Our preparations for VBS reminded me of a story a friend of mine told me some 20 years ago. My friend’s then-second-grade girl sat in the back seat of a car on a bright autumn afternoon, surrounded by her mom, grandmother, and aunt. The child chattered on about Sunday school. Then she stopped and said, “You know, I just want to get more things about God into my head.”
Through a little gentle prodding, the adults learned that the girl wanted more stories about God in her head.
“That’s great!” said the grandmother, feeding the fire. “And you know what else is neat? When you read a Bible story one time, say when you’re young, or happy, or upset, it means one thing to you. And when you read it again later, it can mean something completely different to you. That’s how God’s Word is still so alive for me after all these years.”
“That’s right,” said the girl’s mother. “Maybe that’s part of why there are so many different denominations and so many different ways people worship and talk about God. We’ve all read the same stories, but with different stuff in our heads, different thoughts and concerns.”
“Hmm,” said the girl. “And then when we die we find out the real truth.”
Falling off a child’s tongue “the real truth” has a happy, cozy ring to it. Yet can become a seductive mire for those who believe that they have actually found it.
I find it liberating to be reminded that the “real truth” is something that none of us can get fully into our heads just yet. For now, the touchstone of truth is story, those wonderful creations of images and actions, characters and relationships, all brought together through human words to reveal some piece of the “real truth.” And while stories do get into our heads, even more do they get into our hearts, working their magic even when we aren’t thinking about them.
Our tradition holds that God chose a people (Israel) and a son (Jesus of Nazareth) through whom to be revealed. And perhaps this is so because God, a person, is best mediated through story, not through policies, procedures, and doctrines.
So, if we ever think we know God, if we ever decide that we have the “real truth” stowed away in our heads, may the story of one little girl’s spiritual curiosity renew our own eagerness to listen and grow. May her story re-call us into the storied quest for meaning and hope that we call the Christian faith.
2This is the story of the family of Jacob…3Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
5Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed…the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
10But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” 11So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
12Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem?…Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.”
So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
21But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.”22Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him.”
23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore…25Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead…
26Then Judah said to his brothers, “…27Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. 28When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt. (NRSV)
Joseph, the firstborn of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, enters the world as a favored son.
Try to imagine being Joseph. You grow up coddled by your father. After your mother dies giving birth to your little brother, your dad focuses on you all the more. As a young man, you must try to become yourself while carrying your father’s hopes and dreams, and your mother’s memory. You carry the burden of several lives, and only one of them is yours. Still, you can do almost no wrong. So, for all that’s truly wonderful about you, you are insufferably self-centered.
Now, try to imagine being one of Joseph’s brothers. Imagine feeling less loved than that spoiled brat. You’ve been a good son, but because your mother wasn’t Rachel, you feel as if you’ve been bred as part of a workforce the way a mule is bred to be part of a team. And when your father gives Joseph that splendid coat, it’s salt in your wounds.
Jacob’s family is unmistakably human. And its dysfunction is part of what makes the story real. The human family is always both broken and loving.
Reading through Chapter 37, we notice something else, something missing. There’s no mention of the Bible’s main character. Wherever God may be in this story, God is not being talked about, much less talking. So, this whole sleazy deal will have to play itself out before we can see where – if anywhere at all – God is lurking about, transforming brokenness into wholenes. And through it all, the naively arrogant Joseph contends with his brothers who become bitter, and mean as cornered snakes.
Again, that struggle makes the story real, because when we leave God out of our stories, or when we twist our perceptions and language so as to reduce God to a servant of our purposes, love gets diminished. Psychoanalyst and author, Robert Johnson, says that hate is not the opposite of love. The opposite of love, he says, is power.1 When one person or group seeks to control another person or group for selfish gain, love is the first casualty.
When mired in desperate quests for the fleeting certainties of power and control, and when anxiety about personal privilege and tribal dominance govern our actions and attitudes, we cannot love as we are loved. And perhaps that’s because what we’re trying to do is to seize absolute control – Godlike control – over our own lives. And isn’t that the very point of the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:1-7), or the people of Babel building the tower into the heavens (Gen. 11:1-9)? Aren’t they all trying to become “like God”? (Gen. 3:5)
If, the opposite of love is power, and if, as John says, “God is love” (1John 4:16), then to impose ourselves on others does violence to the image of God in all of us. In Genesis 37, the entire family of Jacob seems unaware that they’re in the midst of learning this lesson.
As Joseph lies in that pit, he probably thinks that he’s reached rock bottom. Before long, though, his brothers will sell him to a band of Ishmaelite traders for twenty pieces of silver. If, at that point, the brothers choose to deal equitably with one another, two pieces of silver is each man’s reward for his role in kidnapping Joseph, conspiring to commit fratricide, and then, after thinking better of premeditated murder, devising an elaborate lie to hide their treachery from their father.
So, here’s the situation at the end of Genesis 37:
Joseph, who has exploited his father’s favor, finds himself the property of some vagabonds. In a matter of hours, he goes from privileged son to powerless slave.
Ten young men have terrorized their brother and sold him into bondage. And they deceive their father about their actions.
And an old, careworn Jacob must mourn another death he helped to create.
To banish love and peace from community life, or to exile these holy gifts to some knickknack shelf with other pretty words and decorations, is to lose awareness of God’s dynamic presence and energy in our lives and in the Creation.
For all who have ever wondered if the very idea of God is pure fantasy, or if God has left us to the arbitrary mechanics of chance, we can find ourselves in this story. Maybe we feel ripped from a place of comfort and privilege, and bound to some outside force. Maybe we wrestle with silent remorse because we can’t confess an act that causes suffering. Maybe we mourn the irreplaceable loss of someone we loved or of some great hope. Whatever the case, when driven by selfish concerns, love and peace disappear.
Now, some of us have probably jumped ahead. We’re already hearing a powerful Joseph say to his groveling brothers, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:19-20)
We may know how this story ends, but when we’re caught in the midst of the God-drought of our own Chapter 37, we can’t see it. And when we fear the worst, it’s natural to fall into despair where love and peace are as absent as God seems to be. It’s easy to give up in that place. It’s easy to decide that only the strong and the proud survive, and that only violence wins. But pride and violence are tools of fear and vengeance, not gifts of the Spirit.
To those who follow Jesus, that desperate place can become an Emmaus Road, a place to experience firsthand the power of Resurrection. We experience it by surrendering ourselves to it the way an experienced paddler who falls out of a kayak turns feet first and gives herself to the flow of the river. She doesn’t know what will happen, but she knows that if she lies back and uses her feet to avoid the obvious dangers, the current will eventually deliver her to calmer waters. And if it doesn’t, she probably knows that her life would have been diminished by not having entered the river at all.
When you feel as if you must declare Chapter 37 in your own life, when you feel as if God has abandoned you to chance and chaos, that is the very place it’s most important to show love and to speak peace. You stand in a place in which, through the power of Resurrection, you can experience, and bear witness to, the love and the peace of the living, redeeming, purpose-creating God.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (NRSV)
Clichés about suffering abound in both biblical and colloquial traditions. You’ve heard the kind of thing:
“All things work together for good for those who love God.”
“Give thanks in all circumstances.”
“God never gives you more than you can handle.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“We’re strong in the broken places.”
Some of us take great comfort in proverbs like these. Indeed, I proclaim the benefit of living gratefully. And while medical science has proven that a bone is not made stronger by having been broken, an experience of suffering can certainly give a community or a person new strength through new perspective. Having said that, I still will never accept the Everything happens for a reason or God never gives you more than you can handle platitudes. In my opinion, those are just denials in sanctimonious clothing.
When Paul encourages the church in Rome to understand that suffering leads them through character-building endurance and all the way to hope, he echoes a strong-in-the-broken-places theology. And he’s trying to do far more than soothe the aches and pains of individual lives while they try to “get to heaven.” That approach to scripture tries to domesticate the holy Mystery of God into something for bumper stickers and greeting cards. Paul’s teaching is part and parcel of his effort to lead the early church community away from both despair and pride.
In the first fifteen verses of Romans, Paul goes through all the niceties of salutation and his prayer of thanksgiving for his readers. With verse sixteen he gets down to the business of altering an ages-old, religious worldview. He challenges the Roman congregation, made up of devoted Jews who are now following Jesus, to accept uncircumcised, Roman Gentiles as equal partners in the body and work of Christ. Paul is calling into question old notions of who’s in and who’s out, of who decides and why. He knows that calling Jews to open the doors of the Church wider than the Temple doors under the Mosaic law is going to bend some of his readers to a breaking point. Moving from a life of law-based rewards and retributions to a life in the open-ended realm of grace may liberate the community, but that liberation comes at a cost. To quote another common but accurate cliché, The truth will set you free; but it’ll kill you first.
Paul’s challenge to the church at Rome wells up from lessons he learned the hard way, namely that following Jesus is not some easy formula for a happy and healthy life. To the contrary, following Jesus means just that:Followinghim. And Jesus leads us into the anguish and the ambiguities of human life. Following Jesus means trusting the path of Jesus’ love, and sharing it with others. It means speakingtruth to the people to whom Jesus spoke it. That includes speaking truth to power – which cannot accept Jesus’ truth as good news, because his truth doesn’t build nations, armies, and stock exchanges. Jesus’ truth proclaims the kingdom of God.
In our faith tradition, the kingdom of God represents the most essential nature of reality, but power and wealth are ambivalent toward the kingdom. If power and wealth can use, the Church, the Christian institution, to manipulate people into killing and dying to protect the supremacy of the strong and privileged, then they will, like the Emperor Constantine, grant the Church favored status. And since the days of Constantine, the Church has, willingly and often, adapted itself to the shielding vocabularies and symbols of many nations. While the Church has avoided much suffering that way, it has also surrendered its identity as truly faith-based institution. By contrast, when the Church really follows Jesus, when it proclaims the kingdom by loving and serving God before all else, and by working non-violently for peace and justice, then wealth and power have always perceived God’s kingdom as a threat to be opposed and, when necessary, oppressed.
Paul knows that communities who proclaim God’s kingdom almost always suffer for it in some way. He’s lived on both sides of that experience. He has caused that suffering and endured it. And he doesn’t want to lose any Christian community to sentimentality, selfishness, or nationalism.
Preacher, you’re gone to meddling, again.
I understand. Sometimes I don’t much want to hear what I think a text is calling me to say, either. But try to imagine how the early church would have heard Paul saying that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
Modern, first-world ears tend to hear most things from inside the blinders of individualism. Why should Ihave to do this or that? What’s in it for me? We ask such things when faced with something not of our own choosing, or something potentially unpleasant. And who could blame individual Christians in first-century Rome who said that there was nothing “in it” for them? Nothing but suffering, anyway. Remember, Paul writes his suffering-to-hope letter to a community of Christians for whom faithfulness to Jesus could mean dying as lion-fodder to the bloodthirsty delight of powerful and wealthy Romans.
As fundamentally evil as that is, the faith to which Paul calls Christians is evidenced not by a rise to conquering power, not by securing a lives of privilege, but by intentionally living a life faithful to Jesus, even in the face of worldly threats. And a Jesus-lifeis lived in community as a witness to the power of Resurrection. Now, Resurrection doesn’t end suffering; it redeems the relentless and otherwise purposeless suffering around us and within us.
That’s not to say that everything happens for a reason. It is to say that God is not proven weak or, even dis-proved by the reality of suffering. Love is never overwhelmed by the world’s rampant selfishness, violence, and despair. In following Jesus, we create communities who embody Jesus’ own commitment to feeding and clothing the poor, praying with the sick, weeping with those who grieve, speaking up for those who’ve been told that their lives don’t matter, and to worshiping God and God alone, the one who makes all things new. God makes all things new not, as nations have tried to no avail to do, by coercive force, but by the love that God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – has poured out for us. God’s love makes us one community, one body, and sends us out to live as a blessing in and for all Creation.
Suffering that is endured with love produces within us, individually and collectively, the character of love. And love always lives in hope. I would define hope as the active and determined commitment to love.
We are merely witnesses to that love. So even when we feel defeated and hopeless, love, as Paul tells the Corinthians, abides. Love remains. Love cannot be defeated, because God is love.
Genesis 11 marks the end of what biblical scholars call the “pre-history.” It includes the two versions of creation, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden, the flood, and God’s covenant with Noah. In Genesis 10, we hear of the global dispersion Noah’s sons – Japheth, Ham, and Shem. The purpose of that chapter is to affirm the diversity of families, languages, and nations of the world. The last verse of Genesis 10 reads, “These are the families of Noah’s sons, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.” (Gen. 10:32)
After all that, Genesis 11 reads like a random cut-and-paste in some frat-boy’s unedited term paper that he threw together the night before it was due. Listen for God’s Word.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (NRSV)
In the space between Genesis 10 and Genesis 11, we jump from humankind expanding to the entire known world, speaking all sorts of languages, and occupying all sorts of nations, to everyone clustered in one place speaking “one language [with all] the same words.” At the end of the pre-history, the nations destroy their uniquenesses. They build a city and begin constructing a tower that will reach to the heavens.
Come on,they say, let’s make a name for ourselves!
This makes the anthropomorphic God of the pre-historic tradition start wringing his hands. He turns to whomever it is that this human-imaged God has around him, and whose help he apparently needs at the moment, and says Oh no, if the people keep this up, they’ll be so powerful and proud, we won’t be able stand them. We have to stop this! Come on, let’s go stir things up and confuse them.
Why does God feel like all this cooperation is such a bad thing? Well, like Adam and Eve, they’re committing the most common of all sins: They’re trying to become God. And they’re going at it the way most nations and institutions inevitably do. Looking, sounding, and acting pretty much the same, they interpret homogeneity as an entitlement to stockpile power and pride. Then, as most powerful and proud human communities and institutions do, they fall into a pathological certainty that they have earned and own some kind of divine favor. So their power becomes increasingly violent and their mind- and heart-numbing pride reaches ever higher.
The building of the mythic tower of Babel stands as an unforgettable metaphor for humankind’s fear of and resistance to the God-willed beauty, and now the God-protected permanence of diversity in the Creation. In his commentary on Genesis, Walter Brueggemann writes, “the fear of scattering expressed in [Genesis 11] is resistance to God’s purpose for creation. The peoples do not wish to spread abroad but want to stay in their own safe mode of homogeneity. The tower and city are attempts at self-serving unity which resists God’s” purposeful scattering of humankind.1
Brueggemann then defines the unity to which God calls us in biblical texts. “The unity willed by God is that all of humankind shall be in covenant with [God]…The scattering God wills is that life should be peopled everywhere by [God’s] regents, who are attentive to all parts of creation, working in [God’s] image to enhance the whole creation.”2
For Brueggemann, the unity of the people at work on the tower of Babel reveals their fear and idolatry. Any time human beings work that hard to build monuments of self-exaltation, or monuments of exclusion of the other, we’re building doomed towers of Babel. We’re worshiping ourselves rather than God. We’re trying to impose and protect an artificial order of control and conformity. While nations often operate that way, the Church cannot – not without working against God. To be the Church means choosing to live in a new order of things, an order based on God’s people-scattering, speech-tangling, Creation-affirming unity. And that new order is evidenced and driven by something entirely different from monuments, wealth, and worldly power.
Today is Pentecost Sunday. And the usual text for this day is Acts 2, the coming of the Holy Spirit among the disciples in Jerusalem. In that story we find some interesting similarities to the story of the tower of Babel. For starters, all the followers of Jesus, like the people of Babel, are “in one place.” (Acts 2:1b) On top of that, Jerusalem is full of “devout Jews from every nation under heaven.” (2:5) They’ve gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost, the Festival of Weeks, the yearly celebration of wheat harvest. And in Jerusalem, they hear the followers of Jesus, all of them Galilean Jews, speaking of and praising him in a multitude of languages. Acts names fifteen separate nationalities who hear the gospel in their own tongues.
Luke is making the same point that the ancient writers of Genesis make: God is the God of all humankind. All peoples, all nations, all cultures, all languages, and every skin hue imaginable belong to and are beloved by God. God doesn’t merely “tolerate” the diversity of the earth. Having created it, God is in love with it.
Today, the word Pentecostal is associated with a particular style of worship that feels alien and uncomfortable to many “decent and orderly” Presbyterians. And I confess to being one of them, bless my heart. But Pentecostal is a word, indeed a language from which we dare not stray too far. A Pentecostal community intentionally opens itself to the Holy Spirit’s unifying call to scatter into the world with words of mercy and deeds of justice. To be truly Pentecostal is to trust that, come what may, God surrounds and pervades the violent and suffering messiness around us, planting seeds of redemption and harvesting joy.
To celebrate Pentecost as Christians is to celebrate far more than “what God has done for us.” That phrase has been corrupted by the prosperity gospel to mean anything that makes our lives easier, even when our ease comes at the expense of some other person or part of Creation. To celebrate Pentecost is to follow Jesus in declaring with our whole lives – with our political, economic, social, vocational, and recreational choices – what God is doing, in and through us, now, in the power of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of all Creation.
Feeding people at the JAMA food pantry and Loaves and Fishes are Pentecostal acts.
Tending to homeless families at Family Promise is a Pentecostal act.
Working for social and economic justice is a Pentecostal act.
Calling ourselves and others to live in ways that allow the earth and climate to heal is a Pentecostal act.
Whatever we do to love ourselves, our neighbors, and our enemies is always a Pentecostal act.
As a community created by Pentecost, the Church’s purpose is not to build monuments – towers, steeples, walls, and elaborate, sacrosanct doctrines – but to scatter into an idolatrous, wagon-circling world to embody God’s transforming presence, and to give voice to God’s grace.
As we enter the world around us with the heart and mind of Christ, we discover the true unity being offered to us through the only lasting power at work in the world: The power of God’s Holy Spirit.
1Walter Brueggeman, Genesis, in the series Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1982. p. 99.
Before we read the text from Acts 11, let’s look back one chapter. In Acts 10, Peter climbs up on a rooftop to pray, and he has a vision. He sees a sheet lowered from heaven, and it’s full of animals that the Hebrew scriptures explicitly label unclean. A voice says, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.” Faithful to his Jewish heritage, Peter interprets the vision as a temptation, not an invitation, so he refuses. This happens two more times, and each time ends with the same pronouncement: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter soon learns that he received this vision as preparation to receive Cornelius, an uncircumcised Gentile, as a full member of the Church. And during Peter’s and Cornelius’ first meeting, the Holy Spirit descends on Cornelius and his family, and they begin praising God.
Peter and the small group of circumcised brothers who are with him are thunderstruck. Having been taught – as a matter of identity and security – to separate themselves from Gentiles, they never expected to welcome such people into the family of faith. But neither could they deny what they were seeing and hearing.
In what was, at the time, an unthinkably radical move, Peter, without hesitation, says to his colleagues, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)
With that story in mind, let’s read Acts 11.
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.
11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’
15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (NRSV)
Did any of that sound familiar? In back-to-back chapters, Luke tells the exact same story. In chapter 10, Luke narrates Peter’s story as it happens. In chapter 11, Peter retells his story to the church council, the circumcised believersin Jerusalem.
There are at least a couple of things in play here. For one, biblical literature often uses repetition as a means to emphasize the theological significance of a teaching or an event.1Luke is making it clear that Peter’s vision of a welcoming and inclusive church is essential to a faithful and a spiritually healthy understanding of God.
The ancient kosher laws did important work. They helped to set the Hebrews apart as a kind of anomaly – a monotheistic culture in a polytheistic world. And Israel’s God got deeply involved in all aspects of Hebrew life – so much so that people were told what kind of animals they could and couldn’t eat, what kind of animals they could and couldn’t use in sacrifices, what kind of fabrics they could and couldn’t wear, and, of course, what kind of people they could and couldn’t welcome and associate with.
While the ancient Hebrews lived as an anomaly, there’s a foreshadowing anomaly in the law, as well. In the midst of all those restrictive laws, that included casting suspicion over all non-Hebrews, God gives specific instruction on dealing with “aliens,” people who cross territorial borders and enter Israelite domain. “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 19:33-34) Scripture repeatedly bears witness to God’s expectation that the faith community show hospitality to people from other lands and cultures.
Peter and his fellowcircumcised believerslive in the midst of a growing tension between the laws that set them apart as Jews, and the call to welcome everyone. That tension is growing because the life and teachings of Jesus have made clear that whatever can be achieved through hospitality takes precedent over whatever might be gained by protectionism. One major difference between true and false religion is that true religion offers compassion to those who get labeled otherand treated with suspicion and contempt. False religion tries only to keep itself safe. This lesson had to be learned through repetition – thus the repeated stories of the Pharisees learning it, the disciples learning it, Saul learning it, Ananias learning it, Peter learning it, the circumcised believerslearning it. And now, their stories are teaching us.
That brings us to the second thing in play. As we acknowledged, in chapter 11, Peter tells his personal story, his testimony, to the church council. He shares with his colleagues a transforming experience that called him to break with the legalistic practices of their tradition and accept uncircumcised Gentiles as brothers and sisters in Christ. “Who was I that I could hinder God?” he says. By implication, he’s saying to the entire faith community – then and now – Who are we that we can hinder God?Peter unambiguously summons others to follow him in opening wide the doors of the church – as wide as the arms of Jesus were opened on the cross.
Those who oppose Peter have plenty of scripture to back up arguments against his reformist policy. But Peter doesn’t argue some new doctrine. He tells them a story. Just like Jesus did. Repeatedly. He shares a purely subjective experience as a way to explain his actions and to call his brothers and sisters to a resurrection posture toward the creation.
One commentator on this passage says, “Stories, not arguments, change lives…Generally,” he says, “arguments [and debates] tend only to crystalize differences…to keep two sides apart…[creating] winners and losers.”2Isn’t that the way so much of our culture is dealing with differences now – one “side” trying to beat down people on the other “side,” and not only with arguments but with insults? Stories work differently. They have the power to move us toward rather than away from each other.
I really struggled at this juncture in the sermon. What direction should I take? What kind of illustration would work the best? But there’s just too much going on: immigration, race, climate change, abortion, gun violence, hunger, defense spending. You name it, and our culture is saturated with opponents warring with each other in win-or-lose battles. And on the whole, it seems that most of us are weary of all the reminders about all the things that cause friction and division. So, in spite of the fact that today’s text invites an illustration of the power of storytelling, I’m simply going to challenge us, once again, to listen more carefully and compassionately to each other.
I will say this: the issues – immigration, race, climate change, abortion, gun violence, hunger, defense spending – may be classified as political because elected officials create policies about such things, but for followers of Jesus, they are, at heart, theological/spiritual issues. How we interact with each other as human beings, and how we grapple with our differences as we interact, has everything to do with how we understand God and how we embody Jesus.
Telling our stories honestly, and listening respectfully to others tell theirs, lays the foundation for all the conversations and decisions that follow. Wherever you think you stand on whatever spectrum, if you speak and listen in love, you will be opened further than you expected – maybe further than you wanted. You may or may not change your mind on an issue, but you will have a new perspective. Whatever the case, through that process, you will find yourself closer to God because you will find yourself closer to your neighbor.
1Robert W. Wall in his article Exegetical Perspectivein Feasting on the Word, Year C/Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009. P. 451.
2Ibid. But from Stephen D. Jones’ article Homiletical Perspective. P. 453.
22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter,23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.
24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.30The Father and I are one.”(NRSV)
“On Christ the solid rock I stand.” So goes the old hymn.
If only it were that easy.
Has trying to affirm not just the love, power, and justice of God, but the very existence of any kind of Creator ever felt like standing on thin ice? For those of us who have felt that way, maybe it’s because we want from faith in God things that neither faith nor God offer. Then again, maybe the deeper troubles come if we never struggle with faith.
The men who approach Jesus in the temple during the Feast of Dedication are devoted Jewish leaders. They know the Torah backward and forward. They practice and teach their faith. They do look for the Messiah, but do they really hope that Jesus is the Messiah? Or do they want to silence another messianic wannabe? Posers were a dime-a-dozen in that oppressed culture. Whatever the case, the one for whom they wait stands in their midst, and they fail to recognize him. Maybe it’s because they expect only what they want and want only what they expect.
Demanding certainty, these institutional leaders approach Jesus and say, in effect, If you want us to believe that you’re the Messiah, make us believe.
And Jesus says, To this point, I’ve done all I can to show you. But you still don’t believe because you don’t really know what you’re looking or listening for.
Regardless of faith tradition, religious leaders who connect more with institutions and narrowly-focused doctrine than the wonder of the Spirit tend to suffer from a blinding and deafening lack of awareness and imagination. They want faith to be a science, but faith is an art.
Faith sees beauty in the midst of the world’s brutality and decay.
Faith hears the still small voice of God in the midst of life’s uproar and chaos.
Faith hopes in the midst of despair.
Faith trusts what doesn’t even appear to be believable because faith interprets particular human experiences as dynamic relationship with something that defies proof.
As an art, faith is always open and creative, always in motion, always becoming. Faith makes us artists-in-residence in our communities, participants in God’s ongoing creation and re-creation of the world.
When asked about her faith and her work, Mother Teresa once said, “I am a just a pencil in the hand of God.” And when reading the poetry of her life, we hear the Shepherd’s voice. We see his presence – and all this in a woman who struggled constantly with moments when her faith faltered on thin ice.
One of the compelling things about art is that the more we practice a craft, the more we begin to see new things in our own work. And through faith, we can recognize a greater hand at work in our own hands, a bigger heart beating in our own hearts. Had Mother Teresa not poured herself into her work day after day, she might have completely lost connection with God. Perhaps it’s fair to say that her work savedher, and not by earning God’s favor. By remaining in relationship with those in need at her doorstep, she remained in relationship, even if tentatively so, with the one who often seemed so far away.
Jesus understood and taught that same artful awareness. Embracing his oneness with the Father, he recognized and declared that his work was the Father’s work. Being of one creative mind, they fashioned new possibility and new direction in the Creation. Openness to Jesus’ art allowed Zacchaeus to discover gratitude and generosity, and Saul to discover wholeness and vocation, like Michelangelo discovering David in a chunk of marble. But when the critics asked the artist to explain his work, Jesus said, Well, step back and look at it for yourselves. What do you see? What does my work say to you?
Even now, Jesus invites us to decide for ourselves what we see, because naming what we see in him is part of discovering and practicing our own holy art and enjoying the blessings of our practice.
The Monday night book group just finished reading A New Harmonyby John Philip Newell. At the very end of the last chapter Newell talks about the transforming power of finding the object or objects of our love. To discover those people, places, circumstances, or visions for which we are willing to pour ourselves out in love is to experience salvation.1Using Nelson Mandela as an example, Newell says that “many will say that Nelson Mandela saved South Africa. But…Mandela would be the first to say that South Africa saved him. In the people of South Africa he found the object of his love, and in giving himself for them he found his true stature of soul.”2
Though a lifelong member of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, Mandela’s faith was never as conspicuous as that of, say, his colleague Desmond Tutu. Nonetheless, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help heal a nation torn apart by decades of racially-motivated abuse under apartheid rule.3As such, that commission was a thoroughly Spirit-inspired, faith-based, creative effort to bring peace and wholeness to individuals, communities, and an entire nation. And as its leaders, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and others placed themselves in positions of deep humility under the guidance of God’s infinitely resilient love.
As always, love is the key. Love is the multi-tool of grace. Love is like a brush to the painter, a pen to the writer, clay to the potter, an instrument to the musician, empathy to the actor, and an oven to the cook. Being one with the Father, Jesus shared God’s absolute love for all Creation. And he poured himself out, unstoppably, “even [unto] death,” (Phil. 2:8) to declare his love for all people and all things.
When we find and name the object of our love, and offer our love for the well-being of the Creation, through means consistent with the example of Jesus, we creatively engage our oneness with Christ. And Jesus’ voice speaks through us, just as we have heard and seen it through the self-giving love of others.
“If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
My life is as plain as it gets, says Jesus. Watch and listen.
If you experience faith as thin ice, seek the object of your love. Seek someone or something to which to give yourself, some reason to pour yourself out in compassionate, non-violent love, and watch what happens. Thatis your art. Draw it. Write it. Build it. Plant it. Grow it. Sculpt it. Knead it. Bake it. Knit it. Dance it. Sew it. Sing it. Organize it.
Philip Newell uses the phrase “abandon ourselves to love.”4To “abandon ourselves to love” is to discover our true and deepest voice, the voice which is an echo of the voice of God. To love is to know oneness with God – and thus to know salvation.
When we share ourselves in agape love, everyone and everything wins.
1A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul, John Philip Newell. Jossey-Bass, 2011. Pp. 168
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and 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.
3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul 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. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.”
He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
11The 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, 12and 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.”
13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”
15But 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; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
17So 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.” 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength. (NRSV)
In a Washington Post article on the April 28 shooting at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue, the writer opens with these two sentences: “Before he allegedly walked into a synagogue in Poway, Calif., and opened fire, John Earnest appears to have written a seven-page letter spelling out his core beliefs: that Jewish people, guilty in his view of faults ranging from killing Jesus to controlling the media, deserved to die. That his intention to kill Jews would glorify God.”1
In his diatribe, Mr. Earnest “also spoke of biblical justification and of Christian belief throughout the document.”2
John Earnest, a 19-year-old, active Presbyterian, son of an elder, heard and internalized something in his spiritual upbringing that convinced him that his religion authorized him to single out members of another religion and persecute them. It’s no real consolation to me that Mr. Earnest is not a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) but of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, an evangelical denomination founded in 1936 in reaction to what they call “the infiltration of theological liberalism”3in the PC(USA).
I appreciate John Earnest’s pastor, the Rev. Mika Edmonson, stepping up and taking some ownership. “We can’t pretend as though we didn’t have some responsibility for him,” he says. “[H]e was radicalized into white nationalism from within the very midst of our church.”4
How does that even happen? What made Saul, who read the exact same scriptures that Jesus read, and John Earnest, who read the exact same scriptures that people like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. read, decide to persecute people as an act of devotion to God?
Why do we do the things we do? What motivates us to make decisions and take actions?
When feeling anxious and offended by Jesus, the chief priests, scribes, and elders challenged the charismatic rabbi by saying, “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things?” (Luke 20:2)
It’s a question of authority, isn’t it?
Saul seeks his authority from the religious hierarchy. He asks for written permission to track down and torment Jesus-followers. When he has the authority from his “superiors,” he hunts, tortures, and kills efficiently. John Earnest followed a similar, but much more dangerous authority. And as with Saul, it was an authority not entirely of his own making. Somewhere in the Christian teaching he received, he detected a mandate, an inner, biblically-justified authority to take a gun into a place of worship and kill people who were different from him. According to the Rev. Duke Kwon, a Presbyterian Church in America pastor in Washington, D.C., Earnest’s activating precepts included “a frighteningly clear articulation of Christian theology…He has, in some ways, been well taught in the church.”5
I have to say something for the record: Whether directed toward people of different skin colors, nationalities, religious traditions (or lack thereof), genders, sexual orientations, political parties, or anything else, hate-based actions, and hate itself, are categorically antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And while white nationalism is hardly the only source of hate violence in our nation, it’s one of the deadliest right now, and it all-too-often associates itself with the Christian faith – albeit some hideous perversion of it.
Hate causes a moral blindness which presents as a subjective authority for people to intimidate minorities, or shoot worshipers, or drive vehicles into crowds. As such, white nationalism is not only an offense against God, it’s incompatible with our basic American principles. It is a scourge on our land, and not to speak out against bigotry, hate, and the violence they inspire is to be complicit in the slaughter. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called – we’re authorized – to speak love through solidarity with those who are being singled out for persecution, whoever they are. Arrogance, hate, fear, and violence simply have no place in a community which calls itself Christian.
So, what do we do with those who are hateful and violent?
That’s the really, really hard part. While the voice of white nationalism has absolutely no place in a Christian community, all people – including white nationalists – do. Those who are inclined toward fear and hate need to hear a message that encourages love, humility, compassion, forgiveness, and welcome.
Ananias responds quickly to God’s voice. “Here I am, Lord,” he says. His response stands in stark contrast to Saul’s oblivious question, “Who are you, Lord?”
And God tells Ananias to go find “a man of Tarsus named Saul.” He’s praying right now. He’s blind. I’ve told him you’re coming. Go lay your hands on him and help him see, again.
Ananias wants nothing to do with Saul. Lord, I know who he is and what he’s done. He’s a walking hate crime! And powerful people have given him the authority to do whatever he wants to people like me!
God says in effect, That’s not your concern. Just go.
Under the authority of God, the authority of redeeming grace, Ananias goes to the house, and the first two words he speaks to the man who has so much in common with John Earnest of Poway, CA are, “Brother Saul.” And so, Saul begins a life-long process of restoration.
This story is most often referred to asThe Conversion of Saul, but it’s also a conversion for Ananias. Ananias has to swallow the great porcupine of fear, and a hedgehog chaser of pride. God calls Ananias to demonstrate to Saul a measure of mercy that is so frequently foreign to fundamentalism.
Ananias’ conversion bears witness to the demanding and yet foundational authority of our faith: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” says Jesus. (Luke 6:32) “I say…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
As angry and reactive as hate violence can make us, when we truly follow Jesus, when we focus on him as a way to see through his eyes, we will live kingdom of God lives even in the midst of the world’s chaos. Yes, we must speak out loudly against every form of hatred and brutality, and the apathy that allows them to continue. We must stand visibly with the poor, the hungry, the grieving, and the persecuted. At the same time, Jesus calls us to live with the humble and vulnerable trust of Ananias who welcomed not only the outcast but the powerful, dangerous sinner, as well. The conversion that matters is not necessarily to any particular doctrine, but to the transforming and unifying reality of love – which is the very heart of God beating at the very heart of creation.
There’s no easy way to do any of this, but as Easter people, we can trust Jesus, whose teaching authorizes us to share with others exactly what he has given to us: Redeeming grace in a world overwhelmed by selfishness and meanness.