Grace Presbyterian Church
May 24, 2020, Easter 7A (livestreaming)
The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith; you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
It has finally happened. Scripture and circumstance have come together in such a fashion that I’m able to quote a Tom Petty song lyric in a sermon given in Gainesville.
Waiting is one of those things that is easy to overlook unless you’re in the middle of it. For example, accounts of D-Day focus on the crossing of the English Channel, the fierce battles to hold the beach at Normandy and finally to move inland against ferocious enemy fire. Less often recalled are the weeks and months of planning and preparation and, yes, waiting, for weather to be better, for the Channel to be crossable. Yet without the patience to endure that time of waiting and preparation – had the invasion been launched against an impassable crossing or impenetrable weather, D-Day would have come to naught.
No matter our eagerness, no matter our desperation (or what seems like desperation), no matter what, there are times when we simply must wait.
This is where the followers of Jesus find themselves at the end of today’s reading from the book of Acts. A lot has happened in these few verses, where the author Luke has filled in a few details that he didn’t include in his first account of the Ascension, at the end of his gospel. The disciples ask a question, Jesus brushes it off, offers up the promise of verse 8 that also includes a charge that will change their lives forever (if they haven’t already been so changed), and is lifted up to heaven. Some angels chastise the disciples for staring up into the sky (which seems unfair to me; it’s not every day you see someone lifted up into heaven!), and promises that one day Jesus will return the same way they’ve just seen them depart.
With those words ringing in their ears, the followers make the short trip back into Jerusalem, return to the “room upstairs” where they have been staying (maybe the same “upper room” where they had that last supper where Jesus broke the bread and shared the cup and gave them that new commandment about doing in remembrance of him, but we don’t know for sure), and there they waited.
Waiting for…what? It’s entirely possible they didn’t know what they were waiting for.
Jesus had told them to wait, way back in verse 4. He told them to wait for “the promise of the Father.” In the next verse he tells them that they will be “baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (This is an echo of a promise from the end of he gospel account, Luke 24:47, in which Jesus says that repentance and forgiveness of sin is to be “proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”) A couple of verses down back in Acts, just before he is lifted up, he makes that big promise that “you will receive power…and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And finally there was that angelic promise that Jesus would return one day just the way he had left.
Yet, quite likely if the disciples were honest with themselves, they had no idea what any of those things meant. So, not much to do but follow Jesus’s orders, and wait.
The eleven disciples aren’t alone at this point. Luke observes that “certain women” were joining them, including Jesus’s mother Mary, who hasn’t shown up in Luke’s story since the trip to Jerusalem back in chapter 4 of the gospel, where twelve-year-old Jesus got separated from the family and took up residence as the Temple’s youngest visiting scholar. We can guess that the “certain women” probably included at least the same women who had shown up at certain points in the gospel narrative, such as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, an unknown woman named Joanna, and others who were mentioned in Luke 23-24 as coming to the tomb to prepare his body with spices only to find the tomb empty. Also, Jesus’s brothers are now included in the company.
Biblical scholar Beverly Gaventa makes a wonderful point about verse 14 in its original Greek. The verb for the first part of the sentence actually has a root meaning of “persist”; read this way the first part of the sentence tells us that “these were all persisting together.”
Persisting together. Now that’s an image, made all the more powerful with the addition of the words “to prayer.” Persisting together to prayer.
Prayer’s never a bad idea, of course, but perhaps in a time of “nothing to do but wait” it’s all the more powerful a recourse. I suspect, though, that we’re not talking about any old kind of prayer.
There is the kind of prayer that is familiar from your average church service, even like this one – spoken out loud, directed toward God, with some statement of praise or petition at its core. We speak the Lord’s Prayer together, or there’s an opening Prayer of the Day or a Prayer for Illumination before the scripture is read. In these online services there is a time for prayer that does at least outwardly consist of silence, or at least no words spoken over the music, in which we are all invited to lift up prayers of intercession. Those are all good and needful prayers, and we will continue to pray them in some form or other as long as we gather this way and when we again gather in person.
I suspect, though, that’s not necessarily the prayer this little company of Jesus’s followers was most in need of praying in this waiting time.
About seven and a half years ago the best-selling author Anne Lamont put out a volume on the idea that most prayers can be boiled down to one of three essential prayers, encapsulated in the book’s title: Help Thanks Wow.
That’s not a bad summary of prayer, and one could argue that the Lord’s Prayer actually summarizes all three of those facets. Still, though, I’m going to suggest there’s something slightly different at play in the followers’ persisting together in prayer during this waiting time, and maybe that might need to be a large part of our prayer in our own current waiting time. How’s this for a prayer:
Yes, Anne Lamont could probably argue it’s a kind of “help” prayer, but I think there’s something different at play. It’s not a prayer about getting help with some specific thing. In fact, it isn’t necessarily a prayer where we ask for much of anything at all.
It’s not a prayer about getting back to normal or returning to anything, not about restoring or regaining or re-anything at all. The primary principle of such a prayer is to wait for that promised baptizing with the Holy Spirit (whatever that means), that power (whatever that means), that something wrapped up in Jesus’s words that we don’t understand or grasp in any way but we trust, somehow, that whatever is behind it really is the Lord’s doing.
We wait. We persist together. We pray.
We can’t, if we’re honest, say exactly what we wait for, what we pray for.
But we wait, persist together, pray. And what happens?
To be continued.
[Insert stanzas 1 and 5 of “For God alone my soul does wait“]
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #662, Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies; #282, Come Down, O Love Divine
Grace Presbyterian Church
May 17, 2020, Easter 6A (livestreaming)
You Had Me Until That Resurrection Bit
Paul found himself in Athens as today’s reading begins, and it wasn’t exactly his idea.
First he had been run out of Thessalonica on a rail, then when he and his partners seemed to be making headway in Beroea, some of his opponents in Thessalonica found out and traveled there to stir up opposition and (hopefully) violence against Paul as they had in their own town. The newly-hatched community of believers in Beroea got Paul out of town fast, while his partners Silas and Timothy stayed behind to help get everything back in order. Ultimately Paul was deposited in Athens, more or less with the instruction to sit tight and stay out of trouble. As you can imagine, Paul was not the type who had even the slightest inclination to stay out of trouble.
Athens did have a synagogue, so Paul went there first, according to his usual pattern. His usual pattern of getting in trouble, though, got interrupted when some of the regulars in the marketplace got wind of what he was up to. Athens had what might be called an active public debate scene, and Athenians of various religious or philosophical systems (including some Epicureans and Stoics, as our author notes) jumped into the intellectual fray. Finally it was decided by the locals that this babbler of foreign deities might at least have something different to say, so he was hauled off to the ancient hill of debate known as the Areopagus.
At one time being hauled off to the Areopagus could be a matter of life or death, but by this time that no longer appears to have been the case. At any rate Paul was granted the opportunity to explain himself before the council there, and this speech became one of his most famous, even if it was one of his least typical.
What stands out about this speech is the degree to which Paul adapted his message to the intellectual and philosophical background of his hearers. He begins by acknowledging the plethora of idols offered up by the city, perhaps with tongue somewhat in cheek. By seizing upon one such idol – the one with the unprepossessing label “to an unknown god” – Paul forms a quick connection with his hearers, and from there proceeds through Athenian thought to approach the idea of a god unlike those the Athenians tended to idolize (and here that word really is being used literally). He quotes from their own literature; the phrase “in him we live and move and have our being” is taken from the ancient poet Aratus (although it was requoted many times in their literature), and the following “we too are his offspring” also appears in Greek literature frequently. And if we are the offspring of this god, it makes no sense to think of this god being reducible to wood or stone, does it?
Things seem to be going pretty well so far, with Paul acting out that bit of counsel in today’s reading from 1 Peter about “accounting for the hope that is within you,” but doing it “with gentleness and reverence.” He’s actually been identifying with his audience about as much as possible, and certainly showing respect for their own intellectual and philosophical traditions. Still, there’s only so far you can go in “accounting for the hope that is within you” before you end up having to say something that your interlocutor will disagree with, and Paul is now to that point.
First there is this notion of repentance and judgment, which wasn’t really a part of most belief systems among the Athenians, and probably brought about some grumbling on the part of his audience. But that wasn’t the worst of it, not by a long shot. Who’s going to be the one who carries out this judgment in righteousness? No less than “a man who he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance by raising him from the dead.” This is when the meeting broke up.
Some, as our author tells us, scoffed. Scoffing can take many forms; outright out-loud mockery, or a subtler but more dismissive “pfft” and walking away, or even just an incredulous facial expression. Whatever it was, that element of the audience was gone, intellectually if not physically.
It’s important to understand something here. It isn’t merely the idea of physical resurrection as a thing itself that underscores all the mockery. It isn’t just about the reaction “bodies don’t rise from the dead!“; there is, as would be the case with any good audience steeped in Greek philosophical traditions, an equal if not greater reaction “why would you want a body to rise from the dead?” Greek thought (or at least some corners of it) had no particular problem with the idea of living beyond death, but frankly one of the good parts of such a post-mortem life was being free from the physical body. Disembodied spirit was the ideal.
We should be honest here; we’re not always free of such an idea. After all, what is reflected in a saying like “shuffle off this mortal coil” besides the very idea of being rid of this broken-down old body? And if we’re honest about it, it’s not hard to be sympathetic to the idea. After the various breakings-down my body has experienced in the past decade I can understand wanting to be rid of it, and I’m guessing some of you can too.
Paul goes into more detail on this in some of his epistles, for example when he speaks of how “we will not all die, but we will all be changed” in writing to the Corinthians. But here, the event dissolves over this notion that a large part of the audience just can’t accept. A large part, but not all; some were curious to hear more, and even a few followed, including one of the Areopagus regulars named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris. Sounds like a mixed result, I suppose, but at least they didn’t chase him out of town.
But again, there comes that point when our testimony has to tell the whole story, even the parts that seem wild and fantastical and unbelievable to some of those with whom we share. As we make our way through this most unusual season of Easter, that one thing – the whole God-raised-him-from-the-dead business that so offended some of Paul’s audience at the Acropolis – is still a lightning rod for disagreement, or for disbelief, or even for old-fashioned scoffing. But as Paul put it, again writing to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” It’s hard to make any kind of good news out of a resurrection-less gospel.
And even in this strange and dangerous time, with death a far more immediate companion than we normally acknowledge, our hope is still in the assurance that death did not have the last word for Jesus, and that death will not have the last word on us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #246, Christ is Alive!; #249, Because You Live, O Christ
Grace Presbyterian Church
May 10, 2020, Easter 5A (livestreaming)
What Stephen Remembered
It’s an ugly scene, no doubt. The act of stoning a person to death is perhaps not as gruesome or grotesque as the act of crucifixion that Christ (and countless others across the Roman Empire) suffered. However, a stoning is hard to match for the sheer spectacle of violent, even unhinged rage that tended to motivate it. We’re not talking about easily-handheld rocks being thrown; these are boulders meant to do severe bodily harm. It was a violent spectacle, one of rage; one might think of the lynchings that dotted this country during the civil rights struggle for acts with similar rage behind them.
It’s hard to say exactly what Stephen did to provoke such an ending to his life at the hands of decidedly enraged enemies. We only meet him one chapter earlier, when he is one of seven members of the early Christian community appointed to oversee the distribution of food to the poor and widows of the community; this was done so that the disciples could concentrate on the Word of God and not be distracted by waiting on tables – yes, they really said that. (This “hospitality committee” consisted of all men; you knowhow well that would go today…) Stephen is noted immediately as being “full of the Holy Spirit,” and also as “full of grace and power,” and later as one who “did great wonders and signs among the people“; clearly he wasn’t limited to waiting tables.
This is most of Acts 6. As that chapter continues, a group from a local synagogue assembly apparently took offense at his works, and tried to play theological “gotcha” with him, only to end up thoroughly embarrassed and shamefaced at being unable to withstand his power of argument and command of the Word (apparently he didn’t have any trouble with doing that while waiting on tables). Those wounded snowflakes then ginned up some false witnesses and dragged Stephen before the council, where he let loose with a stem-winder of a sermon that must have made Peter proud, one full of Hebrew history (Moses in particular, since the false witnesses had accused him of disparaging Moses). Stephen was only beginning to connect all of that to the still-recently-crucified Jesus when he was dragged out of town and lynched with stones.
His final words, though, have done as much to seal his place in the church’s history as anything. First there’s the admittedly somewhat inflammatory part about seeing the Son of Man standing at he right hand of God – you can see how his enemies might get more enraged at that suggestion. At the last, he echoes the words of Jesus from Luke 23:34 (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do“) on the cross, asking that this sin not be held against his murderers.
But that middle one is of most interest today. Here it is translated “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Again it’s a lot like something Jesus said on the cross, again from Luke: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). But Jesus’s own words are an echo of a verse from today’s psalm reading.
Notice there in verse 5 of the psalm: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”
The excerpt of the psalm used as today’s lectionary reading doesn’t truly capture the full force of the full psalm. There is plenty of the language of despair throughout it. Verse 10 offers this: “my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.” Or there is this extended lament in verses 11-13:
I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mine like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many – terror all around! – as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
It’s quite a lament, as some of these psalms are, and seems far from relief.
And yet…the very next verse turns: “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, you are my God.” And from there we follow into those two final verses of today’s reading, with their note of trust in God’s provision.
Whether Stephen was consciously echoing Jesus’s words from the cross in his own exclamation, or was directly remembering the psalm on his own, we don’t know. What we do see is that, even knowing that his end was near, Stephen did not despair. His trust remained fast in Jesus, and his remembering these words seems to have been a help, in that moment of final terror, that allowed him to hold on to that trust in the darkest moment.
What is it that allows us to hold on to that trust in dark times? Where is the connection, where is the foothold that helps us to remain firm on that “rock” and “refuge” that is sung in verse 2? What is going to help bring us back in those times when, unlike Stephen, we don’t necessarily seem to be quite “full of the Holy Spirit“? When instead we’re unmistakably full of decidedly less sanguine fears and despairs and hopelessness?
On the other hand, what of the seeming, apparent fact that Stephen being “full of the Holy Spirit” ended up in his being brutally killed? How is that comforting at all? Is that what following that faithfully and devotedly gets us?
It’s hard not to think of Jesus’s own words in Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth: I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
As writer Enuma Okoro puts it in The Christian Century:
In theory, I like the idea of being close to God, intimate to the point of speaking regularly with God—and receiving clear directives. Whenever I was confused about something, I could just ask God and get clarity on the matter. I’d never have to wonder about what my next step should be. God would lead me and guide me and maybe even use me to get an important message across to other people.
It sounds divine! Except that in the Bible, an intimate relationship with God usually sends people’s lives into chaos. It makes them widely unpopular as messengers; it sends them to the margins of society. It also quite often gets them killed.
There’s the challenge: to hold on to the idea that even if this call to serve and to follow and to proclaim ultimately leads us into danger or hardship or marginalization, if it deprives us of the comforts of society to which we have become accustomed, even if all of those things happen we are still God’s own, sisters and brothers with and in Christ Jesus, and as the psalmist says to God, “my times are in your hand.”
Right now, the idea of “serving God” is actually best exemplified (as strange as it seems) by staying home, not risking being the one who brings illness and suffering to another. Who knows what form it will take for any one of us in the future? Yet we already have a place to turn for words that can guide and comfort, yes? Hear Jesus on the cross; hear Stephen at the hands of his killers; hear the cry of the lamenting psalmist, who knows that his times (or hers, who knows?) are in God’s hands.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #463, How Firm a Foundation; #719, Come, Labor On
 Enuma Okoro, “Living By the Word: May 14, Fifth Sunday of Easter,” The Christian Century 11 April 2017 (accessed 9 May 2020), https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/may-14-fifth-sunday-easter?fbclid=IwAR0i0pUWH2FmJ3ahUj3kbXF-DgtvQ0gitGZM1iMwPer-bDMQ98MuACeI65U
Grace Presbyterian Church
May 3, 2020, Easter 4A (livestreaming)
The magazine Newsweek, on April 18, carried a report of a court order issued by a federal judge in Miami, blocking the sale of a so-called “Master Mineral Solution” being touted as a “cure” for the Covid-19 virus. This “solution” apparently consists of sodium chlorite, table salt, and a few other minerals. When combined with an “activator” (sold separately, of course) that consists of hydrochloric acid, the “solution” turns into chlorine dioxide.
Chlorine dioxide is a type of industrial bleach. In other words, that’s stronger than the stuff in your bottle of Clorox at home.
Yes, it’s galling enough that such a hoax is being perpetrated at all; more galling is the fact that the entity behind this hoax calls itself the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing (it’s based in Bradenton). One of the “church” websites offered the claim, both ethically and grammatically flawed, that “this should wipe it out this flu-like virus that many are being scared with its presence in this world.”
It’s not a shock to see a “church” or a “minister” or “evangelist” purport to have a cure that isn’t. There’s a substantial history of exactly that kind of thing, including the disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker – remember him? – who is now peddling a “Silver Solution” as a potential cure for the coronavirus. Again, it’s not new. But it does make me wonder, after time with today’s reading, about how easily swayed by fear so many people are, and how this passage might suggest that we are actually inferior to sheep when we behave that way.
Today’s teaching is actually a small chunk of a much larger story from John’s gospel, following chapter 9’s account of the healing of a man born blind and a controversy stirred up by a group of religious leaders following that healing, one which had ended with the healed man being thrown out of the synagogue after he had wondered why they had so much trouble with Jesus.
In chapter 10, Jesus is trying to teach his disciples in the wake of the incident, warning them against what he calls “thieves and bandits.” Jesus defines those “thieves and bandits” as “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way.” In the real-life setting that informs this metaphor this is sensible enough; anyone looking to steal one of the sheep isn’t going to walk right up to the gate (and presumably right by the shepherd guarding the gate) and expect to be able to get away with it. Such a thief would need to rely on stealth, sneaking in and climbing over hopefully without the shepherd noticing.
How, then, does that translate to our own hearing and doing?
Part of the answer must necessarily be an accurate understanding of just what it means for Jesus to say (as the does twice in this passage) that he is the “gate” for the sheep. (Some translations may use the word “door” here, which is a good literal reading, but context points to “gate” – sheep don’t generally go through doors out in their fold.) Jesus supplies some of that throughout this reading (and its larger story of the healing of the man born blind), which is fairly detailed thanks to his disciples’ frequent habit of hearing Jesus’s teaching and … not getting it. And getting this right hinges very strongly on exactly what definition one uses for the word “saved” in verse 9, and what one understands of verse 10 and its talk of “abundant life.”
The “gate” of a sheepfold in such a time is, as suggested above, a security measure – a means of protecting one’s sheep from those thieves and bandits. This isn’t about the very common usage of “salvation” language in American Christianity in which being “saved” basically translates into having a “get out of Hell free card.” No, here the concept of being “saved” is much more elemental, as demonstrated in the healing of the man born blind; he was “saved” from his seemingly unending vulnerability to actual thieves and robbers, from the hopelessness visited upon the blind in his time and place.
Rather than being snatched away by thieves and predators, the sheep come through the gate – following the voice of their shepherd – and find safety and security, or good green pasture. Again, they can do this with a lot more confidence than we normally attribute to sheep because of that one attribute – they know their shepherd’s voice.
And that’s where it seems to break down for us. We profess to be followers of the Good Shepherd (that comes later in John 10), we recite that 23rd Psalm like a mantra, but we modern American Christians are too often and too easily swayed by the voices of the thieves and bandits, especially those with churchy-sounding titles. We grab for what looks like a quick fix rather than trusting in the God who has our interests at heart for the long haul.
We also have a skewed definition of “abundant life,” one that looks suspiciously like self-gratification more so than true abundance. We have a tunnel vision about that abundant life too – we make the thoroughly un-Christlike presumption that such abundant life is for me and not for us – singular instead of plural. We’re ready to bolt and run from the herd at the slightest provocation. We forget to be “us.” And in even the slightest time of trial, it’s too easy to slip into “I got mine, to heck with you.” You see that a lot right now.
Knowing the Good Shepherd’s voice comes partly of being together in the body (even in social isolation), hearing what Jesus said and what Jesus did and knowing that the voice of the Good Shepherd won’t lead you toward anything that doesn’t look like or sound like that. And that applies to “we,” not just “me.”
The abundant life of verse 10, then, is not something to be ordered online or downloaded in secret. It’s about being in the body of Christ (yes, even in quarantine), being in the sheepfold, following the shepherd to the good pasture and through the real gate. Our prayer, then, really needs to be as much about listening, and learning to know and to follow, the one true voice that calls us to the gate, and calls us to security, and calls us home.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #187, Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us; #541, God Be With You Till We Meet Again
 Asher Stockler, “Federal Judge halts sale of industrial bleach as Covid-19 cure from South Florida church,” Newsweek, 4/18/20 (accessed 5/2/20), https://www.newsweek.com/coronavirus-food-drug-administration-bleach-1498751
 Megan Flynn, “A disgraced televangelist promoted an alleged cure to coronavirus. Missouri is now suing him.” Washington Post, 3/11/20 (accessed 5/2/20), https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/11/jim-bakker-coronavirus-cure/
Grace Presbyterian Church
April 26, 2020, Easter 3A
Cut to the Heart
I don’t know how it is for you, but there are times in reading scripture – whether for sermon preparation or personal study or reflection – when I am basically brought to a halt by a particular use of word or phrase in the passage in question, and my study or reflection ends up getting drawn to that word or phrase.
In today’s reading from Acts, the particular arresting phrase is right there in the second verse we read, 2:37. We have just heard the culmination of Peter’s big speech or sermon on the day of Pentecost, and Luke (our author of Acts) is ready to describe the reaction of the crowd to the speech. In that speech Peter has, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, laid out a defense of the disciples – no, we’re not drunk, it’s only 9:00 a.m. – and pointed to the Spirit as the instigator of this day’s outbreak of speech among many nations and languages. From there, he moved towards a tour of scripture history and an evocation of those passages that he interprets as pointing towards Jesus of Nazareth, a man who had been executed a little less than two months before as we would reckon it, as the God-chosen “Lord and Messiah” as verse 36 puts it, despite his own audience’s religious leaders’ complicity in promoting and provoking that execution.
(Necessary clarification: Peter’s calling out his fellow Jewish folk here, his fellow Temple-worshipers and synagogue-gatherers, remember. There’s entirely too long a history of using this and other such passages as pretext for anti-Jewish hatred and violence. That is not tolerable, not excusable, and extremely not Christ-like or Christ-following in any way. So shut any thought like that down now.)
Let’s get real here; a speech such as this could have just as easily started a riot. You’re gonna blame me for some backwater preacher getting crucified by the Romans? Yeah, I’ll show you…. But that’s not what happens here. Instead, we get a reaction that is translated in our NRSV as saying the hearers were “cut to the heart.” That’s about as striking and (sorry) penetrating an image for a reaction that is emotional, yes, but not just; it also carries the weight of knowing one’s own complicity or guilt as well.
The easy explanation for that response is the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s not as if Peter has suddenly transformed from slightly bumbling and foot-in-mouth-prone disciple to silver-tongued orator in fifty days with no divine intervention. Both in Peter’s speaking and in the hearing of the crowd, the Spirit is moving and being received.
Part of this, it seems, is that this response that comes of being “cut to the heart” is about as direct as a response can be. There’s no bargaining, no “spin,” no trying to explain away or make excuses or plead ignorance or anything else: the response is simply “what should we do?” Seriously, how often do you see that anymore in the world?
Does that even happen anymore in the church? Are we modern Christians capable of being “cut to the heart?” I can’t get away from Thursday evening’s hymn devotion, on the Muscogee Indian hymn “Heleluyan, We Are Singing,” a song born of the experience of forced migration imposed upon the Muscogee and other nations that were removed from the American South to modern-day Oklahoma, with most churches in this country raising no opposition (only one denomination did, and it wasn’t Presbyerian). The frequent use of this scripture and others as pretext for anti-Jewish hatred and violence (referenced earlier) marks another example, as far too many Christian churches, writ large or small, either participated in that hatred with glee or remained silent. (A figure like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, for example, stands out precisely because so much of the German church openly supported the Nazi regime.) One could also look at how little reaction the church as a whole raises to the ongoing ruination of God’s creation, thinking back to last week’s message.
I wonder if part of the secret, if some part of being able to be “cut to the heart,” is found in another striking phrase later in this reading. When Peter and the disciples respond to their hearers with the call to repent and be baptized, the plea ends with this exhortation: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
There is a faint echo of this call in the reading from 1 Peter, when in verse 17 the author exhorts his readers to “live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.” This isn’t the Old Testament; this isn’t the people of Israel and Judah hauled off to Babylon as captives. The “time of your exile” is no less than their current condition of living subject to Christ in a world that clearly does not live in that subjection. It is not to seek to escape from the world, but to know that you live in the world as an alien, a foreigner; to live in such a way that the commonplaces and habits and comforts of the world are as alien and strange to you as the surface of Mars would be. It is to live in the world knowing that the world is not your home, and the world’s ways are not your ways as a follower of Christ.
Only then, it seems, can we truly be open to the Spirit and its propensity to “cut to the heart” in the face of injustice, cruelty, hatred, and numerous other “ways of the world.” Only living as exiles in a land that is not ours, it seems, can the church truly be the church.
It’s a challenge to come to these passages in a time when it seems our most anxious desire is for things to “get back to normal” after the pandemic is done. I don’t know. If “getting back to normal” means no longer respecting or caring about the work of health care workers, supermarket employees, food and farm workers of all kinds and these others whose work is suddenly being called “essential,” maybe getting back to normal is a bad thing. Maybe we shouldn’t be so eager to “get back to normal” if that means looking upon the poor, the homeless, the oppressed as dispensable, not important enough to save in a time of pandemic. Maybe the point is to be exiles in the world for whom that kind of “normal” can never be accepted as normal, and to finally be the Church of Jesus Christ in the face of that heartlessness.
Does the Church have the ability at last to lay aside its history of privilege and to take up the call to live as strangers in a strange land? Can we truly live as though these newly-discovered “essential” members of society really are essential? Can we save ourselves from this corrupt generation? Can we regain at last our capacity to be, truly and deeply, “cut to the heart”?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #415, Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy; #839, Blessed Assurance! Jesus Is Mine
Grace Presbyterian Church
April 19, 2020, Easter 2A (Earth Day Sunday)
New Hope for a Broken Planet
This Wednesday, April 22, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the observance of Earth Day, an occasion set aside for remembering the planet on which we live and more specifically remembering not to do it grievous harm with our pollution and general wastefulness. In 1970 pollution was finally gaining traction as an issue that more than just a few could or needed to be concerned about, and as a result the event gained traction and attention enough, well, to have lasted fifty years now.
However, Monday is also a round-number anniversary, and a less salutary one at that. Ten years ago, on April 20, 2010, an oil-drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast (given the lofty-sounding name “Deepwater Horizon”) exploded and caught fire. The explosion also resulted in a massive oil spill, still to this date the largest environmental disaster in American history, contaminating ocean and coastline not just as far as the Florida Panhandle, but all the way to Tampa Bay. Even today, ten years later, the effects of the spill are still present. A recent study of aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida, just reported this week, found that every sample collected from aquatic life in the Gulf contained some trace of contamination due to oil, contamination likely to have injurious long-term effect on the various species of fish.[i]
One thing, though, about that study: while some of the fish studied, particularly from the north and central Gulf, showed contamination levels clearly attributed to Deepwater Horizon, others were probably contaminated from different causes. One such “hot spot” for contamination was in the area near Tampa Bay, and the oil contamination was found to be not from Deepwater Horizon, but ordinary usage and runoff from land and boat traffic. In other words, ordinary life was contaminating those fish.
How far we are from the call given to the first humans in today’s reading from Genesis. It is a creation story. I know, it’s not the one you expect when you hear “creation story” (it’s hard not to expect “in the beginning…”), but in every way this narrative in Genesis 2 is about creation being, well, created (it does continue beyond verse 19 to include the creation of the woman). It speaks of the heavens and the earth, it lays out the creation of that garden, and tells of how God formed man “from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” It will go on to describe the animals and birds all being created (from the ground, just as the man had been) and all of them being paraded before the man to be named.
But there’s a key verse it’s easy to overlook, and it is verse 15. The NRSV renders the command to the man in the garden as “to till it and keep it.” That’s not bad, and it’s better than a lot of translations. (The King James Version’s “dress it and keep it” are of pretty similar force.) Other translation combinations include “cultivate” and “take care of,” to “dress” and to “keep,” and other combinations of such words that do make sense in speaking of what to do with a garden. None of those, however, catch the full force of the Hebrew words used here. Those words, l’avdah ul’shamrah, would in any other context be best translated “to serve and preserve (it, i.e. the garden).”[ii]
For those conditioned by years of the “have dominion” and “subdue” language typically read in chapter one (and those themselves are at best incomplete renderings of the Hebrew), this most likely comes like a splash of cold water on the face. The earth is not ours to run rampant over or exploit to the hilt, as has far too often been human tendency.
If anything, our call is quite the opposite. To “serve” and to “preserve” is language that strongly suggests that our efforts should be far more directed towards the nurturing and enhancing of creation rather than its exploitation and extraction.
One idea that strongly supports such an understanding is that as our degradation of earth has worsened, it isn’t just the plants and animals that have suffered – humans have too. Even under pandemic conditions for example, coronavirus suffers in highly polluted areas suffer even more – not surprising when the virus affects the lungs so badly. Conversely, as major population areas have been shut down due to the pandemic, those areas have seen, for example, strikingly cleaner air and water conditions show up relatively quickly.
Strange to think of the Apostle Paul pointing to this interconnected quality of humanity and creation, but in Romans 8 you get Paul speaking not only of us humans, but all of creation waiting with eager longing; waiting to be set free from its bondage to “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” We and creation together “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the resurrection of our bodies.” It makes sense when you remember (as we often don’t) that we humans really are a part of creation, and not some separate entity apart from it.
In the time in which the church celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus that makes our lives even worth living, it is past time for us to give care for the creation in which that Resurrection, after all took place; for the creation in which our lives, our hopes, and our futures are inextricably bound; for the creation which we have from the beginning been called to keep, to protect, to care for, to serve and to preserve – and to give thought and prayer to how we might finally live up to that call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Zachary T. Simpson, “USF researchers sampled more than 2000 fish in the Gulf of Mexico. They found oil in every one.” Tampa Bay Times 15 April 2020 (accessed 18 April 2020), https://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/2020/04/15/usf-researchers-sampled-more-than-2000-fish-in-the-gulf-of-mexico-they-found-oil-pollution-in-every-one/?trk_msg=EP8O2UQG3MJK5CU2FBTBS95DB4&trk_contact=MKJ3NR92BNJ26R436KMC00O62G&trk_sid=9O4GRSL9U4ETQ4KA9370O4983G&utm_email=C483D552D4F194793477E5747E&utm_source=The+Buzz&utm_medium=MG2_Newsletter&utm_term=oil+pollution+in+every+one&utm_campaign=times-daily-buzz
[ii] Patricia Tull, “Let’s Discuss Dominion,” Working Preacher, 19 April 2016 (accessed 18 April 2020), https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4606
Grace Presbyterian Church
April 12, 2020, Easter Sunday A
This is the day we celebrate that what happened in the tomb didn’t stay in the tomb, right?
Every gospel’s retelling of the resurrection has its own quirks (remember how Mark barely tells you anything at all, and you never even see or hear the resurrected Jesus?), and Matthew’s definitely has its own distinct features, but there is one thing all four of them have in common: in none of the accounts does anyone actually see the resurrection happen. As Barbara Brown Taylor points out in Learning to Wait in the Dark, there is technically no such thing as a “witness to the resurrection.”
Aside from Mark’s aforementioned gospel, all of the others show us the already-resurrected Jesus, some quite extensively such as Luke’s several encounters seemingly all on the same day, and John’s extensive retelling of Thomas’s particular encounter in Chapter 20 and that breakfast scene on the lakeshore in chapter 21. Matthew’s account is a bit more terse, and appearances of the risen Christ only add up to two – the encounter with the two Marys in today’s reading, and the Galilee appearance to the disciples that culminates in possibly the most famous verses in this gospel, the ones at the very end that constitute what we have come to call the Great Commission – “Go ye therefore and teach all nations…” for those of you who have it memorized still in the King James Version.
The odd thing about Matthew’s account is that even though the two Marys witness quite a spectacle when they arrive at the tomb – an earthquake, a lightning-like angel descending from heaven and rolling back the stone, the guards becoming “like dead men” – all of this spectacle is prelude to the announcement that “he is not here.”
Somehow, Jesus is already gone from a tomb that had (presumably) been sealed before the angel rolled it back, if 27:66 is to be believed. So for all we talk about the resurrection on Easter Sunday, we never see it. We might be witnesses to the resurrected Jesus, but there are, as far as the scripture account goes, no actual witnesses to the resurrection itself. Somehow, before the dawn at which the two Marys arrived, Jesus was raised up out of that tomb and set free. All out of sight, in secret.
That’s not the only thing that happens in secret in Matthew’s account. The incident in verses 10-14 follows after a curious insertion at the end of chapter 27, in which a handful of religious authority figures get all conspiracy theory-minded and pester Pilate into adding extra security around the tomb. This is why those guards – the ones who “became like dead men” in verse 4 – are there at all, ending up as an added bit of spectacle to the grand scene. Once their contrivance has totally gone south, these religious authorities resort to bribery to keep any contrary narrative (besides their “disciples stole the body” story) from getting any traction. Of course, how they ever figured that a bunch of disciples who fled all the way back in chapter 26 were ever going to pull off such a feat is beyond me, but I guess the one point we can take from this is that there will always, always be those who will never believe no matter what happens. There are segments of the church today who are convinced that if we’re just nice enough and say our little spiel the right way then the whole world will say “of course!” and all get saved instantaneously, or something like that. It just isn’t so. There will always be those who will not believe, and they will always be capable of going to great lengths to preserve that non-belief.
Meanwhile, what the two Marys get is not to bear witness to a miracle. Instead, they get a job to do.
First the angel gives them the word to go find those other disciples and get them headed towards Galilee, where Jesus will meet them. While they were headed off to do just that, with the curious mixture of “fear and great joy” Matthew describes, Jesus himself makes his appearance – just as in John’s gospel, Jesus appears to the women first – and basically gives them the same message: go tell the disciples to meet me in Galilee.
Somehow it feels appropriate that Matthew’s account is the one that rolls around this particular awkward and constricted year. The great spectacle doesn’t happen in front of great crowds, but only to two women, isolated from the rest of the world that was going on as if nothing had happened. No great crowds, no great gathering: just the two Marys. Later the disciples get their turn. As far as Matthew’s gospel goes, that is maybe thirteen witnesses to the resurrected Christ? It’s almost as if it’s a secret.
The brief excerpt from Acts also seems to play upon this idea. Peter, in his speech, makes the point that the risen Christ did not make large-scale public appearances, but showed himself to those “who were chosen as witnesses,” suggesting it was a relatively small number. The witnesses are few, it seems, and – as in Matthew so also here – those witnesses have a job to do; to preach and to testify to who Jesus is.
Our isolation, on this day normally given to large gatherings, might just be a lesson or a reminder for us of this task. Maybe we can stand to be reminded that the point of Easter isn’t necessarily about great big gatherings with big orchestras of trumpets and lilies all over the place, but it’s about our job: to bear witness, to testify. And we can receive that commission no matter where we are, even socially isolated as we are today. Whether anybody saw it or not, Christ is still risen, and still calls us to bear witness.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #232, Jesus Christ is Risen Today; #245, Christ the Lord is Risen Today