmata

118. Awagana

119. Pindar 

120. Yana 

121. Saraya 

122. Hauwa 

123. Hauwa 

125. Hauwa 

126. Maryamu

127. Maimuna

128. Rebeca

129. Liyatu 

130. Rifkatu

131. Naomi 

132. Deborah

133. Ladi 

134. Asabe 

135. Maryamu

136. Ruth 

137. Mary 

138. Abigail

139. Deborah

140. Saraya 

141. Kauna 

142. Christiana

143. Yana 

144. Hauwa 

145. Hadiza 

146. Lydia 

147. Ruth 

148. Mary 

149. Lugwa 

150. Muwa 

151. Hanatu 

152. Monica

153. Margret

154. Docas 

155. Rhoda 

156. Rifkatu

157. Saratu 

158. Naomi 

159. Hauwa 

160. Rahap 

162. Deborah

163. Hauwa 

164. Hauwa 

165. Serah 

166. Aishatu

167. Aishatu

168. Hauwa 

169. Hamsatu

170. Mairama

171. Hauwa 

172. Ihyi 

173. Hasana

174. Rakiya 

175. Halima 

176. Aisha 

177. Kabu 

178. Yayi 

179. Falta 

180. Kwadugu

Saturday, May 03, 2014

I Am Who I Will Be--a sermon

I Am Who I Will Be
Acts 9.1-22
4 May 2014, Easter 3, NL4-35

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.

When I was in seminary, we were assigned the task of going to read scripture in unusual places, rather than just in our rooms or the library where we might normally study. They wanted us to practice what they called “Dislocation”—reading God’s word in a place where we normally wouldn’t. My classmates and I went all over the city, reading the Bible on busses and trains, in parks and stores, on street corners and in shelters. My friend Amy and I put on our yardwork clothes and went to the Ritz Carlton just in time for high tea, and we sat just at the entrance to the restaurant and read out loud to each other the story from Mark 5, of the woman who had been sick for 12 years and finally managed to sneak up and touch Jesus’ cloak. We felt awkward, and then we felt bold, and then we were asked to leave. The whole time, though, we definitely felt conspicuous, out of place, and everything we saw and heard and read seemed intensified.

It can be hard to focus when we’re disoriented. Or it can cause us to be hyper-focused, to use all our senses in a different way, to pay closer attention to what is happening.

Everyone in this story is disoriented. Saul, who will soon become Paul, is the most noticeably so, as he has literally had his perspective changed, through falling from his high horse down into the dust, going blind, and being hungry. But Ananias, who is asked to go lay hands on the very man who has been harassing people like him? He is disoriented enough to argue with Jesus. And the people to whom Paul preaches? They can hardly believe their eyes or ears, since this man who had used all the power of tradition, all his own powers of rhetoric and status…now is using that power to bring people to Jesus.

It was a very disorienting time. Maybe not quite on the level of changing pews for a day, but a dramatic shift of perspective nonetheless.

And God uses that shift, that new perspective, to offer a vision of the kingdom of God.

That vision begins with Jesus saying to Saul: “Why are you harassing me?” Notice he doesn’t say “why are you harassing my followers”…because remember that whatever we do to the least of these, to those we think deserve it, or to each other, we do to Jesus. There is no separation between Christ and those whom he loves. How we treat other beloved children of God is how we treat God. Loving God and loving our neighbor are two sides of the same thing.

Talk about a shift in perspective. What if we thought we were talking to God every time we spoke to another person? What if we thought it was God we shouted at, God we insulted, God we gossiped about, God we patronized, God we pushed until we got our way? What if we really thought that God was alive in the world, not trapped in a dusty book or a sanctuary? It would change our vision, and probably our behavior too.

And Saul looked up from the dust, unable to see with his eyes. This kind of vision comes from the heart, and it takes time to learn to see this way—time that may not be pleasant, because no transformation is easy.

And yet it is how God is building the kingdom of heaven on earth, one transformed life at a time. One meeting with Jesus—in the form of his followers, in the form of the living word proclaimed, in a song or a tv show or a beautiful moment in creation, at the dinner table downstairs on a Wednesday night—one meeting with Jesus can kick off this transformation…but that meeting is not the end, it’s just the beginning. The process of being changed into who God created us to be will take some time and even more perspective shifts. We will have to allow something new to emerge from the patterns we have built.

A few weeks ago I was catching up on podcasts, and I heard a story on a show called Radiolab, which is basically people explaining science on the radio. The story was about how caterpillars become butterflies, and what happens during that mysterious time in between.[1] Now, I’ve always thought that basically a caterpillar builds a chrysalis, then kind of hibernates in it for a while, as its body mass shifts around to grow wings, and then it comes out as a butterfly. Turns out that is 0% true. Instead what happens is that the caterpillar’s skin becomes the chrysalis, much like molting—it sheds its outer layer and that becomes the pod. And almost as soon as that process is complete, if you open it up you’ll find nothing but goo. The whole caterpillar dissolves into a gooey collection of cells, which morph and re-form into something completely new: a butterfly. There is no caterpillar in a chrysalis, and most of the time there’s no butterfly in there either—it’s just a primordial ooze. No wonder the theologian-scientists of the middle ages used the butterfly as a symbol of resurrection: because it really is as if the caterpillar makes its own shroud and dies, and out of that decomposing goo comes something beautiful and new and yet somehow related.

And then the story went on to explain something amazing: the butterflies remembered things the caterpillars had experienced. They had the same reaction to different scents as the caterpillars had been trained to have. Somehow, some part of who the caterpillar was was still a part of who the butterfly was, even though there was this period of nothingness in between.

And THEN the most amazing part of all: the scientist explained that you can, if you cut open a caterpillar with the right tools, see the faint beginnings of the structure of a butterfly, pressed against the skin. So when the caterpillar sheds that skin that becomes the chrysalis, the skeletal structure of the butterfly is imbedded there, waiting for its moment to work with the goo to become something new and beautiful.

In other words: what the caterpillar will be is already a part of who it is. The beautiful future is a part of the present reality. But the path to that future is not easy or obvious.

Paul became a brilliant teacher and preacher and organizer. Or rather—he was already those things, and God used him in a new way. People were shocked to hear him preaching the good news of Jesus, the Son of God…but really, he had that in him all along. No one, including Paul himself, could see it because they were so set in their ways, but a little change in perspective, a little meeting with Jesus in an unexpected way, and suddenly there was room for God to do something new.

Previously, Saul had been on a mission—he was passionate about what he thought was right, and he was motivated to get everyone else on the right track. He was the kind of guy we often look up to—a self-starter, a go-getter, full of righteous indignation. God needed that kind of person…just not for Paul’s mission, but for God’s. God is the one with the mission, and we are the workers—not the other way around. God’s mission is for all people to be seen as bearing the image of Christ in the world, even the ones we think get it wrong. God’s mission is for reconciliation, and justice, and peace, even for people who don’t deserve it. God’s mission is for hope and healing. God’s mission is that all would know love, because all are loved beyond imagining. That’s the mission that Paul was turned toward, and the mission to which we are all called. It can be hard to see how to do it, but one thing is for sure: when we’re so focused on the way we think things ought to be, we have trouble hearing when God is calling. We’ll need some disorientation, some new perspective, an encounter with Christ the Living Word, in order to see the new thing God is creating—a new thing that both already exists and is not quite visible.

Remember way back in Exodus, when Moses comes to the burning bush, meets God there, and hears that God’s name is “I am who I am”? Well, that word that’s usually translated “I am who I am” is a tricky one, because it is a verb that seems to be in multiple tenses at the same time. One translation is “I am who I will be.”

And we are created in the image of God.

May it be so.

[1] The RadioLab story is here, for your enjoyment. Listen and be amazed!