Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Secret of Joy: Sermon on Philippians 1:1-18a

Scripture can be found here...

We have all been there. The horrible office, the hated workplace. The place where, the idea of going there makes you want to cry, crawl back under the covers, run another three miles—anything, ANYTHING but actually aim your car for that particular destination. We call it our daily grind, speak of going back to the salt-mines, roll our eyes, moan, complain, and watch the minutes ticking sloooooowly by. Every day is the longest day.

And isn’t there always one person who, for some inexplicable reason, is able to let it all roll off them? Whose smiling “hello” is the real thing, who seems not to be affected by the misery of everyone around them?

What’s their secret? Coffee? Meditation? That they did run the extra three miles, and are being carried along by endorphins? What’s the secret of joy?

Our reading this morning is taken from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi—and if you were here last week, you heard some tales of his adventures in that city. This letter was written later in Paul’s travels. Paul traveled much of the Roman Empire, sharing the Way of Jesus with all kinds of people, and often, left new faith-communities in his wake. He was a church-planter, and the church in Philippi was his favorite of the seedlings he’d helped to grow. Maybe that’s why the letter to the Philippians is well-known as Paul’s “epistle of joy”—he uses some variation on the words ‘joy’ or ‘rejoice’ sixteen times in these four short chapters. And this is fascinating when we become aware of the particulars of Paul’s daily grind at this point in his life. Paul is in prison, perhaps in Rome, perhaps at the end of his life. Perhaps awaiting his execution.

Professor Michael Joseph Brown describes the conditions Paul was living under:

Prisons or jails in the Roman world were nothing like our modern institutions. Often no more than a glorified pit meant to keep people for a short period of time, ancient prisons forced prisoners to look outside of their place of bondage to get even their simplest needs met. Food is a great example. Without the assistance of those outside of the prison, the jailed would have starved to death.[i]

Paul is under lock and key, in a glorified pit where he is provided with none of the things necessary to stay alive.

And when he writes to the faith community at Philippi, he can hardly contain his joy.

What is his secret? Where exactly does Paul find all that joy?

Paul opens the letter with a typical greeting: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:1-2).

The first thing we notice is that Paul is not alone. Timothy is one of his companions on this stage of his journey, and it appears that Timothy is also in prison with him. And Paul’s view of his and Timothy’s role and identity is clear: they are servants, really slaves, of Jesus Christ.

Paul goes on: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:3-5).

Paul has a companion in sharing in the gospel in prison with him, and he has companions in sharing the gospel back in Philippi. Which brings me to:

Thesis 1: We have joy when we find friends and companions who share our passions and interests.

I had a tough beginning to my college career. I found my chosen major, biology, to be difficult and, frankly, kind of boring; I missed a lot of the important people in my life; and, though I made new friends at first, I had a falling out them and ended up feeling pretty isolated for a while. I will never forget what happened next. I walked down the hallway of my dorm one day, feeling sorry for myself—maybe I was even crying. And a girl whose name I didn’t know looked at me, and said some magical words.

“Would you like some M & M’s?”

I went into her room, and it turns out she was practicing a couple of monologues for an audition. So I listened to her monologues. (She was very good.) And a little while later, some other people came down the hallway and I met her friends. And that is how I found my people. Beginning with that act of kindness, I met people who would become my lifelong friends, and who would change my life in ways I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

I had found my people.

If you have found your people, you are well on your way to finding your joy.

Paul found people—whether they remained in the villages and cities where he planted churches, or traveled along with him—who shared his deepest passion. Paul’s passion was always, first and foremost, sharing the good news of the love of Jesus.

The next thing I notice about Paul in this passage is that he expresses gratitude.

“I thank God every time I remember you,” he says (Phil 1:3).

“It is right for me to think this way about all of you,” he goes on, “because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil. 1:7).

“Grace” is a word we commonly use to describe prayers of thanksgiving before a meal. Grace is something for which we are thankful. But grace, in a very specific sense, is at the heart of almost all Paul’s writings. It is from Paul that we Protestants of the Reformed tradition take one of our central tenets of Christian faith: God creates us, redeems us, and sustains us, not because we are good and worthy, but because God is good and loving. This doctrine is known as salvation by grace. Meaning, salvation is a free gift, unearned. That is what grace means, in a theological sense.

But grace also means something very practical to Paul. He is in prison, where his jailers provide him with absolutely nothing to keep him alive. That means that food and water and clothing and blankets must be provided for him by people outside the prison. That is the work of the faith community in Philippi. Paul the prisoner is helpless and needy—just like a sinner, face-to-face with God. The provisions given by the saints at Philippi provide Paul a vivid experience of grace: free and life-saving gifts.

Paul lives with a constant sense of gratitude for what he has been given. With gratitude comes joy. Which brings us to:

Thesis 2: We have joy when we give thanks, when we cultivate a sense of gratitude.

Each year at the end of May, little flags appear on the tombstones at cemeteries as we remember those who died while serving in the United States armed forces. It is a sobering thing, to be thankful for someone’s death. But that is, in essence, what Memorial Day is. It is a day of gratitude that someone was willing to die for us. Of course, that’s what Easter is as well. Memorial Day has taken on the character of a celebratory day, a day off, a day for cookouts… and truthfully, that is what many of us do when we are grateful to and for someone. We celebrate. There are other ways to show gratitude as well. In his Memorial Day Proclamation, President Barack Obama states,  “…we can honor the fallen by caring for their loved ones and keeping faith with our veterans and their fellow brothers and sisters in arms.” But his strongest words of how to express our gratitude are these:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Memorial Day, May 26, 2014, as a day of prayer for permanent peace, and I designate the hour beginning in each locality at 11:00 a.m. of that day as a time to unite in prayer.[ii]

Gratitude is more than a feeling. It effects a change in behavior. Those of us who are grateful for the sacrifices of others are invited to honor them with our actions as well as our thoughts and feelings—in this case, caring for those who are left behind, caring for those who return from battle, and praying and working for an end to war so that no one will be required to make this kind of sacrifice again. The knowledge that you are living in a way that is a response to your gratitude is a powerful source of joy.

At the end of our passage Paul shares this news:

I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear [Phil 1:12-14].

Paul has learned that his time in prison has caused the gospel to spread even further. The guards know. Everyone knows. Followers of the Way are speaking out boldly, courageously. Paul’s suffering is not completely senseless but seems to have a purpose to it. Which brings us to:

Thesis 3: We have joy when we believe that our life has meaning, that we are where we are supposed to be.

Back to the miserable office, it could be easy to think this means that, in order to be joyful, we all have to be working in fields that are contributing to society in some specifically lofty way. But the beauty is this: human beings are meaning-makers. We get to determine the meaning of our work, our schooling and our retirement. The weirdly joyful person in the terrible office may have joy because she knows she is taking care of her family. The student may have joy knowing that the work he does now will lead to the career he’s dreamed of, or because he plays ultimate Frisbee or quidditch on the weekends. The retiree may be joyful in knowing that they can take life at their own pace now, fast or slow. They may find joy in caring for a spouse or grandchild, reading all they want, or savoring the turning seasons.

I know this to be true: life can be excruciatingly hard. We can find ourselves in different kinds of ‘prisons.’ But we are meaning-makers. If we can’t find meaning in the things that are filling our days, if we can’t find a glimmer of joy there… we get to make other choices. We keep trying. Joy may be elusive. But joy is possible.

Paul the prisoner gives his testimony. He finds joy in companions who share his passion. He finds joy in gratitude. And he finds joy in knowing he is where he is meant to be—even though he is in prison. Paul’s joy is simple. His joy is in sharing Jesus.

This is my hope and prayer for each of us: that we might find our joy. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i]  Michael Joseph Brown, “Commentary on Philippians 1:1-18a,” Working Preacher Narrative Lectionary, May 25, 2014,
[ii] Pres. Barack H. Obama, “Presidential Proclamation-Prayer for Peace, Memorial Day 2014,”

Sunday, May 18, 2014

In Chains: A Monologue of a Slave-Girl, Acts 16:16-34

"The Priestess of Delphi" by John Collier (1891)

16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour. 19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" 31 They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.  ~Acts 16:16-34

Have you ever had a gift—a talent given by the gods, or maybe by God—that came to feel like a curse? Hard to imagine, I know. You have been given the legs and disposition of a runner, the deep breath and powerful lungs of a swimmer or a singer, the brawny back of a power-lifter. All wonderful. Except… when it comes to define you. When it becomes your reason for existence… and you have no control over it. Except when it starts to feel as if your gift has turned you into a thing, an object used by others.

When I was a child, my gift was exciting. It was fun. It was important and helpful, even when it immersed me in sadness. It helped me to understand the world I lived in. It helped me to understand why my mother had become weak and bone thin, and why one day she could not rise from her bed to prepare our breakfast, and why a few days later, she was dead. It helped me to sense when one of my brothers was hurt, or when my father was angry, or, later, when he was paralyzed with grief. My gift when I was a child seemed to be a gift of deep compassion, deep intuition. I could look at someone or touch them, and I knew almost completely how they felt, if they were well or ill.

Later it changed. Instead of gentle intuition, I would be struck with a strange and terrifying sensation. One day as I carried a plate of bread to the table for our midday meal, I told my father the ocean was in my head… there were waves, and tingling, and I couldn’t see properly. I stumbled and fell, hard, on the ground. I heard the plate shatter. Then I could see, but what I saw terrified me. I was in a dark cave, and all around me were men trying to dig things out of the shining walls. And then a terrible, ominous rumble, and the walls started to buckle and fall and I was buried alive. I screamed and screamed, but no one could save me. I awakened hours later—it was dark, but a lamp was lit in my room. My father and my aunt and my grandmother huddled together murmuring as I opened my eyes. I slept again, and in the morning they looked at me even more strangely. Word had come about the collapse in the local mine. Eight men were lost.

It happened again, and again, and each time, my terror grew. My family’s terror grew as well. I started noticing urgent conversations that stopped as soon as I entered the room. Eventually, I came into the house to discover my father serving fresh water and figs to two men I had never seen before. I could see by their clothing they were wealthy… rich cloth and fine embroidery that stood out in our modest home. Finally they rose, and all three turned to look at me.

Immediately I was seized by the waves in my head, so violent they disrupted all thought and vision. And then I saw it as clearly as if someone had painted a fresco. I too was dressed in rich clothing, but I no longer lived in my father’s house. These men, the very men who had been eating figs and drinking water from our well, led me to a village square where they called upon the residents to come, see Calliope, the slave-girl, the diviner, the seer. For only a few silver coins.

It was as if an earthquake had destroyed the ground on which I walked. My parents were not slaves. My father was a day-laborer who occasionally worked the mines. None of their family had been slaves. I had heard of families who had to sell their children, but I had never imagined I would be one of them. Later I learned that my new owners had given him a denarius for me. A year’s wages in return for being relieved of the burden of caring for and raising a girl. Well, even I could understand why he had relented.

And so I entered a whole new world. They called my strange and frightening gift the Pythian spirit, spirit of the Python. It was the same spirit they said was given to the oracle at Delphi. And now it had enslaved me completely. Oddly, as a slave, I was dressed more beautifully than ever before. I wore robes and veils of rich cloth, finely embroidered. Once I came of age, my hair and face were adorned with jewels and powders and kohl to darken my eyes. I had rings of locally mined gold on every finger. Of course, none of these things belonged to me. I was not the cherished daughter of a rich man. I was an investment. My owners dressed me to impress and attract the crowds whom they hoped to relieve of their silver coins by calling upon my gift.

And they had great success. The day they had taken me away, I had vowed in a silent rage never to allow my gift to enrich these men who had stolen my life. I swore I would not cooperate. But my gift was not my own—I learned that quickly. When I was marched into the center of a circle the waves would come, and as each person stepped forward to hold out the few meager coins they had, I would enter into a world where I could see some vital piece of information they were seeking. I told women whether or not their daughters would marry well, and told men the best date to plant their crops. I told a city official who was stealing from the coffers and a merchant who was stealing from his stall. I told a widow that her dead husband had been poisoned, and turned to the crowd, and pointed to the murderer. I watched as the crowd turned on him and he was led away, screaming. And with each correct act of divination my value grew, and the crowds became more and more willing to spend more and more of their money for my services. Money I never saw, except in the form of ever more beautiful robes, and jewels, and veils. I was a beautifully dressed prisoner.

At night I would lie on a pallet in a cold little room in my masters’ home. I would wish myself dead. I would wish my gift destroyed. I was utterly powerless to do anything to rescue myself from my chains. But night after night, as I fell asleep, one image would rise before me: an image of a real prison, and a real earthquake, and chains falling away, and barred doors swinging open. I think that vision is what kept me alive. That pinprick of light in the darkness gave me strength to face the humiliation of my days.

And then one day I saw them… the three Jews, I thought. I learned later that they were called Paul and Silas and Timothy, and I learned, too, that their religious identities were a little more complicated than my original assessment. They stood out in Philippi, with their beards, and in Paul’s case, his distinctive Pharisee’s robes.

And then the waves came into my head and I reeled from the dizziness. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and the vision that came to me was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I saw a beautiful, brilliant light, but it did not hurt my eyes. And I saw a man falling to the ground before another man who bore the marks of crucifixion, but who somehow lived. The crucified-but-alive man had the most complicated facial expression I’d ever seen, I who had always believed myself deeply intuitive and insightful. His was a face at once stern and loving, sorrowful and ecstatic, humble and triumphant. I found myself crying loudly: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” (Acts 16:17).

I confess I didn’t even know what the words meant. I knew that Jews believed there was only one God, and like most Philippians, I thought that was odd. It seemed absurd and primitive. But my vision—the crucified-and-alive man—made me wonder. Was he also a slave of the Most High God?

Day after day, as my masters would take me to the square, we would see Paul and his companions. And day after day my head would swim, and I would see again the face of the crucified-but-alive man.  And I would call out those words I had no control over. When I came back to myself, Paul would be scowling and arguing with my masters, who would laugh as the coins jingled in the pouches they carried. Paul did not frighten them. And at night I saw again the prison and the earthquake and the doors opening… and the crucified-and-alive man was there, too.

Finally, after many days, Paul saw me coming. Well, you know what he did. He whirled around, and he turned upon me, and pointed one long and bony finger at me, and growled, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” (Acts 16:18). There were no ocean waves this time, only pain so extraordinary I fainted. Many hours later, when I awoke, I was in my cold little room, very still under a blanket.

As I lay there I tried very hard to hold onto a dream I’d had. The crucified-and-alive man. Now there was no prison. There was no fallen man, or flash of bright light. There was only that man, and now, he was looking at me.

There are many ways I’d been looked at in my life. I remembered my mother looking at me with tenderness when she’d held me as a small child. I remembered my father looking at me anxiously as my gift had started to reveal itself. I’d been looked at with dread, as a burden to be borne. I’d been looked at with eagerness, as a commodity to be sold. I’d seen fear in the eyes of someone dreading the news I would bring, and gratitude in the eyes of someone who heard what they’d been hoping for. But here, now, for the first time, I felt myself seen whole—every inch of me: body, personality, flaws, assets. The crucified-and-alive man saw it all, and still he looked at me with what I can only describe as love, pure and simple. The crucified-and-alive man saw me, not some thing to be used or sold, and the look in his eyes haunted me and brought me something I had forgotten entirely. It gave me hope.

That night, my owners came and demanded that I present them proof that my gift was still with me. I waited. They waited. For the first time, nothing happened. They began to cajole me, and then to harass me, but nothing happened. They tried arguing with me, and screaming at me, but still… nothing. Then they pushed me, and threatened to have me beaten. I tried to tell them that the gift came and went of its own accord, but they were unaccustomed to what seemed to them a display of stubbornness or shyness. In the end, they had me beaten. As the whip cut through my fine robes and tore my skin, it occurred to me for the first time that my gift might be gone, and gone for good. It occurred to me that the chains that had bound me might, just might, in the gaze of the crucified-and-alive man, be broken.

I had a gift once—a strange kind of gift, one that made me vulnerable to those who wanted to use me for their own purposes. I will tell you a secret. I learned who the crucified-and-alive man was. I learned about Jesus, and the more I knew about him, the more I became convinced that he had removed my gift in its violent, uncontrolled form, and returned it to me in its earlier form, the gift of my childhood. My gift now is the gift of compassion, and, among those of us who are followers of Jesus’ Way, it is greatly valued. Not because I can collect silver coins with it. But because it allows me—it allows us—to see the world, to see other people, through Jesus’ eyes—eyes of love and healing.

I am no longer walked into town squares so that my spirit can be sold. I walk where I choose. I walk the path Jesus has shown me. The church in Philippi, the little community that came into being because of those three men—Paul, Silas, and Timothy—they took up a collection and bought my freedom and took me in. I no longer wear rich robes that are beautifully embroidered. But I am most richly blessed. I am free. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Finding the Way: A Sermon on Acts 9:1-19

 Scripture can be found here...

“The Way.” It’s a phrase we’ve been hearing for a while. We first heard it on the lips of John the Baptist, quoting the prophet Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” [John1:23]. Later Jesus will say, “I am the way” [John14.6]. And now in the Acts of the Apostles, we find that people are persecuting followers of “the Way.” One of those people is Saul.

We meet Saul for the first time at the end of chapter 7, when he looks on as angry religious leaders kill Stephen, one of the first deacons and a brilliant preacher in his own right. Stephen was the first martyr of the church, the first to die as a witness to his faith. And Saul? He is a young man looking on, nodding his head, probably. He approves of the killing. He is an enemy of the Way. We learn that Saul has been devastating, making havoc with Jesus-followers by ‘entering house after house, dragging off both men and women,’ and throwing them in prison [Acts 8:3].

The next time we meet Saul is here, in this passage. What can we say about a young man who is ‘breathing threats and murder’? I am always skeptical of faith-based calls to violence, and so, I wonder: was there an economic downturn in Judea in the year 40 CE or so? Scholars believe there is a direct correlation between economic hardship and the incidence of terrorist suicide attacks in the Middle East. Young men who are trying to find meaning in an economy with an unemployment rate of 25% or higher are fodder for extremist ideologies. I wonder whether there is a connection between our own recent economic downturn and increasingly violent political rhetoric in this country. Or maybe Saul was simply full of zeal for the Lord, a zeal that had him participating in violent acts? I am always skeptical of faith-based calls to violence. I always tend to believe there is something else operating, some other force playing into it.  But we don’t have Saul here to ask, or to submit himself to psychological testing, so we only know what we know: Saul was breathing threats and murder against followers of the Way, and getting the equivalent of search warrants for the synagogues of Damascus. He had every intention of continuing dragging people off to prison.

When we meet Saul he is on the way to Damascus. But God is preparing to show him another Way.

Have you noticed that sometimes God has to do something fairly dramatic to get our attention? That God will occasionally stage a grand intervention, or an interruption of our plans, in order to persuade us to change course? It is hard to imagine a more dramatic interruption than flashes of what seems to be lightning, followed a fall, followed by Jesus speaking directly to you, followed by blindness. God pulls out all the stops to get Saul’s attention. And it is only then, lying on the ground, that Saul is able to hear God’s voice.

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” [Acts 9:4].

And now we are in that strange theological territory in which Jesus reminds us again that what we do to one another, we are really doing to him. “When I was hungry, you gave me food; when I was thirsty, you gave me a drink…each time you did it to the least of these, you did it to me” [Matthew 25:31-46]. Apparently, this holds true for the negatives as well. Persecute Jesus’ people, you persecute him. Harm Jesus’ people, and do harm to him. Breathe threats and murder against Jesus’ people… you get the idea.

Saul truly doesn’t know what is happening to him, or whose voice is addressing him, and so he asks: “Who are you, Lord?” And the reply: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

Saul was on his way to do what he saw as good in the eyes of God, only have the Divine GPS interrupt and re-calculate his route. His traveling companions take him by the hand, and lead him to the city, where spiritually speaking, Saul experiences his own three days in the tomb. The old Saul, the one breathing threats and murder, has died. And the new Saul has yet to be born. He lies there, not eating. Later, we will learn he has been praying. But this is Saul’s in-between time, his neither-here-nor-there time, his tomb-time.

Somewhere else in the city of Damascus, Jesus calls upon a follower of the Way named Ananias. Imagine this conversation:

“Ananias, Jesus here. I have an important job for you.”

“Here I am, Lord.”

“Go to such-and-such a place, and find Saul of Tarsus.”

It’s your classic “good news, bad news” kind of situation. The good news! Ananias is a faithful follower of Jesus, of the Way. And Ananias is ready, willing and able to do as the Lord asks. And Jesus asks Ananias to go to find someone, and lay hands on him, and heal him of his blindness. Which means, God has given Ananias the gift of healing. All, very, very good news.

The bad news: Jesus is sending Ananias to Saul of Tarsus. The Saul who stood by while Stephen was being killed and all but applauded. The Saul who has been throwing Jesus-followers in prison, and has been eager to do more than that. Threat-and-murder-breathing Saul, who, himself, might have been described as bad news. THAT Saul.

This is the equivalent of a Jew being sent to provide care to Hitler or Eichmann in Nazi Germany. This is a death row inmate being sent to heal the executioner. This is the slave being commissioned to heal the brutal master. Or so Ananias believes.

You are Ananias. What do you do?

Well, first, because you hope to live another day to spread the good news of the gospel, you try to talk Jesus out of it.

“You do know who we are talking about, Lord. Right? This Saul who has done all kinds of evil against followers of yours?”

And Jesus replies, “Go. I have work for him to do. He will join you in showing people the Way. And, by the way”—(could this be the part that got Ananias on board?)—“I will show him how much he will suffer for the sake of my name.”

I am going to choose not to be cynical about this, and I’ll tell you, specifically, why. Because in the next moment, Ananias has gone to Saul to lay hands upon him, to restore his vision, and he calls him “Brother.”

“Brother Saul,” he says, “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” [Acts 9:17].

And that is what “the Way” means. It means, God sends us places, to do things, and we say yes, even when it’s hard. In your bulletin is a quote from Luther Seminary Professor Eric Barreto, and I’m going to read it now.

“The Way” is a powerful metaphor for Christian identity. Instead of being identified by a set of beliefs, these faithful communities were known by their character in the world. Christian faith was a way of life and one that impelled individuals and communities to leave the safe confines of home and church to walk on the road God had set out. “The Way” suggests that faith is a living, active way of life.[i]

Many people, in Ananias’ position, would have used this inside information to warn others of Saul’s whereabouts, or worse—perhaps they would have done him harm. But Ananias is a follower of the Way of Jesus Christ. And because of that simple fact, Ananias leaves the safe confines of his home, and goes out to the place he will find his former persecutor, calls that man his “brother,” and reaches out with a gentle touch to heal him. To be a follower of Jesus is to refuse to use violent solutions, even to violent problems. To be a follower of Jesus is to trust when God is leading you to reconciliation, even with someone you have regarded as an enemy. To be a follower of Jesus is to extend welcome to even the ultimate outsiders: those who have meant you harm.

There is an exception to this last mandate: the situation of abuse. God never calls us to submit ourselves to those who make us unsafe in our homes or in our personal relationships. That is not the abundant life promised to us by the gospel. But does God call us to be peacemakers between warring factions, or between warring worldviews? Yes, I believe that is very much what God calls us to do. This is the Way of Jesus.

I am not going to pretend it is not a tall order, following this Way. It is. It is walking the walk.  It is putting your faith in action. It is letting yourself be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Did I mention that the Acts of the Apostles is the story of the early church as pulled along by the Holy Spirit? And the Holy Spirit has one distinct feature in all these stories: the Spirit gets way out in front of people. We think we know what it is to love God, and the Spirit spins us around and shows us new people to love. We think we know who are friends and who are enemies, and the Spirit strips away all the old, familiar categories. We think we know what it is to be a follower of the Way, and even that gets redefined and reconfigured.

And that is the gift that God gives to Saul: the Holy Spirit to open his eyes and help him find his way. Not Saul’s way. Not even Ananias’ way. Not my way or your way, but God’s way.

God seeks him out. God stages a grand intervention, interrupting his plans, and re-routes Saul’s entire life. God sends him a companion and healer for the journey, and gives him work to do that changes the world forever.

And this is still the call of Jesus today. God seeks us out. God stages interventions and interruptions in our plans to re-orient and re-route us. God sends kind messengers to teach us lessons in healing and forgiveness. God gives us work to do, whether that work is teaching, or feeding, or encouraging, or praying, or preaching. God finds us where we are, and fills us with the Holy Spirit, and sets us on our way—God’s way—again. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Eric Barreto, “Commentary on Acts 9:1-6 [7-20], Working Preacher,

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Filling in the Gaps: A Meditation on John 21

You know what it’s like when you haven’t seen someone for a really long time? Or even, a short time, but a time that has been packed with so much experience, or change, or growth, or life that it feels as if an entire lifetime has come and gone? You know that feeling of wanting to reach in to that person’s soul and open it up, and hear all the words you want to hear, but to know that you need to go slowly, that in time they will unpack their experiences, just like they unpacked their luggage? And you just have to trust: There is time. We will get to it all. Do you know that feeling?

This morning we come to the end of our travels in the gospel of John. And we find the friends and followers of Jesus have returned home, following the astounding and heartbreaking and terrifying and surreal events of Holy Week. That week in which they saw Jesus soar to the peak of popularity, and crash to the depths of humiliation and even death, and then, somehow, rise again… and it has all been too much. They’re home now, they’ve gone back to Galilee, and they are trying to find some normalcy by returning to their old occupations and resuming their old habits. Do you know that feeling? Of just wanting to feel normal again?

So, naturally, they have gone fishing.

And into their attempt at normalcy comes Jesus, though, as when he showed up on Easter morning, folks are having some trouble recognizing him at first.

But once he provides them with an enormous catch of fish, followed by a nice grilled-fish and bread breakfast on the beach… they know something’s up.

And they want to ask him things—mostly, “Who are you?”—but they don’t. Because they do know who he is, and it is a week or so after Jesus was crucified, died and buried, and then, somehow, raised from the dead. And what they really want to do is to reach into his soul and open it up, and hear all the words they want to hear. They want Jesus to fill in the enormous gaps in their understanding, to help them make sense of it all. They want to ask him all sorts of things. What would you want to ask?

Were you really dead?

What was it like, being dead?

What did you see?

Where did you go?

Did you see God?

Are you God?

Who are you?

But they don’t ask. Maybe they are overwhelmed by the sheer number of questions they have for Jesus. Maybe they are afraid of Jesus. Maybe they think there’s plenty of time for him to unpack all the stories in the days, months and years to come. Maybe they are right about that.

But then, as they are gathered around a charcoal fire, it is Jesus who asks a question. He asks three questions, but really one question. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” It seems like a very long time ago, but do you remember the last time Simon Peter was huddled around a charcoal fire, and one question was lobbed at him three times, all boiling down to, “Hey, you, do you know that Jesus guy?” And now, following a hard night of fishing, but fresh from a swim, and having been fortified by some breakfast, it’s as if Peter is given the opportunity to unsay the things he said, to undo the thing he did, and he answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

To which Jesus responds, “Feed my sheep.”

So much to say. So many questions to ask. So much to catch up on, to learn, to re-learn in the light of this new and unimaginable reality. And it can’t all possibly be captured in even this last chapter of this extraordinary and strange and beautiful gospel.

Try to tell the story of your once-in-a-lifetime experience, in just a few minutes.

Try to tell the story of life, and death, and life again.

Try to tell the old, old, story, of Jesus and his love.

You can, and you can’t. If all the details were written down, I suspect that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

But there remains a deep longing, in Jesus’ friends, and maybe in Jesus, too, to fill in the gaps. And the way Jesus deals with that is: Come to breakfast. And feed my sheep.

The final gift Jesus leaves his people is the gift of the shared meal. They step off the boat after a hard night of fishing, and he invites them to take their fill. And in the light of their love and devotion to him, he invites them to invite others to share a meal as well. Experience fills in the gaps where words fail. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a tangible, human, bodily experience is worth infinitely more.

Jesus invites us to the meal. He invites us to come, from our days of work or play or rest, from our nights of joy or sorrow or confusion. He invites us to bring our questions.

Who are you?

Am I doing the right thing?

How do you want me to love?

How can I be the person you want me to be?

Will you be with me?


invites us to bring the offerings of our lives and to sit with him at table. He wants to fill in the gaps for us, to answer our questions and question our answers. He wants us to add our own chapters to the story—God’s story and our story. At the end of the story is an invitation to make it our beginning.

Jesus invites us to the meal. Come, he says. Come and eat.

Thanks be to God. Amen.