The Expendables

A sermon for Proper 7: Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10,16-17, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39

Sometime in the last week, as I was driving from one unknown point to another and listening to NPR, I heard a bit of trivia about George R. R. Martin, the author of The Game of Thrones. He wrote the entire series on a 25-year-old computer, that only ran DOS, using WordStar. It is good to know something older than 25 can still be creative.

I have only seen one episode of Game of Thrones. But, according the source of sources Wikipedia the episodes follow three broad story lines. The noble families are fighting to claim the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms, or for independence. Secondly, the last descendent of the ruling dynasty is exiled and plotting a return to the throne. The Final story line is about the ancient brotherhood that is pledged to defend the realm against their ancient enemies and the fierce wild beast of the far north. Their task is complicated by the impending winter that threatens everything. It is a lurid violent story (Wikipedia).

By all accounts it is a brilliant work of fiction. But, it is also a very ancient and all too common story line. You may recall that Herod, King of Israel in Jesus day, comes from a long line of a leading Jewish family. Which, by the way, includes women rulers. The family story is full of intrigue, political scheming within Israel’s political – religious circles and Roman political – military circles. As soon as Herod gains power he executes forty-five Jewish aristocrats who supported his adversary. He ordered a High Priest, who displeased him one time, drowned. He had several members of his immediate family killed as they tried to scheme their way to the throne. It was a complex line with 10 wives, 15 children and more than twenty grandchildren. Anyone who got in Herod’s way of establishing a dynasty was expendable (Sakenfeld). There is a similar line in the story of Ishmael’s banishment.

You know the story. Isaac is weaned and Abraham throws a big party. But, there is a dark shadow across the family. Sarah see Ishmael with Isaac, what he is doing is not clear (Gaventa and Petersen). Our reading says he is playing with Isaac, but that is not in the original text (Bratt, Schifferdecker, Harrelson). There is a tradition that implies Ishmael was mean to his brother, but it has no textual basis either. What is clear is that Sarah does not want Ishmael to inherit along with her son. Ishmael is the oldest, and by tradition, has a legitimate claim (Fretheim). She tells Abraham Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac (NRSV, Genesis 21:10). Notice Sarah does not refer to either Hagar nor Ishmael by their name, dehumanizing them as much as possible. In fact, nowhere in this story is Ishmael called by name (Bratt).

Abraham is reluctant. But, God assure him that Ishmael will receive divine grace and will also become a great nation. So early the next morning he gives Hagar a bottle of water, and a loaf of bread and sends her and Ishmael into the wilderness.

There is some confusion here, because Ishmael should be about least sixteen. Just before last week’s story by the Oaks of Mamre, Ishmael is thirteen years old. In the very beginning of chapter 21 , the end of last week’s lesson, Sarah conceives. Today Isaac is 3. 13 + 3 + 9 months is a least 16 years. So, how does Abraham put a sixteen-year-old on Hagar’s shoulder? How does Hagar cast the child under a bush?

There is a second mystery here. With Ishmael under a bush, Hagar moves off, because she does not want to see her son die. The next thing we know, God, having heard the voice of the boy, who the story does not have speak, asks What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid (NRSV, genesis 21:17). This is the only time in the story that Hagar, or Ishmael is called by name. God assures Hagar Ishmael will live and prosper, and also become a great nation. Her eyes are opened, and she sees a well, she has not seen before.

Ishmael does prosper. He becomes the father in law to Esau (Schifferdecker); the father of Ishmaelites (Schifferdecker) the Bedouin tribes to the south (Ellingsen) and by tradition the father of Islam (Schifferdecker; Ellingsen). Ishmael’s story continues as part of God’s often hidden story of interaction with all humanity and all creation (Gaventa and Petersen).

Hagar and Ismael are thrown out of their family, and with God’s help they thrive as a family of their own. What has my attention this morning is the fate of expendable people. Hagar and Ishmael were expendable people. For Herod, any family member with a claim to the throne was expendable. In Game of Thrones almost anyone was an expendable person. The challenge is how to we fulfill God’s trust given us with respect to expendable people?

There are lots of expendable people in today’s world. They are most often known as “them” or “those people” or anything else except a proper name. There are racial divisions in our country, state, county, and city. But, the biggest predictor of who being underserved, or expendable is economic status; and there are a lot of underserved people. In the US 15.5% of the people live below the poverty line, in Arkansas its 19% and in Mississippi county 26.6% of our neighbors live in poverty. For children, it is much worse. 21.9% of children in the US live in poverty, in Arkansas 27.6% of children live in poverty, and in Mississippi county [pause] 40.7% of our neighbors’ children live in poverty (Community Commons.) A lesson of this morning’s story is that no one is expendable. So why are there so many expendable people in the US? After all we are a Christian nation; and we are the wealthiest nation.

In this morning’s story from Genesis there is a conflict between the value of the promise God makes to Abraham and the value of the Covenant between God and Abraham. The Covenant exclusively involves Isaac. The promise includes both Ishmael and Isaac. Sarah resolves the conflict by declaring that Hagar and Ishmael are expendable and having them thrown away. God resolves the conflict by keeping both. The difference reveals a difference between human values and divine values.

Kathryn Tanner argues that there is core conflict between capitalism (and I think most human economic systems) and Judeo-Christianity. For capitalism

money is the universal equivalent, the value that underlies that of every other commodity. For Christians, “God is the universal equivalent of all objects of value” in that their ultimate, underlying value is to enable all our pursuits to be turned toward God (Pauw).

You have heard me talk about how we have commoditized agriculture, education, and now health care. If we listen carefully to policy debates in state and federal legislatures we can hear how every policy is framed by its monetary value. From Tanner’s perspective policy’s universal value is money. From this morning’s story of Ishmael and Hagar, we hear that all policies’ universal value should be God. And as Genesis tells us God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good (NRSV Genesis 1:31).

The move away from universal monetary value back to universal divine value will be complex and difficult. For one thing, we Christians do not agree on a divine value. But, there is place that we can begin, and it is simple. We should always refer to another person by their proper name, not some degrading “them” or “those people” or any other dehumanizing phrase.

A couple of weeks ago we explored how we are God’s partners in the continuing creation. It is significant that in creation it is man who names every living thing (Genesis 2:19). Naming is part of the creative process. Naming is part of tending to and nurturing and continuing the creative process. Calling those created in the image of God by their names acknowledges their divine value. And that which has divine value cannot be expendable.

I do not believe that every person can be called to be the father or mother of a great nation. The Bible tells us that every person, is valued by God. Therefore, every policy should treat every person as beloved of God. The monetary cost to till and nurture all creation is not to be ignored; however, it is not the ultimate universal value.

To treat everybody as beloved of God, to treat all creation with God as the universal value is divisive. It is a manifestation of the sword that divides families, friends, and neighbors, that Jesus refers to. It is also the most healing manifestation of how we can live into the trust God has given us. It is shalom for all.

References

Barrington. “Preparing for Eternal Glory, Third Sunday after Pentecost.” 25 6 2017. Sermons that Work.

Bratt, Doug. “Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Genesis 21:8-21.” 25 6 2017. Working Preacher.

Community Commons. “(Community Health Needs Assessment .” 11 10 2016. Community Commons.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 25 6 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 25 6 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

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

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 25 6 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. Not Peace but a Sword. 25 6 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Pauw, Amy Plantinga. “How Kathryn Tanner’s theology bridges doctrine and social.” 5 7 2017. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org /article/how-kathryn-tanner%E2%80%99s-theology-bridges-doctrine-and-social-action>.

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

Schifferdecker, Kathryn M. Commentary on Genesis 21:821. 25 6 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Wikipedia. “Game_of_Thrones#Themes.” n.d. wikipedia.org. 23 6 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_of_Thrones#Themes&gt;.

 

 

 

Energetic Lavish Hospitality

A sermon for 2nd Pentecost, Proper 6; Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7), Psalm 116:1, 10-17, Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35-10:8 (9-23)

This morning is the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost and for the next 22 weeks we will see lots of green and our Old Testament lesson will be a sort of continuous reading beginning with Genesis and will go all the way to Joshua. As a back-ground to this morning’s story of Abraham and Sarah greeting three strangers in the wilderness let’s review their story so far.

In Genesis 12, God calls Abram, out of the blue, to leave his homeland and his family and move to a faraway land, he has never seen. God makes three promises to Abram: he and his heirs will become a great nation, he will inherit the land of Canaan, and his nation/family will be a blessing to the entire world. Since then there has been a famine that drives him and Sari to Egypt for a while. After that Abram and Lot (his nephew) go their separate ways. Lot manages to get himself captured and Abram organizes rescue mission. The victorious Abram meets Melchizedek, a priest, who blesses him, and Abram gives him a tenth of all the loot, he captured rescuing Lot. A bit later Abram has a vision in which the promises are renewed, by a strange covenantal sacrifice. Time goes on, and Abram and Sari get nervous, it has been more than ten years since God’s promise and still there is no heir. So, they devise their own plan; and Ishmael is birthed by Hagar, as a sort of ancient surrogate mom. It is not the best idea; there is plenty of jealousy and conflict, and it requires God’s mediation. All things are settled, and God renames Abram – Abraham and Sari – Sarah. Then the covenant is once again renewed, this time sealed with circumcision rite. Ishmael is 13, and Sarah is now 90; all in all, something like 25 years has gone by (Schifferdecker).

This morning Abraham and Sarah are encamped by the oaks of Mamre. (Have you ever wondered where the rest of the camp is? Hagar and Ishmael are still with them.) Three strangers appear. Visitors, especially unexpected visitors, can and do bring chaos into our homes and our lives (Bratt). And they do for Abraham and Sarah; nevertheless, Abraham and Sarah welcome them with lavish hospitality (Gaventa and Petersen). Their hospitality has several characteristics: it is extended to strangers who appear unexpectedly, it follows tradition, and it is highly energetic, ‘rushing’ is used five times to describe Abraham’s actions. Their invitation extends a courtesy that allows their visitors to accept the invitation without embarrassment (Fretheim).

This story establishes hospitality as a basic tenant of human relationship. Hospitality is to be extended to everyone, especially to strangers, not because they might be angles, or God in disguise, but because it is how God wants us to treat each other. However, there is more to hospitality. The story now comes to its 2nd point. Sarah laughs when she over hears the promise to Abraham that she will bear him a son. It’s been 25 years, I’d laugh too. Her laughter, and Abraham’s laughter in the previous story, raises an interesting idea; is accepting God’s covenant an act of hospitality?

Do the expectations of hospitality, provide the context from which we can answer today’s fundamental question Is anything too hard for God (Fretheim)? Hospitality toward God is not simply a spiritual matter, it is also a response of the whole self to the mundane affairs of everyday life (Fretheim). For Abraham and Sarah, it is the birth of the promised heir. In our everyday life we face different forms of the same question? Will our beloved heal from injuries? Will Burt really learn to be the service dog Angie needs? Will the weather drown or nurture crops? Will commodity prices go up or down? Will my family member be safe while deployed serving our country? Everyone here, everyone here, has a specific form of the question Is anything too hard for God? Against our hopes, the answer is not simple.

If we say yes, we are professing the belief that some things are too hard for the Lord, and we imply that God is not really God (Bratt). Saying yes somethings are too hard for the Lord means it is possible for us, for anyone, to define what is possible for God, and [n]o human construct can finally define God’s possibilities (Fretheim) . However, if we say no, nothing is too hard for the Lord, then we fail to recognize that God has given genuine power into the hands of the creation (Fretheim). And you know that we are partners in the continuing creation and that we are called to till and nurture the earth for the good of all God’s people.

So, maybe the answer to question of God’s ability cannot be spoken. Perhaps the answer is in our responses to the circumstances that raise the question. Perhaps being an absurdly gracious host to God’s presence in the seemingly hopelessness of todays scattered, troubled, despondent, cast off lives (Pankey, A cure for hopelessness). opens un-seeable ways to the future (Harrelson).

Sometime this past week I read Peter Marty’s article about struggling with divine causality in tragic circumstances. He rejects clichés, about God’s plans, often used to explain away such circumstances. Marty does not believe that we are passive marionettes at the whim of a stage-managing God. He writes God may work in inscrutable ways, but there’s no evidence that God works in nonsensical ways. He goes on to quote a seriously ill father’s answer to his son’s anger at God Peter, God has trusted me with this illness (Marty). Trusted me.

God trusts Abraham and Sarah to host the promise of an heir. God/Jesus trusts the disciples to host the commission to go into a world of the shepherdess, harassed and helpless. God trusts us to host the response to ball field shootings in Washington. God trusts us to host the divine presence at a residential tower fire in London. God/Jesus/Spirit trusts us to host their continuing presence, in a world where somebody is always selling something, by sharing an alternative message of God’s steadfast love (Pankey, Wanted: FT Laborers for the Harvest).

That God/Jesus/Spirit trusts us to be gracious hosts in all the world’s tragedies and treasures take us to the very edge of acceptance. However, we should remember that neither Abraham nor Sarah responds in particularly exemplary ways to the call of God; and the disciples, they do not do any better; yet, their responses is not a revelation of unbelief (Fretheim). We know they become gracious hosts of the trust God/Jesus/Spirit extends to them; if for no other reason than we have the remarkable story of hope of resurrection life to share with all the world.

So, I find myself leaving us to ponder: What will life be if we take seriously the divine trust given us to host the worlds tragedies and treasures with energetic lavish hospitality (Koester).

 

References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 6 A Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7). 18 6 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 9 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

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

Koester, Br. James. “Mission.” Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 13 6 2017.

Marty, Peter W. “Does God cause our suffering?” 21 6 2017. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org /article/does-god-cause-our-suffering>.

Pankey, Steve. A cure for hopelessness. 14 6 2017. <wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491/posts/1310831034>.

—. Wanted: FT Laborers for the Harvest. 12 6 2017. <wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491/posts/1312346053>.

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

Schifferdecker, Kathryn M. Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7]. 18 6 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

A Jawbone, a Grave, and a Different Way

A Sermon for Trinity Sunday: Genesis 1:1-2:4a, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20, Psalm 8

You know me well enough to know I am not one to think that God micromanages anything. That is not to say God is not active, they God/Jesus/Spirit are active. It is a mystery I cannot explain, and do not feel the need to; I’m just delighted when I receive it and accept it. I was the recipient of such a mystery this past Friday, or perhaps all week. I read three articles from three different sources, one I accidentally saw on Facebook that answered the burning question for all preachers on Trinity Sunday

How do I preach on a topic that took the church 325 years to agree on and fought about for another 1000 or more; that we may not yet truly agree on?

 The answer is, don’t –[pause] well at least not directly. So, follows are three summaries from the three previously mentioned articles and then some thoughts about how they reveal the significance of our belief in God/Jesus/Spirit.

Paleoanthropologists have discovered the oldest fossils of homo-sapiens in Morocco, and those fossils have changed the thinking about our evolution. The evidence from these bones and flint, fond at the same site, have lead scholars to believe humans did not evolve from a single cradle in East Africa. They now believe we developed on the African continent. More importantly, the evidence indicates we evolved as a network of groups spread across that vast continent (Zimmer).

In January, the Smithsonian Magazine published an article about an ancient warrior’s grave in Greece. To refresh our history, the first organized Greek society Mycenaeans (My·ce·nae·an) appeared about 1600 BC and disappeared almost as fast. Then came several centuries of Greek Dark Ages. After that the classical Greek civilization, we are familiar with, emerges. The Mycenaeans sowed the seeds of our art, architecture, language, philosophy, literature, democracy, and religion traditions. If you have not read The Iliad and the Odyssey, you may want to, because Homer’s epic poem turns out to be more fact than fantasy. The recent discovery of a warrior’s grave has changed how archeologist think our civilization came about. Typically, we think in terms of the best warrior/king wins type of model. The evidence of this grave indicates cultures of the Mycenaeans and the Minoans, who preceded them, became intertwined. Jo Marchant writes:

Minoan and Mycenaean Greeks would surely have spoken each other’s languages, may have intermarried and likely adopted and refashioned one another’s customs. And they may not have seen themselves with the rigid identities we moderns have tended to impose on them.

The Minoan and Mycenaean Greek cultures blended, and it is this blended culture that we can trace our cultural heritage to. This blended culture is the foundation of Greek egalitarian authority and representative governance on which our way of government is based (Marchant)

WEB Du Bois, an African-American activist, historian, and sociologist, born in 1868, (NAACP). and James McCune Smith, the first African-American to be awarded a degree in medicine, born in 1813, (Black Past) were the first to document the health consequences of discrimination which is toxic to our cells, our organs, and our minds. Their work has been supported ever since. For example:

before the abolition of Jim Crow laws, the black infant death rate was nearly 20 percent higher in Jim Crow states versus non-Jim Crow states. This disparity declined sharply after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, such that the gap had essentially closed a decade later.

It does not matter what characteristic the discrimination is directed against, or if it is directed at an individual, or is the consequences of intended or unintended social or government actions. In the last several years research has revealed harmful inequities along geographic and socioeconomic lines that affect white Americans. Whites living in rural areas, compared with those in metropolitan centers, now contend with many of the same structural challenges that black citizens have faced for centuries (Khullar).

All three stories are about human relationships. Without being overly simplistic, in the two stories where the relationships are collaborative culture and civilization thrive; people thrive. In the last story where the relationships are oppressive culture, and civilization suffer; people suffer. God does not want people or anything in creation to suffer.

In the creation story of Genesis 1 you will notice that everything is created in harmony, in pairs or triads:

  • the heavens and the earth waters that were under the dome and the waters that were above the dome
  • the waters in one place and the dry land in another
  • two great lights—one to rule the day and one to rule the night
  • every living creature … in the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind.
  • cattle and creeping things and wild animals
  • humankind in our image … male and female he created them.

We are made to be in relationship.

Psalm 8 is in awe at the majesty of the night sky, we are fortunate enough to be close enough to really dark to be able to see the true majesty of the night sky, and the psalmist wonders why God would pay attention to him, or to us? It is because that he, that I, that we have work to do; to cultivate the earth, the fish, the birds, and every living thing. (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). From the very beginning, God/Jesus/Spirit invites us to be in nurturing relationship with creation (Vryhof).

A colleague of mine blogging on Matthew 28:20 shares a definition of authority as followability (Pankey). Followability is a characteristic of relationship. And if nothing else is definitive, the Trinity – God/Jesus/Spirit is divine relationship.

We are created to be the image of the divine relationship. The quality of the divine relationship is the model quality of all our relationships, our relationships with each other as individuals; our relationships with each other as villages, towns, cities, counties, states and nations, and our relationship, individually and collectively, as villages, towns, cities, counties, states and nations, with creation. Pondering the nature of the God/Jesus/Spirit divine relationship is important because it is the model for all our relationships, and as I shared earlier, we know relationships matter. The quality of our relationships affects the evolution of our being. The quality of our relationships affects the manner of our civilizations. The quality of our relationship affects the health of our bodies, our emotions, our friendships, and our souls.

To celebrate this Trinity, I invite you to reflect on how you live in the mystery of God/Jesus/Spirit and reflect it in all your relationships. And then go share, not by telling, but by being the reflection of the love God/Jesus/Spirit share among themselves and with you.

References

Black Past. “smith-james-mccune.” n.d. http://www.blackpast.org. 9 6 2017. <http://www.blackpast.org/aah/smith-james-mccune-1813-1865 >.

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

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 11 6 2017.

Khullar, Dhruv. “How Prejudice Can Harm Your Health.” 8 6 2017. NYTimes.com. <nytimes.com/2017/06/08/upshot/howprejudicecanharmyourhealth.>.

Lewis, Karoline. God Said Yes to Me. 6 9 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Marchant, Jo. “golden-warrior-greek-tomb-exposes-roots-western-civilization.” 1 2017. smithsonianmag.com. <smithsonianmag.com /history/golden-warrior-greek-tomb-exposes-roots-western-civilization-180961441/>.

NAACP. “w-e-b-dubois.” n.d. http://www.naacp.org. 9 6 2017. <http://www.naacp.org/oldest-and-boldest/naacp-history-w-e-b-dubois&gt;.

Pankey, Steve. All Authority. 6 6 2017. <https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491/posts/1485395986&gt;.

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

Vryhof, Br. David. Participate. 6 6 2017. Society of St. John the Evangelist. <http://ssje.org/word/&gt;.

Whitley, Katerina K. “The Mystery of the Trinity, Trinity Sunday (A).” 18 8 2017. Sermons that Work.

Zimmer, Carl. “Oldest Fossils of Homo Sapiens Found in Morocco, Altering.” 7 6 2017. NYTimes.com. <nytimes.com/2017/06/07/science/humanfossilsmorocco.>.

 

 

Renewing Our Commission

A sermon for Pentecost; Acts 2:1-21 , Psalm 104:25-35, 37, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, John 20:19-23

 

In this morning’s Gospel from John, we hear Jesus commission the disciples, and us, to continue to do the work God sent Jesus to do (Harrelson John 20-19-23). In Acts, we hear about the community of disciples prophesying to the festival crowd in Jerusalem. We don’t know what they said, but we get that it was radical truth telling. The prophecy was spoken in such a way that the crowd can hear the native dialect of the speakers and they can also hear in their native language so that they could understand. Hearing both the speaker’s dialect and understanding in the listeners’ language reveals how God works with us as we are (Wall). John shares that Jesus is present with all the scars of his life, death, and resurrection; we hear that they are a critical part of the disciples recognizing who he is (Gaventa and Petersen John 20-19-23). The disciples’ prophecies are spoken with the disciples’ life scars visible to all.

,

The coming of the Spirit in Acts and John reveals that God/Spirit does not save us from any of the tragedies, the troubles, the failures, or the hardships of life or the world. God/Spirit does journey with us through them (Lose). Sometimes the Spirit’s presence is an inspiration; sometimes the Spirit’s presence is just company, in a time when it is so good to know you are not alone. Still, our journey, whether through land or through time, is a dangerous adventure. We can be reluctant to call upon Spirit because deep down we know just how she is dangerous she is (Taylor; Lewis; Deon). To invite the Spirit into our life means that we must be open and vulnerable; we must be open to the transforming power of God

  • that drove Jesus into wilderness
  • that will compel us to go out into the world
  • that opens our eyes to what we would rather ignore, and
  • move us from behind our checkbooks to beside one made in God’s image who is struggling (Deon).

The many languages spoken in Acts becomes a way that God confirms the diversity of all creation and those gathered and that undermines Roman interests in creating a single people through subjugation (Gaventa and Petersen Acts 2:1-21). Today the Spirit does the same; it pits us against principalities and powers of the world. It is clear the Spirit turns things upside down (Cruz John 29:19-23). But what does that really mean to us?

Well, it might be something like the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus tosses aside all social and sacred customs and engages the woman as she is. He speaks dangerous truths to her, about her husbands. He answers her questions about faith: is he greater than Jacob, by offering an entirely new vision of relationship with God that is in spirit and truth (Cruz John 20:19-23). And what does this look like today?

On May 11 a Michigan Congressman, at a town hall meeting, spoke about climate change. He said

 I believe there’s been climate change since the beginning of time.

He goes on to say

if there’s a real problem, [God] can take care of it.” (Collins).

Today’s readings don’t support his belief or thinking. God/Spirit does not take care of things. But, God/Sprit walks with us as we engage the troubles of the world. If we go back to the beginning, back to Genesis 1:26, we read:

… let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)

Dominion is not to dominate, it is to participate with God in the continuing work of creation; nurturing creation even as we cultivate its resources, bringing the world to its full created potential (Fretheim). So, what do we do? How can we participate in continuing creation and nurturing the world’s resources?

We could consider beginning by forgiving and or retaining our part in the world’s sin of not nurturing creation as we were created to do. That is connected to not hiding our transgressions, which we all have. The AC is running this morning. One unit’s fan was left running for the last couple of weeks. I missed that, even though I knew the fan was running, I just did not stop and take the time to find out why. When I did, it was completely by accident, and it meant simply flipping a switch from ‘on’ to ‘auto.’ Nurturing creation means witnessing to God’s identity in Jesus, which is in each of us.

Remember all that God is in me, and I am in you, and you are in me, stuff from John (that drives us nuts); here is where all that makes a difference. Remember the faithful Congressman? Treating the congressman with respect, because God/Jesus is in him and he is in God/Jesus, we could consider revealing the bible verses we just looked at and invite him to come and see; not evidence, but our calling to be a part of the continuing creation and the nurturing of the world’s potential. This means being prophetic, speaking the difficult truth in face of seemingly closed ears and hardened hearts.

There are other challenges that come from climate change. One of the things we might consider doing is to make sure that our local, state, and national leaders take care of those whose lives are displaced by necessary changes around climate change. One example is coal miners and families. This includes acknowledging it will be a long hard slog because it is not just a job, but a culture, a way life that their families have known for generations, that is at risk.

Another thing we could do is to explore our retirement or investments portfolios hold stocks who companies are acting responsibly. This past week at Exxon’s annual meeting, a resolution, led by the New York State Pension Fund, the Church of England investment fund, New York City Retirement Systems, and dozens of others, sponsored a resolution in favor of more open and detailed analyses of the risks posed to its business by policies aimed at stemming climate change, including the goals of the Paris climate agreement. In spite of the board’s objection, the resolution passed by 62.3% in favor. This is a growing trend (Cardwell).

We can act at home, we can run our AC systems a little less and turn the heat in our house down a little bit. Did you know there are solar powered chargers for tablets and cell phones?  And yes, if you are like me I charge mine at night and I know there is no solar at night. However, there are batteries that hold more than a phone’s or tablet’s battery; and they can be charge in the sunlight and charge the phones and tablets at night. A little more inconvenient, but nurtures creation. We can choose to drive more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. We can make sure our use of anything that involves a natural resource can be examined for its impact on nurturing creation’s potential.

The same God/Jesus/Spirit that guides global or national prophecy and actions can apply to local troubles. Some families and schools face educational challenges. We can go to the least well preforming class and read to a class room of Kindergarteners to 3rd graders. Every trouble we face at any level can be approached by seeking God/Jesus/Spirit’s guiding presence. It will not be easy. It will change us far more than it will change anyone else. It will expose our scars and likely leave us with new ones. But, it will put us in relationship with some unknown, unexpected neighbor who just may be seeking to hear that God cares, and our voice just may be the voice the reflects the image of God they need.

Pentecost is not red hat day. It is not the birthday of the church. Pentecost is the renewal of our commissioning to continue Jesus’ prophetic mission to point to the presence of the Kingdom right here, right now by nurturing continuing creation.

References

Cardwell, Diane. “Exxon Mobil Shareholders Demand Accounting of Climate Change Policy Risks.” 31 5 2017. NYtimes.com. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/31/business/energy-environment/exxon-shareholders-climate-change.html&gt;.

Collins, Eliza. “GOP congressman on climate change: God will ‘take care of it’ if it’s real.” 1 6 2017. USA Today. <https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2017/06/01/tim-walberg-climate-change-trump-paris-agreement/102389286/&gt;.

Cruz, Samuel. “Commentary on John 20:1923.” 4 6 2017. Working Preacher. <workingpreacher.org>.

Deon. “Saying Yes, Pentecost (A).” 4 6 2017. Sermons that Work.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 1 6 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

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

Hoezee, Scott. Pentecost John 20:19-23 . 4 6 2017. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 4 6 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. Spirit Work. 1 6 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Pentecost A: With, not From. 4 6 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

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

Taylor, Barbara Brown. “quoted by Leiws in Spirit Works.” 4 6 2017.

Wall, Robert. New interpreter’s Bible The Acts of the Apostles. Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

Betwixt and Between

A sermon for Easter 7; Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

Today is a bit of a betwixt and between day. Thursday is the prescribed day to celebrate the Ascension, the story we read in Acts this morning when Jesus ascends into heaven to be at the right hand of the Father. It is one High Holy Day that many congregations do not celebrate because it is in the middle of the week; moreover; it floats around from one day to the next because it is 40 days after Easter Sunday and no matter how hard anyone tries when you divide 40 by 7 (the days in a week) you get a remainder, so Ascension Day moves around. The other end of betwixt and between is Pentecost which is next Sunday, when the Holy Spirit arrives (at least for Luke); a celebration many mark by wearing all manner of red clothing and others by commemorating the birthday of thre church. But today we are betwixt and between. But, there are at least three excellent phrases in the reading from Acts we should at least take a closer look at.

The first is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?

One commentary notes:

They have had three years hearing Jesus teach and witnessing his deeds of power. They witnessed the crucifixion. They saw or were told about the empty tomb. And lastly, they have had 40 days of specific prayer and instruction with Jesus preparing them for their work to come. And still, they have one more religious-political who’s going to be in charge question (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner; Harrelson).

To which Jesus says It is not for you to know; ~ its none of your business. His answer and the unexpected time since then ought to make it very clear, that God’s plan for restoring Israel is not what anyone expects, that it will not “erupt from the heavens in the twinkling of an eye” nor is it not for a select few to know (Wall). God knows what God is doing, that’s enough for us to know. Jesus goes on to say

 You have work to do here and now, go be my witness to the end of the earth, and I will send the Holy Spirit to help. (My paraphrase.)

To borrow a phrase from John’s Gospel story now is the time to work the works God has given us to work (Osvaldo).

After this the disciples witness Jesus ascend into the heavens. Now comes one of my favorite bibles verses: They stood there, staring into the empty sky. (Acts 1:10, The Message). How many times do we get caught up in some sort of speculation about what’s going on in the life of the church or about what God/Jesus/ Spirit is up to and just stare into empty space rather than get about working the work (Bratt)? There are good reasons, well at least there are good excuses. We might not have a clue what to do. We might be overwhelmed by the size of the task, after all the ends of the earth is a long way away no matter where you start. And there is plenty to be afraid of, threats abound; then and now. In places, Christians are physically threatened and or face death. In the United States, there is enough political instability to make us uneasy. In many places, including the Arkansas Delta, there is enough economic uncertainty, to distract us. And we should face the truth that we may be facing our personal fears. Staring into empty space may be just that, or it may be what pondering how to undertake what the unknowable is. Either way, we are not alone.

We are not alone because Jesus does not send disciples or us as individuals out to be witnesses. The ministry of continuing Jesus’ ministry is a task of the community of disciples that share a unity that mirrors the image of the unity between Jesus and the Father that John captures in Jesus’ prayer so that they may be one as we are one (John 17:11). The fact that there has always been intuitional factions does not mean there is not Christian unity. In Acts 1:7 Jesus lets us know that God’s plan is not about political or earthly structures. In John 17:11 Jesus lets us know that unity is relational. And if you go all the way back to the beginning, Genesis teaches us that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Remember we are Christians, and as Christians, we understand stand God as Trinity ~ 1 in 3 and 3 in 1, a divine model of community; therefore, we are made to be a community that reflects the divine community.

The final, and by chance 3rd, phrase to pay attention to today is in the final verse they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. If you ever been stumped, and if you ever wonder what Jesus would do ~ the answer is pray (Logue). It is a lesson the disciples learned because prayer, constant prayer, is a foundational piece of their community life. As Episcopalians, we have an abundance of prayer resources. The oldest is in The Book of Common Prayer. If you look in the table of contents, on page 5, you will see 5 forms of daily prayer, 2 of which have 2 forms and also Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families which offers short forms of prayer for morning, midday, early evening, and at the close of day. Beginning on Page 809 you will find 70 prayers for all manner and occasions. If you ever need to pray for something go there, there is something you can use to help get you started; it is a wonderful powerful resource (The Episcopal Church). There is Forward Day by Day that offers a scripture verse and short reflection for every day (Forward Movement). There is The Society of St. John the Evangelist’s Brother give us a word that offers a daily email with a short reflection, and the occasional seasonal online reflections and forms of prayer (SSJE). From now till Pentecost they are offering Thy Kingdom Come in response to and in collaboration with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call to prayer (COE). We are often dismissively referred to as those people with the book. We are ~ those people with the book; a book of prayer, that is one of many ways we as a community can constantly devote ourselves to prayer where ever we are. Our prayer life is important, not because it lets God know what in our hearts, God already knows that. Our prayer life is important because it is how as individuals and as a community we do not let the current concerns of the world, or our passionate commitment to mission, replace our abiding relationship with Jesus. The oneness of the Father and Jesus is their abiding relationship. Our oneness with Jesus and the Father is our abiding relationship with them and each other (Wall). It only makes sense that the abiding place (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner) the Father has prepared for us is the same place the work God has given us to work is ~ right here, right now.

Jesus has ascended. The work we are to work is right here. And the promise of the Spirit is right around the corner.

 

References

Bratt, Doug. Easter 7 A: Acts 1:6-14. 28 5 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 28 5 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Forward Movement. “prayer.” n.d. forwardmovement.org. <http://prayer.forwardmovement.org/forward_day_by_day.php?d=26&m=5&y=2017&gt;.

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

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 28 5 2017.

Logue, Frank. “Learning from Proverbs – Proper 18(B).” 28 5 2015. Sermons that Work.

Osvaldo, Vena. “Commentary on John 91:-41.” 20 3 2017. Working Preacher. <workingpreacher.org>.

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

SSJE. Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 23 10 2015. <http://ssje.org/word/&gt;.

The Church of England. n.d. http://www.thykingdomcome.global. <https://www.thykingdomcome.global/&gt;.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

Wall, Robert. New interpreter’s Bible The Acts of the Apostles. Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

 

 

 

It’s just good business

A sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter: Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:7-18, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

 

The author of the 1st Letter of Peter writes

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

This is exactly what Paul does in Athens. He has seen all the idols around the city, and it upsets him terribly. But, there is also this idol to an unknown god; which is a customary just in case practice (Harrelson). It is an opportunity Paul seizes. He does not shout at the people. He uses their culture, to witness to them (Benoit). Paul recognizes that God is uniquely present in every place, in every human story, so it does not matter the that people worship the unknown god; because it is really God in Jesus. Athens is the home of Socrates, great Universities and Philosophical schools of the Epicureans and the Stoics (Wall). Paul makes use of those customs in shaping his speech. He begins by noting how religious Athenians are; perhaps a bit tongue in cheek (Ellingsen). He quotes Epimenides, and Aratus well-known philosopher-poets (Harrelson). Then he introduces God who is not local, who is not bound to a specific place, who does not require human offerings, and who is the true source of all life (Gaventa and Petersen). Paul emphasizes God’s universal judgment and salvation for all. He welcomes all Athenians into the life giving, life changing presence of God through Jesus Christ. He does all this with the help of the Spirit. So, can you. Here ends the lesson.

Well almost.

 

I think our challenge today is not to defend the source of the hope that is in us. I think today’s challenge is to put the hope that is in us to work. This involves telling the truth about our community locally and globally (Bratt). And the truth I am beginning to see is deeply disturbing.

At Friday Families, we watched Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Throughout the story, Lord Cutler Beckett makes all kinds of inhuman decisions and actions, from killing Elizabeth’s father, to entrapping, enslaving, betraying, lying to, and blacking mailing most every character he encounters, all in the name of good business. The United States is the leading economic force in the world. We are not merely the largest, we set base standards of right and wrong. As a nation, we are remaking ourselves in the image of “It’s just good business.” We are leading the unmaking of humanity in the name of “It’s just good business.”

A couple of observations. We have commoditized agriculture to the extent that the few corporations who own the patents on seed stock are controlling who plants what. Farmers can no long save back some seed from crops they grew for seeds for next year because they don’t belong to them, they don’t own the patent. It constrains farmers’ prosperity, but it’s just good business.

We have almost completely commoditized university education through student loans. These loans are government guaranteed made to individuals from major financial institutions who sell education as the way to a bright future; which it can be. But These public and private Universities are not accountable for the results; it’s just good business.

There are some changes emerging in University accountability. But, they are cost reduction efforts by the states, not a careful examination of how best to provide education for all the people; it may be another form of its just good business. We have completely lost sight of John Adam’s (our second President) ideal that educating its people is a primary concern of any nation, any government (McCullough). The current trend is to abandon all public education and allow the market to improve a declining education system. Is it good for education? The results are very mixed, as it is for public schools. But we go that way because it is good business.

We have nearly commoditized our health care system. The efforts to make health care available to most Americans are primarily focused on insurance. There is an inspired change to shift the vision of health care from an individual event in a single person that a provider or providers diagnoses and implements a defined protocol to fix toward a system that understands that everything is interconnected when it comes to nurturing good health. You may not know that 50 to 80 percent of health care outcomes have nothing to do with medical providers but is determined by social drivers of health. Can you get back to the doctor, can you get your prescriptions filled, can you get your bandages changed, do you live in standard housing, do you have clean water, can you eat healthy? All these things determine health. There is a move among providers to invest in improving these social drivers. However, as far as I can tell it is limited to large systems with potential saving to fund these investments. More importantly is the complete lack of conversation about the behaviors of pharmaceutical, equipment, and supply businesses in health care They determine the cost of health care, and they are doing so largely without moral consideration. EpiPen’s cost increased ten times in ten years, without any change in medication or mechanics; it was just what the manufacturer believes is good business (Layton).The cost of Daraprim (a 62-year-old highly effective drug that is the standard treatment for a life-threatening parasitic infection) rose from $13.50 to $750 a tablet, (Pollack) because the new owner believed it was justified. Experts believe it is just economics (Seidman). Once again, it’s just good business. True there was dramatic pushback in these cases, and changes were made. But, the troublesome observation is that anyone, any business could ever allow such egregious decisions to be ever considered never mind brought to market.

Recently there has been a lot of conversation about driverless cars and trucks in the news. There has been some conversation about the impact of the potential loss of millions of jobs; taxi drivers, Uber drivers, Lyft drivers, truck drivers and delivery service drivers. Some conversation about guaranteed income for all citizens is popping up as visions of a worker-less artificial intelligence economy dance in our imaginations. But no one, no one is talking about the loss of human interaction. How many stories of a passenger or cab driver helping the other have you heard? How many times have you seen a car or a truck pull over to help a stranded driver? You may remember that in fall of 2015 I was coming home from Little Rock and blew the timing belt in my SUV. I was able to get off the road. I called AAA, they recommended a repair shop and dispatched a wrecker. When the wrecker arrived, I asked the driver if he could get me to a hotel. He looked at the work ticket and then recommend a different repair shop because there was a hotel across the street. In part, the recommendation was made because of the original repair shop’s location. Would a driverless wrecker have been able to do that? Would an AI desk clerk offer a toothbrush as I checked in because she asked how my night was?

There are all sorts of human interactions that advanced technologies and Artificial Intelligence will eliminate. It all may well be good business, but it is remaking humanity. Business has become the forest of idols in which we increasingly live and move and have our being. Paul would be aghast. So, should we. Paul acted, so should we; and Paul is our model.

Paul did not rant against the culture or the many, many idols to numerous gods. We should not blindly rant against technology. I cannot; I use a lot of technology every day. I preach from a tablet, a technology, that is still changing things. What we should do is start the conversation about where is God is all this. How does the business opportunity respect the image of God in the customer? How does the business opportunity reflect the image of God to the customer and the world? Does this inject religion into business and politics? Yes, it does, but Paul’s speech is every bit as political as well as religious, for the worship of the gods was as political as it was religious (Aymer). If we take our faith seriously; if we see the image of God in everyone, and the image is there, no matter how suppressed or hidden, if we are serious about witnessing God’s universal judgement that brings salvation then our religion, our faith must be the foundational value for every thought, word, and deed.

Can we ignore it all this and hope for the best, believing that “it’s just good business” will eventually lead to life nurturing decisions; after all religious based decisions do not have a good history of universally life nurturing? We can; but, at the very end of World’s End Lord Beckett eerily walks through a maelstrom of cannon and musket fire, and flying bits of shattered ship mumbling, “it’s just good business” until he is consumed by erupting flames as his ship The Endeavor explodes. Make of the imagery of searing flames what you will.

Is it difficult and risky to inject religion into business and politics? It is. It was for Paul. Yet Paul spoke, in part, because the other advocate, the Spirit, was with him, every step of the way. You also have an advocate who stands with you and goes with you everywhere. The Spirit is also with you.


 

References

Aymer, Margaret. Commentary on Acts 17:2231. 21 5 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Benoit, Arlette D. being a Witness for the God We Know, Easter 6 (A). 21 5 2017. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/&gt;.

Bratt, Doug. Acts 17:22-31. 21 5 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 21 5 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 21 5 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

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

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 21 5 2017.

Layton, Chris Woodyard, and Mary Jo. “Massive price increases on EpiPens raise the alarm.” 22 8 2016. usatoday.com. 20 5 2017. <https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2016/08/22/two-senators-urge-scrutiny-epipen-price-boost/89129620/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. A Paraclete Kind of Life. 21 5 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Pollack, Andrew. “Drug Goes From $13.50 a Tablet to $750, Overnight.” 30 9 20015. NYtimes.com. web. 20 5 2017. <https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/21/business/a-huge-overnight-increase-in-a-drugs-price-raises-protests.html?_r=0&gt;.

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

Seidman, Bianca. “Drug price increases 5,000 percent overnight.” 21 9 2015. cbsnews.com. 20 5 2017. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/generic-drug-price-increases-5000-percent-overnight/&gt;.

Wall, Robert. New interpreter’s Bible The Acts of the Apostles. Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

 

Teeth Gnashing, Ear Covering, Anxiety Moments

A sermon for Easter 5: Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14

 

I am in a quandary this morning. Today is mothers’ day. It is also the Sunday we read about St. Stephen being martyred. Stephen is a good man. He is one of a few who are chosen to ensure Greek-speaking Christians got a fair share of daily food distribution. He is far more than a counter clerk or table waiter. Stephen has a powerful Spirit and an eloquent voice. He is not afraid to share the first, with skillful use of the second. His verbal joust with the Freedmen’s synagogue leads to false charges of blasphemy and an appearance before the council. There he there he openly talks about Israel’s history of failure to follow God’s law, naming the Temple authorities, Pharisees, Sadducees, and historical figures all the way back to Moses. His fearless spirit, eloquence, and power stir up such passions that the Jews stone him to death. (Sakenfeld) In addition to Stephen’s personal qualities, he is also a mother’s son. And I know she would be proud of who he was. So, how am I to preach about a son’s death, and pay homage to Mothers’ Day. Maybe by reflecting on how Jesus and the disciples say good-bye; because Stephen left us with more than a story of spirit and strength; Stephen leaves us with the challenge to live life differently (Lewis). To do that we begin by being honest with ourselves, by examining the behaviors of Stephen’s adversaries

We pick up the story in mid-action. After the Stephen is taken to the council, he retells Israel’s history, with an emphasis on their unfaithful behavior. Then he charges them:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it (Acts 7:51-53).

That sent the crowd over the edge. Luke writes “[they] ground their teeth at Stephen.” Grinding teeth is a sign of the anger of those who oppose God’s servants; an example is Psalm 37:12 The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them. Matthew uses the phrase to tell about those excluded from the kingdom. and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:42). Here it is an expression of righteous outrage (Wall). This is one of those biblical expressions that does not get proper attention. We tend to envision it as something an actor might do to express a feeling. But it is deeper than that. I know several people who have dental problems because they grind their teeth. The causes can an abnormal bite, missing or crooked teeth, a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea; but it can also be caused by stress and anxiety (WebMD). I’m not casting any judgments, but stress and anxiety can be related to stubborn refusal to acknowledge the truth you just do not want to face. I suspect people’s habit of clenching their teeth as a physical expression of an extreme effort to control anger qualifies for biblically grinding teeth.

A bit later we hear they cover their “uncircumcised ears” referring to a stubbornness that prevents the council from hearing the true word of God Stephen spoke (Sakenfeld). When you think about it, they have doubled down, by covering their ears so they cannot hear, with ears that are already unable to hear the truth.

This is another expression that reveals common behaviors. Our kids could never hear us call them unless it involved something they were excited about. Angie tells me I never hear her unless she is saying “dinner is ready.” You get the idea; we are very good at not hearing what we do not want to know.

We now have two traits to look for in our self-examination: anger expressed in grinding or clenching teeth, and voluntary deafness. I expect all of us can tell at least one story involving us clenching our teeth or choosing not to hear. I am sure all of those stories involve some sort of emotional angst, some deep sorrow or trouble. This raises the uncomfortable possibility that we are not all that different from the mob that stones Stephen. Maybe we are not; but, ~ we can be.

Part of my seminary experience was Clinical Pastoral Education. It is a program where you go to a big hospital, or some large ministry center to learn how to be pastoral. What you do not know go going in is that this is not a skills development experience. CPE, as it is known, is about developing the self-awareness that allows you to identify your physical response to past experiences which provoke an emotional response that gets in the way of your immediate pastoral relationship. For ten or fifteen years of my 23 years in ministry, I have spent some continuing education time exploring Family Systems Theory which puts the same events into a theoretical and practical structure of our family history. The short-hand for all this is getting to know yourself so you can control yourself. Jesus has a similar idea, with a slightly different emphasis.

A point of order here; story order that is. The lectionary is structured in such a way that we are experiencing a flashback. This is not a post-resurrection story from John’s Gospel; this is a pre-crucifixion story. This is the night before. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. He has revealed that one of them will betray him; which introduces all kinds of anxiety. He has told Peter that he will deny him, not once but three times. “Troubled hearts” is very much an understatement. Nonetheless, this is where Jesus starts.

I expect Jesus starts by naming the disciples “troubled hearts” so they could recognize their emotional angst. Jesus did not have ten or fifteen years, and neither did the disciples. Jesus’ next step is to focus on the relationship steps. He and God know each other so well, they are one. Jesus and the disciples know each other very well. Their relationship is so tight that in knowing Jesus they also know God. Jesus is encouraging his disciples, and that includes you ~ and me, to remember their relationship, to keep their belief in him and through that, they are in a relationship with God; not might be, not can be, not will be, but are in a relationship with God ~ right here, right now.

The shorthand for these verses is that the words ‘house’ or ‘dwelling place,’ ‘the way’ and ‘I am’ are all traditional Jewish references to a relationship with God or the revelation of God (O’Day). All of them are inclusive. This means the phrase “No one comes to the Father except through me” is not a road map any more than Thomas’ understanding of “the way” is a road map. It recognizes a particular way of being in a relationship with God, i.e. through Jesus; it does not express an opinion about or exclude, any other relationship with God (O’Day). Jesus’ saying, “I am the resurrection and the life” marks the beginning of a new age, and assures the disciples “nothing, not even death, can separate Jesus and his “own” from God” (O’Day).

One defining characteristic of the God-Jesus relationship is trust. Jesus trusts God enough to die. All this is Jesus’ effort to help the disciples trust God as much as Jesus trusts God; in this particular moment, but also in the moments to come that as we know, will be nearly as anxiety producing. It is also Jesus’ effort to remind us to trust God/Jesus/Spirit in the midst of our teeth gnashing, ear covering, anxiety moments. Jesus is assuring the disciples he is still the way to the peace of God. The rest of the bible story reveals the truth of Jesus’ assurance.

Today, this story is assuring us that Jesus is still the way to the peace that passes all understanding. It is not easy to remember. Which is why we need a faith community to help us remember when worldly affairs drive our anxiety meter to the top. And helping each other is one of the greater works, Jesus assures us we will do. We will help each other, and others, and we can help them because we remember the us-Jesus-God relationship connection is:

  • our strong rock,
  • our castle safe hold,
  • our tower of strength.

Now we flash forward; all the way forward to this very moment. Our world is as troubled as the disciples’ world is troubled, each in its own particular way. Jesus asks the disciples to believe, to trust him just as he trusts God. Through the story, they shepherded we know Christ died. Through their continuing story, we know Christ is risen. Through our mutual trust in the story, we now shepherd we know Christ will come again.

So, do not be afraid, be believing.

 

References

Aymer, Margaret. Commentary on Acts 7:55-60. 14 5 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Bratt, Doug. Easter 5 A Acts 7:55-760. 14 5 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 14 5 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

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

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 14:1-14. 14 5 2017.

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Wall, Robert. New interpreter’s Bible The Acts of the Apostles (NIBC) John 21:25. Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

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