The disruptive Spirit

A sermon for Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104: 25-35, 37, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

This is one of those bible stories we all know. We know the disciples are gathered in Jerusalem, at Jesus’ instruction, waiting for power from heaven. They don’t know when, they don’t know what, nonetheless they are waiting in anxious expectation. Ten days later, 50 days after Passover, they are gathered when suddenly the Spirit arrives, in what sounds like wind, and looks like sparkling flames dancing about their heads. Everyone starts speaking in all sorts of foreign languages. Because it is Pentecost, the festival of the harvest, Jerusalem is full of devout Jews from all around the Roman Empire. We don’t know what the disciples are saying, just that it gets everyone’s attention. Some begin to mock them. That causes the still impetuous Peter to preach. He dispels the notion of drunkenness by quoting from Joel about the gift of prophecy.

It’s a grand story. The church has celebrated it in all sorts of ways. I’m sure you have heard of services where the scriptures are read in multiple languages. I’ve heard of one, where Acts was read in multiple languages at the same time. There is the tradition to wear red, the color associated with the Spirit. I was serving one church that had a red hat contest one Pentecost. We find all sorts of ways to celebrate the gift of the Spirit.

Frank Couch posits our celebrations tend to domesticate the story. He includes the NSRV translators noting that describing the crowd

 as “bewildered” (v. 6), “amazed and astonished” (v. 7), and “amazed and perplexed” (v. 12).

 could be, in fact, should be described as

 “confused, in an uproar, beside themselves, undone, blown away, thoroughly disoriented, completely uncomprehending.”  (Crouch)

I’m sure you hear the difference in how disruptive the second descriptive list is. We also overlook that Pentecost is a Jewish Festival, and that Jerusalem is full of devout Jews, who could afford to travel long distances, and who could speak, if not Hebrew then, Greek, the language of the day. The diversity of languages the disciples speak is not so everyone can hear about Jesus, remember we don’t know what they say. The diversity of languages is an affirmation of diversity that undermines Rome’s interest in creating one people through subjection, and language is a tool of oppression. (Petersen and Beverly)  We delight in Joel’s prophecy “…everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” We never hear how inclusive, how disruptively inclusive it is. We never hear or consider how disruptive the coming of the Spirit is.

Have you ever read the Book of Joel? Ever wondered about the context of Peter’s quote? Scholars aren’t quite sure when it was written. It seems to be an artful compilation, drawing on many prophecies. It begins with locus, sound familiar, think Egypt, a cry of alarm, the day of the Lord is near, a lamentation, and call to repentance, a service of lasting, and then revelations of apocalyptic deliverance from foreign nations, and salvation. (Limburg), (Achtemeier) Joel’s prophecy speaks to his day, and ages to come. He speaks to his people, and to those in Jerusalem, and he speaks to us. But it is hard for us to hear the shattering truth he reveals. In his day, prophecy was limited to the select. Joel brushes away all human categories, all distinctions, and socially established roles. (Hoezee) Giving the spirit to “sons and daughters… old people… youths… male and female slaves” goes against Israel’s religious traditions. It disrupts established tradition by excluding priests, the powerful religious class of the day. The prophecy dispels social distinctions based on age, gender, and social class.  (Petersen and Beverly) The Spirit, the gift of prophecy, once the domain of an exclusive few, is now freely offered to all. (Limburg) The arrival of the spirit and prophecy in Joel arises from tragedy, lament, repentance and completely remakes religious and social structures. The coming of the Spirit is a powerful transforming truth. It’s a disruptive presence the harbinger of transfiguring power the purveyor of shalom, to all God’s people everyone, especially those ~ we believe are excluded.

Please be clear, we should celebrate the presence of the Spirit. It’s just oh so important we clearly see the true nature of her presence. We are better prepared to be empowered when we realize the character of the Spirit. When we recognize her presence marks the way for the church’s missionary work (Achtemeier) we are better prepared to follow her trusting in her disruptive ways, her challenging the status quo, her radical inclusiveness, her stance against all types of official, or unofficial repression. We will see more clearly in knowing the arrival of the Spirit flows from the brutal hardships of life, bringing hope to the least of these by challenging us to bring justice, healing, and peace, to bring shalom to oppress. Often those we oppress by the nature of our privilege. And I include myself among the privileged. I am among the religious entitled Joel’s prophecy excludes, I am among those in need of the Spirit’s transforming empowering touch. As is everyone.

We all know Dewaun Miller was shot and killed, by a High School classmate, this past week. (Brasfield and Evans) I have been told he was a good student, a promising athlete, who lived on the street. As such he had affiliations with other street kids, who, as we all do, form groups of like interest and or needs. Apparently there was some conflict between two such groups that lead to the murder. I’ve also read and been told,  the High School did an excellent job of settling the tensions down, involving lots of resources from counselors,  to local ministers and  Healing in the Hood, etc. Some are asking what we should do. Some are talking about the possibility of asking local churches what we can do. There is possibility in reaching out to churches, but we should acknowledge it will not be a quick fix. In last Friday’s column David Brooks cites Lisa Miller that most children are born with a sense of the spiritual, which surges in adolescence. At the same time teenagers commonly suffer a loss of meaning, confidence and identity. Their response can be drugs, alcohol, gangs, and pregnancy. Teens whose spiritual life is cultivated, by those with strong spiritual lives, have significantly less instances of destructive behaviors or depression, as they seek to discover themselves.

He concludes:

 Ignoring spiritual development in the public square is like ignoring intellectual, physical or social development. It is to amputate people in a fundamental way, leading to more depression, drug abuse, alienation and misery.  (Brooks)

 He is right, cultivating spiritual lives is a path to a healthier society,

If we want to cultivate spiritual lives of teens, we should begin with ourselves; we should begin by looking in the mirror, as individuals and as a community. Every time community leaders, of any stripe, have an ugly interaction, teens see it, and they model their behavior after ours. Their lack of experience with subtlety can lead them to tragic actions. It’s not that we shouldn’t have disagreements; however, we should resolve them with respect for the other, not dehumanizing or excluding others because of any kind of ideology, social standing or cultural divide we’ve imposed. We should listen to Peter drawing on Joel. The Spirit is present. She brings radical inclusivity and disruptive transformation. We should learn from the sequence in Joel, threat, judgement, lament, repentance, and the promise of radically inclusive salvation. It’s a journey that goes beyond programs or schools or churches. It’s a rebuilding of our broken social construct. It begins with us of social privilege, going to, listening to, and building relationships with the very people we’d just as soon go away.

The locus are here, the alarm is sounding, and the day of Lord is now. Pentecost is now. The Spirt is here. We can quietly slip away whistling in dark against all our fears. Or, trusting in God’s great gift, we can follow the Spirt into the darkest corners of our community and cultivate nascent spiritual awareness; not because it will relieve us of all our fears, but because God loves everyone, and everyone should experience what sounds like rushing winds looks like sparkling flames and hear of God’s love in words they understand. Amen.


References

Achtemeier, Elizabeth. The New Interpreter’s Bible, The Book of Joel. Ed. Patrick D Miller Jr and Paul J Achtemeie. Louisville: Abingdon, n.d.

Brasfield, Mark and K Evans. “Murder Suspoect Surrenders to Police.” Courier News 19 5 2015. web.

Brooks, David. “Building Spiritual Capital.” New York Times 24 5 2015. nytimes.com. <http://nyti.ms/1BxJy9I&gt;.

Crouch, Frank L. Commentary on Acts 2:121. 24 5 2015.

Epperly, ‘Bruce. Pentecost Sunday – May 24, 2015. 24 5 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2015/05/pentecostsundaymay242015/&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Acts 10:44-48. 17 5 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 23 11 2014.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher. 24 5 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Limburg, James. Interpretation HOSEA—MICAH. Nashville: John Knox, 2003. cd.

Lose, David. Pentecost B: Come Alongside, Holy Spirit! 24 5 2015. <http://www.davidlose.net&gt;.

Petersen, David and Roberts Gaventa Bevery. New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abbingdon Press, 2010. ebook.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Warren, Timothy G. “Pentecost (B) – 2015.” 24 5 2015. Sermons that Work.

Joy, Worship, and Ministry

A sermon for Easter 7 / Ascension

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5:9-13, Luke 24:44-53

My favorite scenes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind are:

  • Richard Dreyfus’ mysterious sunburn he got in the dark of the night;
  • the spaceship blowing everything off the stage the first time it plays the three note sequence, and
  • the magnificent ascension of the space ship into the stars.

There is a similar scene in the movie Knowing as mystic creatures gather all the species of earth, two by two in the ethereal ships that ascend into the stars, just before the earth is destroyed by a massive solar flare. There are all kinds of stories about a hero ascending. Greek mythology tells how Hercules ascends to the gods to avoid death; Roman mythology tells us Romulus has “been caught up into heaven, and was to be a benevolent god for them instead of a good king.” In Sumerian mythology, there is the story of Adap ascending to the gods, escaping death. (Ancient Origins) No matter the age of the story something about seeing someone ascend to the stars ascend into the heavens catches our imagination.

The same is true in the Bible. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him. (Genesis 5:24) We all know the story of Elijah being carried off in a chariot and horses of fire ascending in a whirlwind into heaven. (2 Kings 2:11) Of course there is a New Testament ascension story, otherwise we’d never observe Jesus’ Ascension, 40 days after Easter. (Which is always a Thursday so it’s rarely observed in these times.) Matthew and Mark imply an ascension. John treats Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation as one event. But Luke describes Jesus’ ascension in short but significant detail. And, by the way, the Epistles also refer to Jesus’ ascension, especially Hebrews, from which we get the marvelous invitation to confession

Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14, 16)

Jesus’ ascension is also woven into the heart of the Christian tradition. In both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed we hear:

… rose again according to the scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated on the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead

To be honest, Jesus’ ascension creates a concern: because some say Jesus has gone away, he’s not here anymore. However; that’s not exactly true. Luke’s tale ends:

And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Remember a couple of weeks ago when we were reading  through the resurrections stories; every time Jesus shows up the disciples are terrified. Today, fear has turn to joy, worship, and blessing. (Troftgruben) Jesus’s presence with God,  in divine glory, is the final assurance of our inheritance of redemption. It is the source of energy for the mission of the Church. We hear that in the collect appointed for the celebration of the Ascension that “he abides with his Church on earth,  even to the end of the ages…”

So, now we know a little something about ascension myths in the broader cultures, of ancient times, and today. We’ve touched on ascension stories from the Old Testament. We’ve noted the difference in how the evangelists treat the Ascension, from part of a single story to inferences, to a specific event. We’ve touched on the references to the Ascension in the Christian traditions of Creeds, Liturgies, Holy Days, and collects. We’ve even explored the question:  “Is Jesus gone?” And now we find ourselves in that part of the homiletical exercise where we are challenged to ponder “So what?”

Well to do that, let’s stop and take a look at where Luke is. Unlike the other Evangelists, Luke produced two stories; the first, his Gospel, about Jesus, the second about the continuing ministry of the disciples and the beginnings of the Church. The Ascension acts like a pivot; it swings our attention from the story of Jesus’ ministry, as Messiah on earth, to the continuing ministry, the witness of those who believe, to those not yet transformed. Ben Helmer writes:

The Ascension makes Jesus a universal figure, drawing us all to him, and sending us to be witnesses of the Good News. There is no time to ponder; Now is the time to act – together. (Helmer)

Br. Geoffrey Tristram speaks of this time as one when, as the disciples do, we know we can break the death barrier, because

The Ascension was the means by which Jesus was able to share the fruits of his redemptive love with us – share his victory over death with us. (Tristram)

I believe it’s a time we realize we can break the mission barrier because Jesus shares the fruits of his love with us.

Luke’s Gospel begins at the Temple with the promise of Elizabeth’s conceiving. Zechariah stumbles out of the Temple unable to speak. Those around him aren’t sure what’s going on; however, as readers we know “God is at work and something marvelous is about to happen.” (Brueggemann) As his Gospel tale closes, the disciples are gathered at the Temple, joyfully worshiping, and blessing God. Once again, we know “God is at work and something marvelous is about to happen.” (Brueggemann)

Sisters and brothers ~ nothing has changed, something marvelous is about to happen. The presence of the ascended Jesus continues to be a conduit of divine love and victory; continues to be a force for breaking barriers; continues to provide believers with propensity to change the world; and continues to goad us to act ~ now, with whoever we find a common bond. Yes, it means change, read the rest of Acts about that. Yes, it means risk, read Paul’s story. But it also means joy  ~ joy born of being in God’s loving presence, joy born of another’s life touched by grace and coming to know the shalom of God; joy born of one less division between God’s people. And I don’t believe it’s always giant mission projects, although there are plenty around. I believe such joy comes from simple one on one encounters; encounter between you, and the stranger of the moment. I believe such joy comes as we witness God’s love touch another. I believe such joy comes as we are touched by the other. I believe such joy leads to worship, leads to ministry.


References

n.d. 17 5 2015. <http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/ascension-heavens- ancient-mythology-001471>.

Brueggemann, Walter. Interpretation. Ed. Patrick D Miller Jr and Paul J Achtemeie. Vol. Genesis. Louisville, n.d.

Culpper, R. Allan. New Interpreter’s Bible, The Gospel of Luke. Ed. Leander Keck. Vol. 9. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 2001.

Ellingsen, Mark. Ascension. 14 5 2015. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Helmer, Rev Ben. Sermons that Work. 17 5 2015.

Orr, James, ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. WORDsearch, 2004.

Petersen, David L and Beverly R Gavenat. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 2010.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Tristram, Br. Geoffrey. Breaking the Death Barrier – Br. Geoffrey Tristram. 16 5 2010. 17 5 2015. <http://ssje.org/ssje/2010/05/16/breakingthedeathbarrierbrgeoffreytristram/&gt;.

Troftgruben, Troy. Commentary on Luke 24:4453. 17 5 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Without Hesitation, Without Discrimination.

A Sermon for Easter 6

Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

Seventy years ago the allied armies declared victory in Europe. Some veterans informally began to gather. Those gatherings became formal commemorations that were observed last Friday. They were not without controversy. For example, because of political conflict, there was no official American presence at the Russian remembrance. There were other noticeable changes. At the annual gathering of an American unit, which in previous years had filled convention centers, met in a single hotel conference room. Of the 70 guest, only 10 were veterans, the others were family or friends. A women, a sister of one former vet, and husband to another lamented how such strong straight up men have become so feeble. She said: “I didn’t want it to come to this.” But it has, and life goes on, even as things change, often in unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable ways; ways we didn’t, ways that we don’t want. (NPR)

This morning’s reading from Acts barely rises above sloganeering; so I’ve imposed my homiletical prerogative and we’ll begin at the beginning of chapter 10.

But first, I want us to take a peek over to Matthew where we learn Peter’s full name is Simon bar Jonah. (Matthew 16:17) This is only important when it leads us to remember another biblical character – Jonah. You remember Jonah, the reluctant prophet who didn’t want to go to Nineveh so he runs away.  That leads to him spending three night in the belly of a great fish. There he sees the light, agrees to follow God’s call, goes to Nineveh, pronounces God’s prophecy, and behold, to everyone’s surprise, except possibly his, the city repents and comes to know God. (WALL, 2003) Back to Acts 10.

This is a tale of simultaneous serpentine revelations. An angel tells Cornelius to send for Simon known as Peter, who is staying with Simon in Joppa (where Jonah’s miss-adventures begins). He does. At the same time Peter (bar Jonah) in prayer on his roof, has a vision. A picnic blanket is lowered revealing of all kinds of animals. Peter is instructed to kill and eat. He rejects the command because to do so would violate the Law; some of the animals are unclean, and there is no way to keep Kosher, the rules to prepare food. The voice tells him “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15) This back and forth goes on three times; (remember the three days in the belly of the fish) when the men Cornelius sent arrive. The Spirit tells Peter to “go to them without hesitation,” which may be better understood as “without discrimination.” (Baker, 2015)

Peter senses a bit of the vision and invites the emissaries in. Since they are gentiles he crosses a boundary. He then shares a meal with them, remember the vision, crossing another boundary, because observant Jewish Christians wanted to maintain the distinctions, the discrimination, between Jews and others. (Baker) The next day they travel from Joppa to Cornelius house. There Peter begins to preach, crossing a third boundary. Remember Cornelius is a Roman soldier, an officer of modest rank from an Italian, not some mercenary, Cohort. He’s not Jewish, he is a leader from an elite Army unit whose job is to keep the peace, which pretty much means suppressing any disturbances, and Jewish Christians were a disturbance. There are all kinds of boundary violations.

Nonetheless, Peter begins to preach. In his preaching he says:

I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (10:34 ff)

If you ever wonder what right is, today’s reading from John’s Gospel account and the first letter from John, that speak so eloquently of loving Jesus and each other as Jesus loves us, provides a clear answer: love each other. But I’m wandering.

In the middle of Peter’s preaching everyone in Cornelius’ house begins speaking in tongues. This is a clear sign of the presence of the Spirit. Peter’s Jewish companions are astonished. The ever impetuous Peter cries out:

How can we deny baptism to anyone who has the Holy Spirt? and orders them all to be baptized.

and orders them all to be baptized.

This is a classic example of Apostles’ predisposition to baptism no matter what. If there is no existing faith community – they baptized. If they aren’t likely to see them again – they baptized. If there is no way to follow up – they baptized. Remember Philip from last week, water by a dessert highway and Philip baptizes the eunuch. Whenever the opportunity presents itself the Apostles just baptize. Scott Hoezee posits that they had much higher expectations that the Holy Spirit was on the move. (Hoezee, 2015)

A final observation. Both Peter and Cornelius obey God’s commandment, an act “… that presupposes obedience.” Obedience is not a trait that Americans admire. (Whitley, 2015)

In July 2013, returning from our daughter’s wedding I had a vision for Stephen’s house. A downtown location for worship, and an incubator for faith based community outreach. I’ve recently come to understand, that for many complex reasons, its time has passed. However, we still have a calling to discern. You’ve heard it before. How are we to proclaim the Gospel in Blytheville, in the 21th century, in the Episcopal tradition? Today’s reading from Acts doesn’t give us any answers. It does give us some clues as to how we might discern the answer.

Robert Wall notes “Peter’s understanding of his Gentile mission unfolds over several days of visions.” (WALL, 2003) So let’s give ourselves time.

He further posits that obedience to God’s bidding, admired or not, is a quality for receiving God’s grace. (WALL) So let’s obey, let’s just trust in the Lord and go.

We read how Peter crossed several boundaries to following his calling. Let’s name the barriers that constrain our proclaiming the Gospel right here, right now. Are there issues of sexuality, or race, or religion or ideology? Let’s name them.

I mentioned how the Apostles had higher expectations of the Spirit. Let’s explore“[h]ow open we are to seeing the Spirit on the move … and how open and willing we [will] quickly and gladly … respond to new [vision].” (Hoezee)

None of us wanted our church to come to this. But it has, and life goes on, even as things change, often in unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable ways; ways we didn’t, ways that we don’t want. Nevertheless we are being called, and I’d rather avoid three days in the fish of belly … or whatever. I’d rather have a reasonably clear vision emerge over the course of days, weeks, or even months. From today until July Sunday school will study A People called Episcopalians in preparation for the Bishop’s visit. Buried in our exploration of Episcopal identity, authority, including scriptural authority, spirituality, how we think about the world including God, and how we are structured and govern ourselves (Westerhoff & Pearson, 2014) will be additional clues as from where we might discern a clear vision. It is my intention that beginning in August we’ll begin to specifically look: for barriers, for what astounds us, to listen and seek the gentle tug of the Spirit’s presence, pointing to our clear vision. And in following it  we can get on baptizing without hesitation, without discrimination so that all may come to know God, and through God’s love, love each other. Amen


References

Baker, C. (2015, 5 10). Commentary on Acts 10:4448. Retrieved from working preacher.

Ellingsen, M. (2015, 5 10). Easter 6 Year B. Retrieved from Lectionary Scripture Notes: http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/

Epperly, B. (2015, 5 10). The Adventurous Lectionary. Retrieved from Pathos: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly

Hoezee, S. (2015, 5 10). Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Acts 10:44-48. Retrieved from Center for Excellence in Preaching: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php

Lewis, K. (20015, 5 10). Dear Working Preacher: Choose Joy. Retrieved from Working Preacher: workingpreacher.org

Lose, D. (2015, 5 10). Easter 6 B: On Being Chosen. Retrieved from David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net

Unknown. (2015, 5 8). NPR. (Unknown, Interviewer) NPR. KUAR, Jonesboro. Retrieved 5 8, 2015

WALL, R. W. (2003). New Interpreter’s Bible: THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES (Vol. 10).

Westerhoff, J. H., & Pearson, S. E. (2014). A People Called Episcopalians. New York: Morehouse.

Whitley, K. K. (2015, 5 10). 6 Easter (B) – 2015. Retrieved from Sermons that Work.

Willimon, W. H. (n.d.). Interpretation, Acts. (J. L. Mays, P. D. Miller, & P. J. Achtemeier, Eds.) Atlanta Georgia: John Knox Press.

Abide in Baltimore

A sermon for the 5th Sunday after Easter

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

The NFL draft started Thursday night. The days leading up to it were full of every kind of analysis imaginable.  I learned that barely twenty-five percent of first-round draft pick quarterbacks are successful. I bet most would attribute that to a skills deficiency or how much more difficult the pro game is than the college game. They may be right. However, I suspect the quarterbacks that don’t make the transition never learn to trust those around them, consequently try to do it all themselves. They never connect with their team. Perhaps they could have learned something had they studied John.

John is writing to a community that’s being scattered, thrown out of their synagogues and homes. Jesus is speaking to his disciples just before they will be cut apart by his betrayal, denial and death.  (Jacobson, Lewis, & Skinner, 2015) Both communities receive the remarkable power of hearing that Jesus abides in them, that they and Jesus and God are intricately woven together as to be nearly indistinguishable.  (NIB John, 2003) It’s very hard for our culture, with its libertarian rugged individualistic bent, to hear life is nothing without belonging, without intimacy, without relationship.  (Lewis, 2015) We struggle to see the stranger as a gift from God who is a neighbor, not an outsider, not an alien, not a danger.  (Jacobson, Lewis, & Skinner, 2015) We’d much rather bear fruit by doing something, rather than by working on a relationship. And as much as we like to think our version of bearing fruit is for the other, look closely and we’ll discover the shades of egocentric, hedonistic acts. It’s very hard to bear fruit completely for someone else. (Stamper, 2015) Nonetheless, God and Jesus abide in us, so we may abide in the rejected other. Ask Philip.

Philip finds himself on the side of a desert road when suddenly the treasurer of Candice, Queen of Ethiopia, reading a copy of Isaiah, appears. He obeys the spirit’s calling to go to him. He doesn’t object to engaging a eunuch, as a good Jew should. He doesn’t get distracted by wondering about his Jewish heritage, there weren’t many black Jews. He doesn’t even get perturbed that a foreign court official has a copy of Isaiah; remember books or scrolls of any kind were very rare. (Hoezee, Old Testament Lectionary, 2015)

None of the things that could have been a legitimate obstacle were.  (Sakenfeld, 2009), (Interpretation, 2003) Philip just got in the chariot. At the official’s request, he began to explain the suffering servant passage in light of Jesus’ recent resurrection. The eunuch puts it all together, he recognizes that Jesus accepts him, welcomes him, abides in him, and loves him. (Jacobson, Lewis, & Skinner, 2015) Seeing water by the side of the road, convenient- it is in the dessert, after all, he asks what prevents him from being baptized. In my mind’s eye, I can see all of them: no class, no papers, no robes, no prayer book, no sponsors, no witnesses, and no bishop; the list goes on. For Philip, there are all the considerable social exclusions associated with a eunuch, a foreigner, a royal court official to consider. But Philip is intertwined with Jesus so he simply abides with the eunuch and baptizes him into the branch of God and Jesus.

It’s easy for us see Philip as Spirit led, and he is. It’s equally important for us to remember Philip is far out on the edge even for the emergent Christian community, already struggling with issues of inclusivity. Philip has just crossed about every imaginable boundary.

Earlier this month Freddy Gray was gravely injured between his arrest and eventual arrival at the hospital ER. A week later he died, Last week he was buried and Baltimore exploded. We ask: Why? What we really want to know is: why didn’t the police protect the good citizens of Baltimore? Some may inquire into the ethical behavior of the immediate officers involved. Others wonder what outside agitators are up to. All good questions. All miss the point.

D Watkins grew up in a similar Baltimore neighborhood. At 10 his house was robbed, they were held at gun-point for hours. When the invaders left they called the police; who took two hours to respond, and then complained about having to complete a report. He was in a peaceful protest group walking by a bar by Camden Yards, where the Orioles play, as “white baseball fans, wearing both Baltimore and Boston gear, [stood] outside yelling, “We don’t care! We don’t care!”  (WATKINS, 2015)  Ta Nehisis Coates grew up where the rioting broke out. He writes:

Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police … with fear and caution.  …  Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won [$6 million in] court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. (Coates, 2015), (WATKINS, 2015)

Michael Dyson quotes Martin Luther King’s 1965 observation of Watts that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” (Eric, 2015) He notes

While the powers that be overlooked the social neglect that sparked the outrage. … It is easier to fight the victim rather than the source of the darkness.

The cumulative results of ignoring the dark sources of social neglect are profound. From an analysis of our people not in prison, for every 100 black women there are 83 black men.  In N. Charleston SC, there are 75, in Ferguson MO, there are 60. Overall 1 in 6 black men are “missing” from society, that comes to 1.5 million black men. For white people, there are 99 men for every 100 women. (Opinion, 2015)

In his column, Nature of Poverty David Brooks notes that in spite of $15 trillion, nearly $14,000 per poor person, “poverty … has scarcely changed.” The $130 million urban restoration in Grey’s neighborhood, including homes, schools, health care and job training, has had a modest impact. However, there are still no restaurants, there are no grocery stores. He writes:

… the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition. (Brooks, 2015)

In short we are not building relationships with them. No one is abiding. And abiding relationships, or none, has measurable effects in our lives.

The go-to study for addiction comes from a rat in a cage with two water bottles, one drugged one plain water. All the rats drink from the drugged bottle, therefore there is a quality of the drug that induces addiction. In Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari shares a study where scientist put a second rat in the cage. The rats have some withdrawal, but they stop drinking the drugged water. Portugal put the study to a live test. With a significant drug problem, they decriminalized drug use, diverted the money to reconnecting addicts, providing housing, jobs, and purpose.  Injection drug use dropped 50%. Hari writes “… the opposite of addiction … is human connection.” (Hari, 2015)

There is ethical, policy and training work that needs to happen in Baltimore, N. Charleston, Ferguson, Blytheville, Mississippi County, Arkansas, and every community in the United States. There is also a lot of abiding work to be done building relationships with the ubiquitous ambiguous them. It’s hard, and we cannot do it alone. We cannot be in the presence of those we don’t trust and who don’t trust us without help, divine help. And by our baptism that help that abides deep within each and every one of us. By our baptism, we can relate to anyone as strange to us as the eunuch is to Philip. By our baptism we can build qualities of relationships that wear down barriers to estranged relationships, that wear down barriers to mobility. In every baptism, we are asked “Do you believe …?” Do we? Do we believe that with God by Jesus abiding in us anything is possible?

I do; some times. I heard of it last week, in stories of those beyond riot torn neighborhoods, arriving with shovels, brooms and trash bags to begin cleaning up, to begin rebuilding, to begin re-establishing relationships, to begin to abide in their far off neighbor, as Jesus abides in them.  Amen.


References

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Coates, T.-N. (2015, 4 27). Nonviolence as Compliance. The Atlantic.

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Eric, M. (2015, 4 29). Goodbye to Freddie Gray and Goodbye to Quietly. New York Times.

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Lose, D. (2015, 5 3). Easter 5 B: On Being Pruned. Retrieved from David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net

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