Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Ends of the Earth: A Sermon on Acts 8:26-39, For the Sunday After the Boston Marathon

"The Risen Lord" by He Qi

Scripture can be found here...

Best laid plans.

Sometimes the news of the week kind of picks up the pastor’s idea of what she wanted to preach, and throws it into a blender with all sorts of other realities. What comes out doesn’t really look like the original concept. “Outcast and Stranger,” was my title. I was focusing on the unnamed Ethiopian eunuch, and I wanted to talk about the ways, despite his high status in the royal court, he was “othered,” cast out. Someone who either through a fluke of nature or the flick of a knife had become unable to father children… That is the delicate way I am going to say what I am trying to say. Which meant, according to the Law of Israel, that he was unwelcome in the Temple. Leviticus was clear:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 17Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, 20or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or…   ~ Leviticus 21:16-20

And then there is a description of something, some accident that might befall a male. And that male could never approach God almighty to offer a gift of food in the Temple.

The passage is Leviticus 21:16-20. You can look it up.

I was going to talk about how the prophets responded to this law, talking back, as it were, to this understanding of God—the reading Kevin shared with us from Isaiah—

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” 4For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.   ~ Isaiah 56:3-5

And then I was going to talk about how, through that Isaiah passage, and through this encounter with Philip, good news came to the eunuch, one who had formerly been outcast, a stranger. Welcome had been proclaimed. That’s what I was going to talk about. That was pretty much my sermon, until Friday, the day of the lock-down in the cities and towns around Boston and Cambridge and Watertown, MA. And then I started to think about Philip.

Philip embodied the welcome Isaiah proclaimed. Philip, who was a runner, someone pointed out this week. Our translation says he “ran up to” the chariot; in the Greek is “is running” alongside it. He was a runner. And once I knew that, well. This started turning into a different sermon.

This week’s bombings at the Boston Marathon had the effect of stirring me with memories of the time I lived in that city and the surrounding area, twelve years altogether. For two of those years I lived just a few blocks from the Boylston Street location of the explosions and the carnage. The most dangerous thing that ever happened to me on Boylston Street, right in that same block, was accidentally ingesting Midori liqueur in a chilled melon soup when I was five months pregnant. I took ballet lessons at a pared down studio in Watertown, taught by a wonderful friend who’d been to Russia and was steeped in Russian classical ballet technique.

By which I mean to say, for the past twenty three years, since I left that wonderful city behind for life in a different, and differently wonderful place, I’ve had a particular way of remembering the landmarks and the parks, the restaurants and the theaters, all the things that made up my Boston. Cut over to Boylston for a quick shortcut to Symphony Hall, or the Boston Shakespeare Company? Yes. Explosions and death on Boylston? Please. No.

You may recall that Philip, in addition to being a runner, was one of those disciples chosen to be deacons in last week’s reading. An ‘angel of the Lord’ drew him to this particular spot on a wilderness road. He ran, and then caught up, and then climbed into the chariot with the Ethiopian official, and they read Isaiah together. Here’s our bible’s translation of the Isaiah passage:

Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living…  ~ Isaiah 53:7b-8a

Who is the prophet talking about, the Ethiopian official asked Philip. Is he talking about himself, or someone else? It is hard for me, this morning, to read about lambs led to slaughter without thinking about people cheering on their friends and family at the finish line… a Chinese grad student who had come to Boston University for a fresh start and a degree in statistics; a 29-year-old catering manager from Somerville, described by friends as someone who was always there for them; an 8-year-old boy who was waiting to hug a runner who happened to be his dad.

Do you notice that Philip’s answer is not given in detail? Starting with scripture, we are told, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus. I love that detail of the story, because it reports faithful biblical interpretation within the context of real life. When the prophet known as Isaiah first preached or wrote those words, the people of Israel, God’s people, understood this passage to be about them, collectively. Together, they were, Israel was, God’s suffering servant. Later, Christians read those words and recognized in them truth about Jesus. And through the centuries the people of God have continued to recognize themselves in these words. Christians under siege by the Roman Empire. Jews during the Inquisition and the Holocaust. This is the part of the power of the living, breathing Word of God: we continue to see ourselves and the world around us reflected here in these words, in and out of time.

The Ethiopian official’s response to Philip’s traveling bible study was swift: He, too, saw himself in the story. They were on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, a part of the world in which improvised explosive devices are all too familiar. If you look at a map of this terrain, any body of water must have been tiny… a puddle, a rivulet. But it was enough. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” he exclaims.

The answer is, of course, nothing. Nothing will be able to separate the Ethiopian eunuch, nothing will be able to separate you, nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And that good news, the welcome of Jesus, is extended to this once-outcast child of God. The good news continues on its travels ‘to the ends of the earth.’

Those of you who just can’t stop reading a good story might have continued on past our stopping point of verse 39. If you did, you would have encountered that description of Saul, “breathing threats and murder” against the Jesus-followers. Acts is like that. The life of the early church was like that. Life today is like that. A story of inclusion and welcome side-by-side with one of murder and mayhem. And within a few verses, the murderous Saul is on his knees and being searched and known and loved by Jesus, the One who admonishes us to pray for our enemies.

And so this week, the lectionary gives us Philip, running to catch up with a chariot so that he can follow where the Spirit has led him. And it gives us the Ethiopian eunuch, who might well have seen himself in Isaiah, a kind of suffering servant, despite his position and status. And if our curiosity, or our hope for a word from God in these dark days, or simply the name “Saul” causes us to read on, we are met by someone who is murderous at the outset, but afterwards, a fervent messenger for the gospel he formerly tried to eliminate.

What are we to take away? How does this story make sense for us this week? Where is the good news?

The good news is that Jesus’ love continues to be carried to the ends of the earth by people like Philip, snatched from the Meals on Wheels rotation by an angel and sent to bring the outcast into the fold.

The good news is that Jesus’ love is carried forward by people like the Ethiopian court official, who, after his baptism, goes on his way rejoicing.

The good news is that Jesus’ love is even carried by people like Saul, later Paul, who begins by breathing threats and murder, and ends by promising that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.

The good news is that, even in a week like this, a week so filled with fear, and anger, and calls for retribution, the love of God in a suffering servant finds expression in an eight-year-old boy, in Martin Richard, whose enduring image is a photograph in which he is holding a handmade sign in response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. The sign reads: “No more hurting people. Peace.”

In fact, that’s really all I wanted to say today. Let Martin preach the sermon. Take his message home. It’s the one we need.

No more hurting people. Peace.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Friday Five: A Healing Space

Thank you thank you thank you to RevGal Deb for the prompts for today's Friday Five.

I am an enthusiastic newspaper reader. Lately, however, world events have made it hard to read and process the pain in the world around me. Perhaps you have struggled with this, too.

So, with the events of the violence and tragedy from the Boston Marathon fresh in our memories, I thought it would be good for us to focus on where as RevGalBlogPals, we find healing, peace and strengthening. As a chaplain, there are days where I never seem to catch my breath, and invariably, those are the days that I need it the most! So with all this in mind, share with us these healing things

1. A piece of music
There are so many pieces of music I could name: the Brahms Intermezzo Op.118 #2; the Bach Air "for the G-String" (no snickering please); "By Way of Sorrow" by Julie Miller, the Cry Cry Cry version; the Girlyman version of "My Sweet Lord" by George Harrison. But I will share a song that never fails to slow my pulse, and steady my breathing, and fill me again with hope: Ani DiFranco's "Everest."

2. A place

If you know me, you will have heard me say this many times: the ocean. I grew up at the beach. It comprises my spiritual geography. It is the place where I learned things about God: Its immensity, its endlessness, the way it is powerful yet comforting; the way it throws me around and yet holds me tenderly; the way it chills and/ or refreshes; its sound, in any weather... still lapping sounds, powerful windswept sounds. The ocean is my healing place.

3. A favorite food (they call it "comfort food" for a reason)

Oh so complicated. I take "comfort" from certain foods that remind me of childhood, I supposed. My mother's recipe for spaghetti and meatballs! Chocolate chip cookies. But today, truly, I am taking comfort in having had a healthy breakfast that makes me feel good and gives me energy for the tasks and joys of the day.

4. A recreational pastime (that you watch or participate in)

Of late I have been watching an awful lot of TV. "Castle" falls in the category of "visual comfort food" for me: a good (often silly) story,  interspersed with interesting arcs for the main characters. But I am really looking forward to getting back to the pool. Swimming in the morning gives me such a profound feeling of  being centered, alive, and ready.

No pictures of me in the pool. :-) Here are Castle and Beckett. They're like family now.

5. A poem, Scripture passage or other literature that speaks to comfort you.

Those who know me well are sick of this  story. I was in seminary, in New York City, on 9/11, though far, far uptown and thus out of the immediate danger that took so many lives at ground zero. I was also participating in Clinical Pastoral Education, a 400-hour program as a chaplain at Beth Israel Hospital (the branch that has since closed, in Yorktown, right near Gracey Mansion). As I took the train and the buses I would pray Daily Prayer from the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, and on Wednesday September 12, the psalm for the morning was Psalm 46. It made my hair stand on end, it felt so powerfully like God reaching to humanity in that devastating moment with words of solace and promise. I prayed that psalm along with the Kaddish for the dead, for a year.

If you decide to pray it, notice the  "Selah's". Modern scholars aren't a hundred percent sure what "selah" means exactly. It might be a musical instruction,  since all psalms were written to be sung. It might mean, "stop, listen." I recommend taking it as a sigh, a moment to breathe. Breathe in the reassuring, loving presence of God for you. Breathe out God's love for the whole world. The Whole World.

1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
11The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
BONUS: People, animals, friends, family - share a picture of one or many of these who warm your heart.

There she is. You can see her arm, as well as her spinach croissant.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Witness: Sermon on Acts 6:1-8:1

Phoebe, Deacon and Patron of the church, praised by Paul in Romans 16:1-2

Scripture can be found here....

I feel as if an explanation is in order.

Since September, we have been following the Narrative Lectionary, which has taken us through a kind of “highlights reel” of scripture. We’ve gotten the Notable Characters, the Big Picture, the Big Story, roughly in narrative order—the story of God’s love for us, from creation to the day of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Today, we deviate from that trajectory. Having finished our time in the gospel of Luke, we delve into stories of the fledgling church. But some of you may notice that we have skipped over a pretty Big Event… the story of what has come to be known as the “birthday” of the church, Pentecost. For these next five weeks we will read stories of the early church, and then return to that Big Event on Pentecost Sunday, May 19. And now, without further ado…

Deacons, sit up straight. This is your origins story.

It all started in the church kitchen. Or, maybe, the warehouse. Wherever it was the early church was organizing or preparing or otherwise resourcing its ministry of feeding its most vulnerable members.

And what they were doing was following Jesus’ lead. Jesus fed people… in fact, Jesus very specifically pointed to a meal and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

And feeding people didn’t start with Jesus, though he certainly raised the bar. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with powerful exhortations to the people to care for the most vulnerable members of their community. In biblical times, that meant widows and orphans, because in a society in which women’s status mirrored the status of the man they were primarily attached to—father, husband, brother—a woman without such a man easily fell through the cracks. There was no social safety net, except for the kindness of the community.

And so the community that was the early church reached out. They used their resources to feed the most vulnerable.  And sometimes, they got it wrong.

Today’s passage begins with the note that, “when the disciples were increasing in number,” someone got upset because the food distribution was not working the way it was supposed to. The church was growing. They were welcoming new members. And in the midst of that happy chaos of life and strength and seeds that had been planted coming to flower, someone lost the list, or someone forgot what day they were up for delivering meals, or… something. It seemed to those who were complaining that they were being left out because they were from a different ethic group, the Greek-speaking Jews, as opposed to Jews who spoke Aramaic. Maybe they worried that, as newer members to the community, they were not valued as much as the original “pillars” of the church. And… my guess is that, the older, original members, those who had maybe followed Jesus in Galilee, might have been worrying that the older ways were going to be lost, that there would be changes, compromises, new members bringing new ways of being Jesus-followers.

Probably, everybody was a little right, and a little wrong. Probably, every concern everyone had was legitimate, on some level.

And, knowing that things needed to change, that the growing church needed to figure out ways to do its mission effectively, the elders came up with a plan. Seven, they said to the people who were grumbling in the kitchen, “Select seven good people.” Ok, they said “good men,” at first, but very soon women would join their ranks. “Seven [people] of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task.” And that is what happened. The people who were feeling left out, who were feeling they had been neglected, selected people they knew to be wise and filled with God’s Spirit of love and generosity, and they elected them to be their deacons.

And you may wonder, well, why the need for wisdom? Why the need for the Spirit? Isn’t  this, simply, a food distribution problem?

They needed to be exemplary because, in becoming deacons*, they were becoming witnesses.

The Random House Dictionary defines a witness as “a person who, being present, personally sees or perceives a thing… a person [who] gives evidence.”

A deacon gives witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. Sometimes they do that, as the earliest deacons did, by providing food and resources to the most vulnerable people of the community. Sometimes they give witness by visiting those who, because of age or illness,  can’t be present when the community gathers for worship or fellowship. Sometimes deacons give witness by bringing the Lord’s Supper to those who are sick or homebound. Sometimes they send care packages to those who are far flung, our college and graduate students. Sometimes deacons give witness by simply listening to someone pour their heart out.

Sometimes, deacons give witness by defending their faith. Stephen, an Aramaic-speaking Jew and one of the first deacons, found himself at the center of a group of fellow Jews who were questioning the claims of the Jesus-followers. He was hauled before the council of high priests, to defend his faith. He did, giving witness by means of a fiery sermon… “You stiff-necked people,” he roared, “uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” As someone noted, this is not exactly the kind of message that causes folks to shake hands with the pastor on the way out of church. “Great sermon today!” Shortly after this exchange, Stephen gave his final witness, with his life. Guess what the Greek word for “witness” might be? It’s martyr.  Stephen was not only the first deacon. Stephen was also the first martyr.

Deacons, this is your origins story. And if some of you are shifting in your seats at this point, a little unsure what you’ve got yourself into, well, then I guess you’ve accurately heard this particular story of the early church.

Deacons minister to the sick. And I don’t think I need to persuade anyone that our world is badly in need of healing. The kind of vitriol that led to deadly confrontations between people with different understandings of God in the early church is with us still. In my lifetime, we have witnessed Christians killing Muslims in Bosnia, Jews and Muslims and Christians all in deadly confrontations in the Middle East, violence against Hindus, Muslims and Christians in India. Oh, and Christians killing Christians in Northern Ireland. I’m sure there are more.

It’s enough to make one wonder, really, whether there is any hope. Enough, that is, until we remember another witness. Read chapter 7 of the Acts of the Apostles, and the first verse of chapter 8, and you will see him there, a young man watching the coats of those who are stoning Stephen. His name is Saul. “Saul approved,” the scriptures tell us, he approved of this sectarian act of violence. Later in his life, he will become a witness, not against Jesus, but for him, and he will write some of the most beautiful words ever committed to papyrus.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

What kind of witness does the love of God in Jesus Christ need today? How can we heal the kinds of division that lead people to believe their God wants them to harm or even kill? I believe we begin by being witnesses, yes, to the brutality of our age, but also to its beauty, to its kindness, to the kind of love that is patient and kind and never fails. We can be witnesses to that love. We can be like deacons, extending a hand in kindness to the poor, the struggling, the homesick and the homebound, all in the name of this love that has claimed us and will not let us go. Thanks be to God. Amen.

*Corrected from the awesome typo "beacons".