Love These People

A Sermon for 5th Sunday in Easter; Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

 Years ago, I went to some sort of conference on some ministry program or another, you can tell the program is not what captured my attention. Truth is I’m no longer sure if I was actually there, or if I have simply incorporated it into my story, either way it is a part of my world view. The speaker walks on to the stage, right past the podium, all the way to the other side ~ turns around and walks all the way across the stage again; only then goes to the podium. Without any introduction, the first words are “If you are not here because you love these people ~ leave!” Everyone’s attention is captured; everyone instinctively knows the truth they have just heard, without love, what we do doesn’t matter.

So, I was a little surprised when I was drawn to Acts, and not John’s Gospel reading this morning, and its focus on love. Three phrases from Acts stood out:

  • What God has made clean; you must not call profane
  • not to make a distinction between them and us, and
  • who was I that I could hinder God?

I was all ready to start with who was I that I could hinder God until I read a blog post Without a Doubt on verse 12 not make a distinction between them and us. The author, my colleague Steve, got to digging around in the Greek and learned ‘doubt’ is a cognate or similar, translation to ‘not to make a distinction’ Further digging revealed that the Contemporary English Version translation is The Holy Spirit told me to go and not worry (Pankey).

And of course, Bobby McFerrin’s little song Don’t Worry Be Happy popped in my head. I was going to play it, but it is too long. The gist is, McFerrin runs through a list of life’s potential troublesome moments

you don’t have a place to lay your head,
your rent is late,
you don’t have any cash,
you ain’t got no style,
you got no gal to make you smile.

His advice is don’t worry if you do it will make your troubles double; so don’t worry be happy (McFerrin).

I got to wondering “What has Peter got to worry about?” He has just raised Dorcus, beloved disciple, from the dead, and many came to believe, which is great (Acts 9:36-43). Then He has a vision about forbidden foods, in which God says what I have made clean do not call profane (Acts 10:9-16). A vision can be an exciting thing, at the same time it can be a two-edge sword because God wants something. Then 3 strangers from the Roman centurion, Cornelius, show up asking for Peter (Acts 10:17-20). What could go wrong here? He goes to Caesarea (Acts 10:24) which is the capital of the Roman province, in the middle of Gentile territory (Easton). That puts him at risk of being seen as assimilating, adapting, to the majority Roman Empire’s culture, which is the opposite of God’s people being different (Peterson). Cornelius tells Peter So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say. (Acts 10:33) While Peter is preaching the Holy Spirit is poured out on the Gentiles (Acts 10:45). Peter’s response is to baptize everyone he can lay hands on, all of them gentiles. And then, like after every other church event, they share a meal, Peter sits at table with Gentiles (Peterson). There are all sorts of troublesome things here.

And trouble is where Peter is this morning. All I described happens in chapter 10. This morning’s reading is from chapter 11. Here Peter is called before a gathering of apostles and the believers, in Jerusalem, to explain what happened. He does so in a clear orderly way, focusing on God’s presence in every step (Gaventa and Petersen). Peter don’t worry, he’s happy, he knows he’s doing God work:

  • Going to Caesarea, to the home of a Roman Centurion, and breaking the barrier of separation between Jews and Gentiles, is doing God’s work,
  • preaching Jesus to Gentile, is doing God’s work,
  • baptizing all in Cornelius’ household is doing God’s work,
  • sharing a meal at a Gentile table is doing God’s work.

There are lots of things to worry about; but Peter don’t worry, he’s happy to be doing God’s work.

So ~ what about our troubles today? Today’s troubles:

  • There is a rise in religious intolerance; in the middle east against Christian minorities, and in India, Burma, and China against Muslim minorities.
  • There are all sorts of legislative machinations concerning abortion; a state legislator claimed pregnancy by rape is a gift from God (Stone), another lawmaker and former police officer, claimed that most rapes that he investigated were consensual (William).
  • There are all the troubles around immigration, beyond the issue of the wall, and increasing numbers of people crossing the border,
    • there are the continuing concerns with DACA,
    • the lack of workers in agriculture, construction, hospitality, and other industries who are no longer able to recruit the number of temporary immigrant workers they have in recent years.
  • There are threats to the economy, such as tariff conflicts, and Brexit.
  • There is a vague threat of war in Venezuela with the effort to bring about a change in government.
  • There is the threat of accidental war with Iran as tensions rise over the balance of power in the Middle East between Arab and Persian powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and their allies.
  • There are the conflicting ideas about changing rain patterns slowing the planting season, breaching levies flooding towns and farmlands, and stopping barge traffic on long flooding rivers.
  • There is the escalating violence in Blytheville.
  • And of course, there are the changes at St. Stephen’s

All these involve crossing some sort of boundary or another, some sort of change or another. They involve how we see others, how we judge others, perhaps unaware, perhaps intentionally, and they involve how we see ourselves, our traditions, our faith, our understanding of God as right or simply better.

We face the same challenge Peter did, thought without, at least so far, a divine vision. But even with a vision, we, individually and as a community, face the decision the apostles and the believers in Jerusalem faced. Knowing nothing we do can bear fruit without God (Mast). We ponder

  • does not changing hinder God?
  • does changing hinder God?
  • is this change of God?
  • is God the only arbiter, and/or judge?
  • is the direction unilaterally, singularly, directed by the Spirit?
  • is God cleaning hearts (Gaventa and Petersen)?
  • is the change loving each other, your neighbor, yourself, your enemy, your spouse, your children, your friends, your bus driver, your mailman, your pharmacist, everybody, as Jesus loved ~ loves ~ everyone, so that others know God/Jesus/Spirit’s presence in and through us (John 13:34-35) (Bates)?

In pondering we realize that loving as Jesus loves means accepting radical change in which God invites and enables us, to extend further, and embrace wider, so that individually and together we each become more (Ditewig). We realize how such love is hard, this it is never without sacrifice, pain, and challenges (Lewis).

These are challenging questions. They would take the heart of everyone, and there may come a day when our hearts fail; but not today. Today we don’t worry, today we be happy, today ~ we trust in God and in doing God’s work, after all, we do love these people (Wikiquote).


References

Bates, J. Barrington. “The Way of Love, Easter 5.” 19 5 2019. Sermons that Work.

Ditewig, Br. Luke. “Change.” Meeting Jesus in the Gospel. SSJE. Cambridge, n.d. Email.

Easton, M. G. Easton’s Bible Dictionary. Public Domain, 1897. Olive Tree.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 19 5 2019. <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.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. Real Love. 19 5 2019. <workingpreacher.org>.

Mast, Stan. Old Testament Lectionary — Axts11:1-18. 19 5 2019. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

McFerrin, Robert Jr. “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Universal Music Publishing Group, 19 5 2019.

Pankey, Steve. Without a Doubt. 19 5 2019. <wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491/posts/1310831034>.

Peterson, Brian. Commentary on Acts 11:1-18. 19 5 2019. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

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

Stone, Michael. Missouri Rep. Calls Pregnancy By Rape God’s ‘Silver Lining’. 4 5 2016. 17 2019. <patheos.com/blogs/progressivesecularhumanist/2016/05/missouri-rep-calls-pregnancy-by-rape-gods-silverlining>.

Wikiquote. The_Lord_of_the_Rings:_The_Return_of_the_King#Aragorn. n.d. 18 5 2019. <https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings:_The_Return_of_the_King#Aragorn&gt;.

William. Missouri Lawmaker Says Most Rapes That He’s Investigated. 17 5 2019. <mavenroundtable.io/theintellectualist/news/missouri-lawmaker-says-most-rapes-that-he-s-investigated-areconsensual->.

 

 

 

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

Baker, C. (2015, 5 3). Commentary on Acts 8:2640. Retrieved from Working Preacher.

Brooks, D. (2015, 5 3). The Nature of Poverty. New York Times. Retrieved from http://nyti.ms/1BxJy9I

Clavier, A. F. (2015, 5 3). Sermons that Work. Retrieved from The Episcopal Church.

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

Ellingsen, M. (2014, 8 24). Proper 16 | OT 21 | Pentecost 11, Cycle A. Retrieved from Lectionary Scripture Notes: http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/

Epperly, B. (2015, 5 3). The Adventurous Lectionary. Retrieved from Pathos: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly

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

Hari, J. (2015). The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is. Huffington Post. Retrieved 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johannhari/

Hoezee, S. (2015, 5 3). Old Testament Lectionary. Retrieved from Working Preacher.

Hoezee, S. (2015, 5 3). The Lectionary Gospel. Retrieved from Center for Excellence in Preaching: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php

Interpretation (Vol. Acts). (2003). Louisville: John Knox Press.

Jacobson, R., Lewis, K., & Skinner, M. (2015, 5 3). Sermon Brain Wave. Retrieved from workingpreacher.org.

Lewis, K. (2015, 5 3). Dear Working Preacher; The Risky Business of Bearing Fruit. Retrieved from Working Preacher: workingpreacher.org

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

New Interpreter’s bible (Vol. Volume John). (2003). Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Opinion. (2014, 4 20). 1.5 Million Missing Black Men. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/09/us/out-of-state-clinic-is-central-in-texas-abortion-law-fight.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A7%22%7D

Sakenfeld, K. D. (2009). New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon.

Stamper, M. (2015, 5 3). Commentary on John 15:18. Retrieved from Working Preacher.

WATKINS, D. (2015, 4 28). In Baltimore, We’re All Freddie Gray. New York Times.