Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sermon for August 25, 2013

Good News That Connects: Proclaiming

Acts 15 has been called the turning point, the center piece, the watershed and the central hinge on which the book of Acts turns. And biblical scholars say that no chapter in the New Testament is more difficult to translate and understand. It’s a story about growing pains in the early church as Gentiles, non-Jewish believers, begin to share in the promises to Israel. As the gospel moves out in ever widening circles, the young, untried Church has to come to terms with the challenging realities of a more global faith.

Read Acts 15:1-12

Acts 15 opens with a story about a group of powerful, well-educated Judaic-Christians who argue that Gentile males who want to be saved have to be circumcised. They need to wear a physical mark as a sign of inner change. Jewish law is clear about this. Circumcision is a mark of the covenant. And you can’t just set aside some of the rules to accommodate a few people, right? It’s that old slippery slope. If you give way on one part of the law, you risk losing the whole thing.

The Church leaders convene a council in Jerusalem. All the apostles are there, along with James, the brother of Jesus and head of the church in Jerusalem. And they have a good ol’ church fight. Let’s call it a debate. Does God save people because they follow the rules, or does God save people through grace?

Before I tell you what they decided, let’s just stop and acknowledge that churches still have this fight … er, debate  . . . all the time. Can you drink and swear and smoke and be a Christian? What if your body is covered in tattoos and body piercings? What if you struggle with addiction? Can you still be a Christian? Do you have to be conservative or liberal? Catholic or Protestant? What if you are an environmentalist? Or a logger? Do you have to read the Bible literally? Do you have to claim Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior? Do you have to be baptized?  Is there a place for you in the family of God? Do you have to change in order to fit in? Do you have to rewrite your song in order to resonate with someone else’s tone?

Some people struggle with the false belief that we must meet certain standards in order to please God and feel good about ourselves. Consider these laws that people hold themselves to:
  • The law of church attendance. Some say to themselves, “If I attend every worship service, and work diligently in the church, then God will be pleased with me. Those who only show up at Christmas and Easter are not as committed to their faith.”
  • The law of morality: “If I can just behave well enough I will be acceptable to God and others. Those who don’t behave according to my moral standards must change if they want to join us.”
  • The law of perfectionism: “If only I can keep my house spotless, my family looking good, and my social life in order – if only I can keep tight charge over every area of my life, then God will smile upon me and I will be happy.”
We need to be careful. Laws like these create insiders and outsiders. When we use religious rules to exclude others, we put up walls of mutual mistrust. Francisican priest Murry Bodo puts it this way, “we wear God as a mask of respectability that justifies our doing nothing except . . . build protective walls behind which we live the illusion of virtue. We are trying so hard to be safe, we have forgotten how to be human.” Dogma may well design disorder. Creeds can create confusion. Sometimes the church is so concerned with outward appearances and correct beliefs, we forget that God nurtures the heart and changes the inside first.

I have a feeling that Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, tells us the story of the Council of Jerusalem to make a point. There should be no division among the people of Christ. Luke uses a special Greek word get this across: homothumad√≥n. The word is used only 11 times in all of the New Testament, and 10 of those times are by Luke in the Book of Acts. It means “of one accord,” “of one mind and purpose,” “shared commitment,” or “united action stemming from united concern,” “harmony,” “together.”

The Council of Jerusalem realizes there are people out there who do not want this kind of unity. There are some who want to stir up, disturb, unsettle, throw into confusion.

The leaders of the earliest church had a different vision. Homothumad√≥n . Together. That’s what the church was supposed to be. That’s what the church IS supposed to be.  Together.

Like good church people, the Council of Jerusalem writes a letter. And like a good church letter, it has a compromise. Male Gentile converts do not need to be circumcised. But, they do need to let go of the customs associated with idol worship. The Council wants Gentile converts and those who follow the Law of Moses to join together in worship. It’s not about Gentiles becoming Jews, or Jews caving in on their values. Gentile converts get the promise that believing and being baptized will grant them membership in the people of God. Their Jewish sisters and brothers get the reassurance that fellowship with Gentiles will not cause them to drift from their new-found faith in Jesus the Messiah. It’s all about being gracious and vulnerable with one another. It’s about building trust instead of suspicion. Good News connects people. It proclaims faith through loving action.

Think of the racial, economic and social barriers that mark the terrain of our daily lives. Think about those with whom we see, touch and share our lives and those we keep away. Think of the gender barriers between us, how we think and talk about each other; how we relate to one another at work and at home. Think of the way we classify each other at church — the liberals and conservatives, the “old timers” who built the church and the newcomers with their innovations. Think of the boundaries built by ongoing racial tensions as we remember the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this week. We all build walls, and these walls direct our footsteps -- where we go and where we stop.

What might happen when, instead of ignoring, dismissing, or labeling people because they look or believe differently, we build a space of welcome? What might happen when, instead of offering confusion, we find ways to be unified . . . in one accord . . . together?  Imagine proclaiming a faith that doesn’t try to change people, but allows everyone the freedom and breathing room to change at their own pace in their own way as God leads them.

I’m reminded of a story. There was a man who was well known for his compassion for others. He was not a wealthy man.  He was not a native of the predominately Christian village.  He did not attend the village church. He was never baptized. In fact, he showed little interest in religion. But if a stranger came to the village and needed a place to stay, this man would offer a cot in his little home. If a village family ran out of food, he was the first to offer a loaf of bread or some flour from his own meager supplies. When the occupying army swept the village to collect young men for imprisonment or forced military enlistment, he helped hide the men in the woods outside town. The villagers loved him very much.

The man eventually died from some cause or other. The villagers prepared his body for burial and proceeded to the village church where they asked the priest to perform the burial service in the church cemetery. The priest, knew and loved the man as much as the rest of the villagers. He agreed to conduct the funeral service. However, the priest insisted that he could not bury the man inside the church cemetery because he was not baptized. “I cannot bury him in our cemetery”, the priest said, “It is hallowed ground. He must go where the unbaptized are buried. Those are the rules of the church and I cannot change them.”

The villagers appealed earnestly to the priest. The reminded the priest that the man was a good person and surely loved by God as much as any of the baptized, perhaps even more on account of all the good that he had done. The priest agreed with them about the virtues of the man, but insisted that the rules of the faith were clear and could be not be broken. But he did make one compromise. The priest said, “In recognition of your love for him, and his love for you and all of God’s people in this village, I will bury him on church land, near to those who have gone before. But it will have to be beyond the fence that surrounds the consecrated ground of our cemetery.”

On the appointed day a grave was prepared just outside the fence that surrounded the church cemetery. The villagers brought the man’s body and buried him in his final resting place. That night, something very beautiful happened — something that became apparent when the priest went to the church next morning to conduct morning mass. The fence that surrounded the cemetery had been moved by some of the villagers. It now surrounded the grave in which the man had been buried.

I like to think God is like those villagers. God keeps expanding the boundaries of the sacred to include those who have been excluded by religious rules or polite society. What might happen if we simply said, “God loves you just the way you are. That’s it. Nothing else to add. No pre-qualifications before you’re really welcome. You are welcome right now. Now please tell us your story so we can learn from you.” We can come together in a church to share those beliefs, and also find value in the spirituality of others. We can be a church that leads others without the stigma of guilt or coercion. Now wouldn’t that be something worth proclaiming, in word and in loving action!?

Doug Pagitt, Evangelism in the Inventive Age,
Murray Bodo, The Way of St. Francis.

Sermon for August 11, 2013

Good News That Connects: Listening

Acts 10:1-18

Real men will eat anything, right. I remember attending a game dinner many years ago. It must have been a bad year for venison, because the real men ate fowl and skewered pieces of marinated raccoon meat. Yes, I tried it. No, I didn’t have seconds. And no, there was no voice from heaven commanding me to eat it – no booming voice saying, “Matt, do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.” What the most disgusting meat you’ve ever eaten? Does the thought of it turns your stomach?

You’ve heard about dining on insects, right? This is an old news story, but media outlets won’t let it go. A report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that insects and insect products should do more towards improving the food security of the world. Certain entrepreneurs are picking up on this trend. Like the company Chapul that makes energy bars. They state, “[Our] Bars are delicious, all-natural bars with protein from crickets-one of the planet's most amazing, energy-efficient creatures. No soy. No dairy. Just our innovative flour made entirely from crickets.”

Here is another stomach turner for me. Lab-grown meat. A lab in London grew a hamburger in a Petri dish. Some call it the Frankenburger. The meat, which contained no fat, was fried in a pan with copious amounts of butter by an English chef and presented on a plate with a bun, lettuce and tomato slices. The concept has enormous environmental and ethical benefits. But here’s the problem – who wants to eat a burger grown in a lab from stem cells? It’s kind of cool. And kind of gross. It has definitely has the “yuck factor” for me. On the bright side, it can’t be worse than raccoon.

In the Book of Acts, chapter 10 God shows Peter a vision of a boondocks banquet coming down out of heaven. There’s some snakes and a bunch of reptiles. According to Jewish law, they are all unclean animals. Eating them will defile you. God says, “Go on, Peter, have a bite.” I don’t know if anyone here has ever eaten snake before. The outdoorsmen of the world tell us that snakes, racoons, possum, squirrels -- all that stuff is tasty when it’s prepared correctly. Apparently, Peter was disgusted by it all. Maybe Peter just didn’t have a good recipe.

In the first century, the great question was one of boundaries. Where would the lines be drawn that would determine who should hear the gospel and who would not. It is a question the church has not yet answered. Marcus Borg writes about this in his book Meeting Jesus Again for the Very First Time. He says, "The struggle between compassion and purity goes on in the churches today. In parts of the church there are groups that emphasize holiness and purity as the Christian way of life, and they draw their own sharp social boundaries between the righteous and sinners. It is a sad irony that these groups, many of which are seeking very earnestly to be faithful to Scripture, end up emphasizing those parts of Scripture that Jesus himself challenged and opposed. An interpretation of Scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity." 

In the earliest church, some Believers assumed that God’s recipe for a good church was limited to those who followed the commandments and rituals of Judaism. The first church members called themselves Jews. They worshiped like Jews. They did not associate with anyone who was not Jewish. It was against Jewish law to be in contact with Gentiles and their traditions. You can imagine how Peter’s horror when God sends Peter to the home of Cornelius – not only an unclean Gentile, but a Roman army officer.

As the author Luke tells the story, Peter visits Cornelius and tells him the story of Jesus. The Holy Spirit immediately fills Cornelius. He and his entire household convert to Christianity. The opportunity comes through listening. Peter listens to God. Peter listens to Cornelius. Peter realizes that God’s love is not defined by social boundaries.  God’s love reaches farther than Peter ever dreamed.

I think we need a reminder of who the church is, and what we are called to do. Since we were kids, someone told us that God loves everyone. The membership rolls of the early church sound more like roll call of a detention camp. The early church attracted people who were seen as low-lifes – religious zealots, the poor and oppressed, helpless charity cases, and foreigners. Rich patrons, working class laborers and those in abject poverty held common property and took care of each other. The church has always been place for people with real pain to hear words of healing and hope.

An inclusive vision of the church means that we restlessly commit ourselves to listening for the ways God wants to expand our horizons. We listen and then we preach and teach the message of God’s extravagant love.

In 1999 a little church in Decatur called Oakhurst Baptist Church was ejected by the Georgia Baptist Convention for a variety of issues having to do with Biblical interpretation and inclusiveness. In the 1960's this congregation took a stand against segregation and had lost two-thirds of its members. In the 1980's the church opened its doors to the homeless, who have been welcomed and have worshiped there ever since. In fact, the pastor tells about the time when he and his young son were visiting another church facility and his son asked, “Dad, where do the homeless live here?” He assumed that you could not have a church without a place for your homeless friends. One day, when the congregation was in the news, a developmentally disabled church member saw a TV camera and hurried over to offer to be on television. The reporter extended his microphone and asked, “Tell me, what do you like about this church?” John grinned and answered, “They love everybody here.”

I’ve been to similar churches. I think of one church in that regularly opens its doors to anyone. I mean ANYONE. On any given Sunday, this church has business professionals, college professors, group-home residents, families with children and homeless street people all worshiping together, praying for one another and celebrating each other’s lives. Another church I know sends out its “Worship Wagon.” The Worship Wagon goes to the homes of homebound members and others who can’t get to church. The worship wagon drives people to the church and brings them home afterwards. Churches like these are trying to live out a belief that we are not fully the body of Christ until everyone is included.

Preaching professor, Fred Craddock, once told about a church he knew. He remembered it as the status church – First Church Downtown, it was called. Everybody who was anybody went to that church when Fred was a boy. Not just anybody could walk in there and join. Income and proper attire was a membership requirement at First Church. People in need were out of the question. People of Color need not apply. As you might imagine, First Church did not receive many new members. Its members simply grew older.
Much later, as an adult, Fred learned that First Church had closed. Too few people of the “right type” existed, he guessed. He had occasion to go back to that town, and he discovered that old First Church was still standing. But now it was a restaurant, a fish restaurant oddly enough. He walked in the big gothic doors and, sure enough, where there had once been pews, now there were tables, and waiters, and diners. He looked down the nave of the old church and where the communion table had once stood, now there was a salad bar. He walked out the front door, back down the steps, muttering to himself, “Now, I guess everybody is welcome to eat at the table.”

There are some questions for us lurking behind today’s text from Acts. Can we allow the Holy Spirit to prod us – to give us ears to hear – to drag if necessary, all the way to the wideness of God’s mercy? Or will we hunker down right here, and limit our listening? Do we opt for safe and secure? Do we keep our limits firmly fixed? Who is today’s equivalent of the gentiles? Who are the one’s we call unclean – the one’s God insists belong?

Maybe the most important question that we need to think about is this: What kind of meal are we going to offer?  A safe one or a risky one? A buffet or a banquet?


Monday, August 5, 2013

Sermon for August 4, 2013

Good News That Connects: Welcoming

The story of Saul of Tarsus from Acts 9 begins at least two centuries before we ever even hear about him. Our story begins around the 170 years before the birth of Christ. A greedy and desperate king ruled what was known as the Seleucid Empire – one of the subdivisions of the Empire of Alexander the Great. This king needed money to pay tribute to Rome. The king heard gossip that the Temple in Jerusalem overflowed with riches. It served as a bank where the private deposits of widows and orphans were kept secure. Since this king needed money, he sent his treasurer on a journey to raid the holy place. The treasurer’s name was Heliodorus. Heliodorus set off with armed guards to plunder the temple. When the people of Jerusalem heard about it, they began to panic. The priests in the Temple threw themselves on the ground and called to heaven for help. People burst from their houses and gathered in crowds to plead for divine intervention because the temple was about to be dishonored.

As the story goes, when Heliodorus and his spearmen approached the treasury, the God of Israel made an awesome display. Heliodorus saw a vision of a horse with a fearsome rider, decked in gold armor. Two young men also appeared before him—of superb beauty, wearing magnificent robes and unmatched in bodily strength. It turned out to be more than a vision. These beautiful men stood on either side of Heliodorus and beat the tar out of him. Heliodorus fell to the ground unconscious. Some of the warriors from his entourage picked him up and placed him on a stretcher. The bully Heliodorus, who was on his way to rob God’s treasury with a fully armed bodyguard, was carried away helpless – rendered blind and speechless by his visit from heaven.

Some of Heliodorus’ companions rushed to ask the High Priest in the Temple to pray for their boss. The high priest was afraid that the Seleucid king might think the Jews had done something evil to his treasurer. So, with fear and trembling, the High Priest offered a sacrifice for the recovery of Heliodorus. While the high priest was praying, the two beautiful, angelic brutes who had given Heliodorus a heavenly whipping once again appeared by the side of the royal treasurer. The angels said, “You owe the high priest your gratitude. Because of him, the Lord has graciously given life to you. But you who suffered a beating from heaven must proclaim the great power of God to all.” Then they disappeared.

Heliodorus was a new man His sight and voice returned. He returned home, singing the praises of God. He reported to the King, “The one who lives in heaven watches over that place and will strike and destroy anyone coming with evil intent.”

Does this story sound a little familiar? A villainous persecutor with an armed escort is knocked down on the road, blinded, repents, and is healed by a holy albeit reluctant servant of the Divine? Change the names and a few minor details, and we get Luke’s story in the book of Acts -- a dramatic scene in which the risen Jesus knocks Paul off his horse on the road to Damascus. Paul, the would-be killer, is blinded by the light, comes to Jesus, is healed by a reluctant servant and becomes Christ’s spokesperson and defender. I think Luke “borrows” an older story from Jewish history and reworks it for his own narrative. So, either Luke is a really bad historian or he has a different agenda in mind. Given Luke’s tendency to rewrite much of the Greek Old Testament and Apocrypha, I vote for the latter. The story of Heliodorus comes from the book of 2 Maccabees. But the story itself is much older. The basic idea of a persecutor being converted despite himself by direct fiat of the God whose followers he has been abusing appears 500 years earlier, from the ancient Greek play The Bacchae by Euripides. Come on now – you remember it from your college English Lit. class, don’t you?

So, what’s Luke up to? If Luke’s description of Paul’s conversion to Christianity is not historically accurate, then why all the drama? In volume one of his writings, the Gospel According to Luke, we hear the story of Jesus, a Jewish leader who is baptized and anointed with the Spirit, goes about doing good, heals the sick, raises the dead, casts out demons, preaches in synagogues and finally making his way to Jerusalem where, after a uproar at the Temple, he is taken into custody. He is put on trial before the Jewish courts and Roman officials who declare him innocent but execute him to keep the peace.

In volume two, The Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us about Paul, a Jewish leader who is anointed with the Spirit, goes about doing good, heals the sick, raises the dead, casts out demons, preaches in synagogues and finally making his way to Jerusalem where, after a uproar at the Temple, he is taken into custody. He is put on trial before the Jewish courts and Roman officials who declare him innocent. Luke implies Paul is later executed in order to keep the peace. Paul’s life path mirrors Jesus. Luke is making a point – What Jesus began, Paul fulfills. The movement that Jesus started is best interpreted by Paul.

Some scholars think Paul might not have even been a persecutor of the early church in the first place. It was a legend that was added later. Why? Luke knew there was a movement to discredit Paul. And who would do such a thing? All of the stories seem to point to one person –  a man named James the Just. It seems Paul and James never got along. James led the Church in Jerusalem. Oh yeah, he was also the brother of Jesus, by some accounts. Talk about name dropping, right? This James, the brother of Jesus, was friends with the Apostle Peter. Peter was appointed as the head of the entire church by Jesus. Peter claimed the right to rule with what the church called “apostolic authority.” As Peter and James oversaw the new Jesus movement, it was very Jewish oriented.

When Paul came on the scene, he broadened the message of Jesus to include the Gentile world.  He was so successful, Christianity became more Gentile than Jewish. As Paul's churches grew in number, the traditional leadership in Jerusalem probably felt their influence diminishing. With explosive growth, there was less control.  It couldn’t be expected that everybody, everywhere would believe the same beliefs, sing the same hymns, read the same scriptures and tell the same story. So what did conflicting leaders do? They attacked each other and wrote letters and books to confirm their own version of the story. Paul wrote his first letter to confront his opponents and tell his personal story about how the Jewish law dissolves in the midst of God’s grace and forgiveness. Paul declared stridently, “We are saved by faith, not Jewish law.” James the Just wrote a letter and said, “That’s fine, but faith without the law is dead” (James 2:17). James disputed Paul, expressing the belief that Christians must show their devotion to God by following Jewish law and performing good deeds. We can see this political proof texting in the Gospels. The Gospel According to Matthew is very Jewish-oriented and seeks to make a case for the authority of Peter. Luke Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles are more Greek oriented and ultimately make the case that Paul walks in the footsteps of Jesus and fulfills Christ’s commission to bring the Gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

We tend to romanticize the beginnings of the early church. We were taught that in the midst of persecution, the church was all of one accord. A closer read of the texts tells a different story: fights and fraction, politics and polemics, popularity contests and power struggles. Some historians and theologians propose that the early church was characterized by “radical diversity.” We can’t speak of a unified “Christianity” during that time. The early church consisted of competing “Christianities.”

The Church eventually found ways to define orthodoxy and tamp down all these opposing versions of Christianity. Christendom created communities of conformity. But that was not the experience of the earliest church. Even though Peter and Paul disagreed, something held the church together. It was not a creed. It was not a droning doctrinal debate. It was a common spirit.

Instead of conformity, I am much more interested in creating communities of welcome. We pray with Jesus that we all may be one. But maybe the job of the church is not to be united in our theology. Maybe the job of the church is to unite around what we do rather than what we believe. Peter and Paul’s theologies of mission conflicted, but they found common ground in creating communities of welcome, communities of radical inclusiveness that redistributed wealth, rejected violence, and invited the “nobodies” to worship elbow-to-elbow with the “somebodies.” Maybe that’s still the job of the Church. We need to get over our tendencies to divide over doctrine as we offer true welcome – even if it means doing God’s work side by side with those whom we disagree.

If anyone can change community of conformity to communities of welcome, it should be the UCC. I typed in the words “unified church with diverse theology” into Google, and guess who came up first? The UCC. As individual members, we are free to believe and act in accordance with our perception of God’s will for our lives. At the same time, we are called to live in loving relationship with one another – gathering in local communities of faith. In the UCC, each congregation or local church is free to act in accordance with the collective decisions of its members, guided by the working of the Spirit in the light of the Scriptures. But each local church also lives in covenantal relationship with other congregations. We find ways to exist in these expanding levels of covenant, even if we don’t always agree with each other. Our ultimate vision is to welcome people – to invite people to enhance our worship life and mission life as full partners:
    Believers and agnostics
    Conventional Christians and questioning skeptics
    Homosexuals and heterosexuals
    Males and females, and those who are discovering or uncovering  their gender  identity
    Those of all races and cultures
    Those of all classes and abilities
    The optimists and the pessimists
    Traditionalists and Progressives
    Those who despair and those who have hope
We think the way we treat one another and other people is more important than the way we express our beliefs. We find more grace in the questions than in the answers. We discover the resources required for our work in the world: striving for justice and peace among all people, bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers.

We recognize that God’s Good News story includes and welcomes other stories -- more than we can imagine. The stranger, the forgotten, the weak, and the dispossessed – we make certain that there is room for all at the table. We make certain that we practice our belief that it’s more important to be loving than to be right.

The Underground Church by Robin Meyers

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...