A Divine Call To A orally Repugnant Action.

A Sermon for Proper 12: Hosea 1:2-10, Psalm 85, Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19), Luke 11:1-13

Throughout my working life, there have been hard things I have had to do. I had to fire an employee. I was the one to tell a customer the actions of their staff has destroyed all the company’s data. Yes, we can rebuild it, but it would be by hand, and charged by the hour, with no guarantees. There was no way to give an estimate, the work required looking at one sector of 512 bytes at a time; there were 6 ten megabyte discs requiring 11,700 individual search actions, and each had to be examined for information about the file structure information so the links of each sector in any file could be reestablished in the correct order. I was the Account Executive who had to explain to a customer how their employee, a personal friend, who had been honored by our community, embezzled from the company. I was part of a committee chosen to tell a fellow parishioner we have voted not to recommend him to the bishop for ordination. As a priest and a member of the Commission on Ministry, I voted not to recommend a postulant for ordination, that vote carried. As a member of a bishop nomination committee, I had to call and tell a candidate they had not been selected to proceed to the next step. And as a police chaplain, I accompanied a police officer to knock on a stranger’s door late one night, to tell them their child had been killed in an auto accident. All of these were hard in their unique way. Yet, all of them are categorically less challenging from other sorts of actions.

Oskar Schindler set out to make his fortune in Nazi Germany with bribes, the use of the black-market sources and employing Jewish prisoners as cheap labor. He experienced growing success. Then, after observing a Nazi killing random Jews in a public square he begins to use his businesses to save Jewish worker prisoners. He saved many hundreds by transferring them to a new munitions factory, that never produced a live round of ammunition. By the end of the war, he has spent his entire fortune and saved 1200 Jewish workers (Wikipedia).

Like Schindler God is caught in an intractable, a stubborn problem. Israel would not acknowledge its idolatry. They still believed in Yahweh. So what if they offer a little allegiance to Baal and Asherah or the gods of their pagan neighbors that promised fertility and prosperity, success and victory, just to cover the bases. Schindler realized praying wasn’t enough, speaking was dangerous, only action, discrete action, would do. For God, once again, only action would do, this time a bit of some shock therapy (Mast). The action is told in the story of Hosea.

A brief look at today’s verses. Marriage is an established metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel. Here it is vividly conveyed in the marriage between a faithful husband, Hosea, and a faithless wife, Gomer (Yee). God is faithful. Israel is promiscuous, while proclaiming allegiance to God, they also make offerings to Baal, Asherah and other gods of local power, just in case there is a need to assure fertility, and profits (Yee). The three Children’s names are significant. Jezreel, the oldest, is named for the site of the zealous coup of Jehu, in which Israel politically and religiously corrupt Royal house of Omri, Joram, Jezebel, all of Ahab’s sons, and King Ahaziah of Judah are all assassinated (2 Kings. 9–10) (Keener and Walton; Harrelson; Gaventa and Petersen; Yee). The second child, a girl, is named Lo Ruhamah, which means “No Mercy” (Harrelson) or not pitied” (Gaventa and Petersen). The youngest child, a boy, is named Lo Ammi which means “Not My People” (Harrelson). Both these names are negative reflections of Israel’s assumed relationship with God. All there are far worse names than a boy named Sue.

There are other difficulties with this passage, especially in its depiction of women. Gomer never speaks. What are her feelings about naming her children after a place of a bloody coup, “Not- loved” and “Not- My- People?” (Yee). All the children’s names are reminders of Israel’s darkest days or contrary to long-held beliefs about their relationship with God, You will be my people and I will be your God (Exod 6:7; Lev 26:12-13) (Yee). What her thoughts about “whoredom” or “prostitute”?” Truth is the English is misleading. The Hebrew Zānâ is an inclusive term, covering a range of sexual transgressions (Yee). A better translation is ‘promiscuous,’ which for us may not make a difference, but in her day it does because promiscuity excludes the role of pagan temple prostitution. Gomer is likely habitually promiscuous; it is very doubtful she was a sexual agent for other gods (Yee; Couey; Keener and Walton). The story relates God to men and sin with women, which is harmful to women. Would a woman prophet (and there are implicit women prophets in the Bible) be commanded to marry a promiscuous man? What would her prophecy look like (Yee)? When we imagine the relationship between God and Israel from a feminine perspective and the decidedly different experiences of spousal infidelity, we find wholly different, though of no less valuable, revelation (Yee).

Gomer’s perspective is interesting but what intrigues me is that God asks Hosea to take morally repugnant action, marrying an unfaithful woman, possibly prostitute, have children by her, and give their children names that are counter to Israel’s national story. God knows he is asking Hosea to do something morally repugnant, at personal cost (Keener and Walton).

There are times when we are called to speak out condemning evil deeds and conditions, urging a community to repent and turn to the Lord. Today’s news provides examples enough,

  • immigration troubles
  • Arkansas’ Juvenile detention troubles,
  • Medicaid and Medicare
  • provider fraud,
  • emphasis on Corporate profits
  • at the cost of social welfare
  • of hundreds of thousands
  • of our neighbors,

and so on, you know our challenges. There are times to console the wounded with gentle words, all of us have and will know these. There times when words are inappropriate, lacking, or nonexistent, these occasions call us to act in ways that will accomplish God’s will (Yee). Not all such callings are pleasurable, today’s reading is an example of this. Not all callings look like service to God or God’s people, Hosea and Schindler are examples of this. Hosea reveals that such times require a believing trust in God, not unlike Jesus telling Thomas and all disciples, including us, to trust and be believing (John 20:24-29).

Jesus’ teaching about prayer is about trusting and believing when we ask for divine help, or search for divine presence, or knock for the divine way to be revealed. Jesus teaches

  • it is a good thing to pray;
  • it is a shameless thing to publicly pray for divine presence of the midst of ours’s and the world’s troubles (Couey);
  • it is a believing thing to seek God/Jesus/Spirit’s guidance, help,

In his life, ministry, death, and resurrection Jesus teaches us it is a trusting thing to follow God’s call [pause] especially when it compels us to speak, compels us to act in ways against currently accepted standards and the assumption that God is on our side (Epperly).

Friday there was a letter in the opinion section of The Washington Post signed by 149 former Obama administration officials, all people of color. They begin noting they have heard the call to go home before. It has been and is part of a surge in racism. They proclaim their stance with all those currently under attack. They are proud of their heritage as immigrants, refugees and the enslaved Africans who built this country while enduring the horrors of its original sin. They demand equitable access to health care, housing, quality schools, and employment. Their love of country lives in their commitment of [their] voices and [their] energy to build a more perfect union; and they call on local, state and congressional officials, as well as presidential candidates to articulate their policies and strategies for moving us forward as a strong democracy, through … equity lens that prioritizes people over profit. They close noting Frederick Douglass warning that

The life of a nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful and virtuous (Kinder, Moore, and Khalilah).

I know nothing of the authors’ religious thoughts, I do not know if they have heard a divine calling. I do know, like Hosea they are taking a public stance a significant number of people of Americans object to. I hear their compulsion to speak, their compulsion us to act in ways against accepted standards, of many, including those who assume God is on their side. It is an example of action grounded in trusting and believing in the true healing of God’s presence (Epperly). It reveals a passion not simply for justice, but honest, truthful, and virtuous love, and righteousness for all; which in the end drives Hosea to follow his calling.

Somewhere in the daily torrent of words streaming towards us is our calling; our challenge is not simply to hear, but to follow Hosea, Schindler, and others in a prayerful, trusting, believing response.

 

References

Couey, Blake. Commentary on Hosea 1:2-10. 28 7 2019. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 28 7 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.

Kinder, C., Jesse Moore, and Khalilah. “We are African Americans, we are patriots, and we refuse to sit idly by.” Washington Post (2019). <washingtonpost.com/opinions/we-are-african-americans-we-are-patriots-and-we-refuse-to-sit-idlyby/>.

Mast, Stan. Old Testament Lectionary Hosea 1:1-10. 28 7 2019. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Wikipedia. The Shawshank Redemption. n.d. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shawshank_Redemption#Plot&gt;.

Witchger, Anne Marie. Prayers, Pentecost 7 (C) – July 28, 2019. 28 7 2019. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/&gt;.

Yee, Gale A. The Book of Hosea, Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections. Vol. V. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols. Olive Tree. 28 7 2018.

 

 

 

 

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Plentiful Words, Rare Truth

A Sermon for Proper 4; 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20), Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6

Just a week or so ago the NFL owners meeting ended. They adopted several rule changes. One involves kickoffs, during which 40% of concussions occur. Another is that it is now a penalty for a player to lead with their helmet when tackling. These are designed to improve the safety for players. Another change involves rule about players not standing during National Anthem. You may remember the controversy this has caused the last year or so. It is interesting how the actions of a few define all the players. We rarely hear about other kinds of actions by NFL players in regular news. On Facebook, I recently read of two. In one a player helped a lady who was having difficulty paying the $50 fee for her oversized bag. He stepped forward and paid it for her. She offered to repay him with the cash she had, he simply replied, “Use it to pay it forward for someone else.” Another player noticed an elderly woman having trouble getting her bag from the overhead compartment. He got it down for her and carried to the front of the plane. The flight attendant told her the wheelchair and escort would be waiting for her, to take her to lobby. They got to the terminal, there was the wheelchair, but no attendant. So, he pushed her in the wheelchair, to the lobby where her daughter met her. Both these stories were posted by others who saw the behavior. It is a combination of stories, some controversial, some in service to others, and other things as well, that paints the truer image of NFL players.

This morning’s reading from 1 Samuel is the same. The appointed verses are the story of Samuel hearing God’s call and with Eli’s help, answering “Speak Lord, for your servant is here.” It sounds like a prophetic call story, but it does not have the typical structure of a prophetic call. (Birch). However, the optional verses and the story in Chapter 2 (2:11-17 and 22 – 34) tell the rest of the story. Eli’s sons are moral and spiritual hooligans. (Bratt). They grossly abuse their priestly office for their self-interest. It is no surprise then that all Israel does as they see fit (Bratt). The prophecy, by a stranger, in chapter 2 is against Eli and his priestly lineage. The word God tells Samuel to tell Eli repeats that prophecy. These verses reveal the complete story of what is happening here (Birch).

This story is more than Samuel coming of age and taking his first step in service to God. This is a story of a time when the Word of God was rare, and visions were uncommon (Birch). It is significant that Samuel has no basis on which to recognize the Lord’s summons (Birch). His failure to recognize God’s call mirrors the Israelites’ continually ignoring God’s voice (Bratt).

I do not believe God’s word or divine visions are rare these days. Quite the opposite. Doug Bratt puts it this way It’s increasingly hard to actually hear God speaking. It’s hard to untangle so much of the noise that our culture makes from God’s Word of Life. So many people claim to speak for God that we need some kind of good theological filter. The cacophony, the noise of so many competing voices is a sign that there is more at stake in our public, political, religious, and civic institutional decision making, that what the arguments are about. What is at stake is

  • who we are,
  • how we talk to one another,
  • what we model to the world, and
  • how we respect our foundational institutions and values (Friedman).

In describing the fall of one more respected public figure, connected to handling an exploitive sexual relationship, Ross Douthat writes

the big story … is a high-stakes showdown between two generations. Both generations are theologically conservative, but the figures raising their voices … have been —associated with a vision of their church that’s more countercultural, less wedded to the institutional [alliances], more likely to see racial reconciliation as essential …

[T]he temptation to dismiss discomfiting revelations as fake news, to retreat back into ignorance and self-justification, is at least as powerful as the impulse to really reckon with the truth.

[T]he question posed by this age of revelation is simple: Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge? (Douthart).

It may well be, that as in Samuel’s day, like Israel, many in our world simply do as they seem fit (Bratt).

I do not think it matters if you use an Ignatian concept of the Spiritual Examen (Ashley). or Lectio Divina, or African Bible Study, or some other form of discipline to discern God’s calling or vision. I do believe an indicator of whose voice you are hearing is how it leads you to lead others to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

The story of Samuel coming to know the Lord is a stark reminder that there are no guarantees that our call will be easy. Every time has its own peculiarities and God-filled silences and cacophonies. Each of us is called to be a prophet, in our own way. That call includes continually listening for the Voice, and then to speak what we hear (Bridgeman). To faithfully hear and speak takes a willingness to get out of the way, to hear without editing, to act, and then take responsibility for our response to what we have heard (Epperly). To be a prophet involves an openness to the advice and wisdom of others who might help us in discerning God’s call. (Birch). But whether we are prophetic or not our words, our actions, or lack of words or action, plays a part in others coming to recognize the voice of the Lord and divine visions.

None of this is easy. And as strange as it may seem, it is Eli who models this kind of self-awareness, and openness to God’s word. The judgment against him and his sons is harsh. It can never be expiated, can never be atoned for, never be corrected by sacrifice, or offering (1 Samuel 3:14. And though Eli is neither corrupt nor unfaithful, he accepts divine judgement, rather than seeking self-interest, when he says, “It is the Lord.”

It is hard to accept and harder to speak truths that challenge what we like and what benefits us. I think this is the source of all the turmoil in response to black ballplayers kneeling rather than standing as the National Anthem is sung. I expect we try to define the prophetic role as predicting the future and not speaking hard truths, because speaking the hard truth is lots harder, and personally costly. Today’s Psalm is clear

It is a fearful thing and a loving thing to know that God has searched me and known me, sits with me, rises with me, sees my path, and knows all my ways, is behind me and before me, lays a hand upon me (The Living Church).

The psalmist provides us a powerful, source of strength and hope wherever we go, we are in God’s care: no emotional, spiritual, or geographical state can take us beyond God’s presence (Epperly).

 A final observation. In all the prophets’ words about harsh truth and oncoming disaster, there is always a word of hope and a path to God’s presence. The same is true here. The reading ends

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord (1 Samuel 3:19-20).

You know I am fond of saying “The Kingdom of God is right here right now.” I know this is especially true as we accept our prophetic voice and name the evils where we are, such that all God’s people may know and show justice, mercy, and humility, to each other and before God.


References

Ashley, Danáe. “Bread, Law, and Spirit, Pentecost 2 (B).” 3 6 2018. Sermons that Work.

Birch, Bruce C. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Frist and Second Books of Samuel. Ed. Leander Keck. Vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015. X vols. OliveTree App.

Bratt, Doug. Proper 4B 1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20). 3 6 2018. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/&gt;.

Bridgeman, Valerie. “Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20].” 3 6 2018. workingpreacher.org. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?&gt;.

Douthart, Ross. “The Baptist Apocalypse.” 30 5 2018. nytimes.com. <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/30/opinion/paige-patterson-southern-baptist-convention.html&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 6 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Friedman, Thomas L. “Sounding Code Red: Electing.” 29 5 2018. New York Times. <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/29/opinion/midterms-trump-democrats.html&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.

Nelson, Thomas. The Chronological Study Bible NIV. Nashville: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc. (NIV Chronological Study Bible) Genesis 1:1, 2014. OliveTreeapp.

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

The Living Church. Righteousness and Mercy. 3 6 2018. <livingchurch.org>.

 

 

Shame to Prophecy

A sermon for Proper 16: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

Saint C’s is a centuries old congregation. The building is majestic, built of massive granite blocks she towers over the town. The patina of her copper sheathed steeple has been the landmark by which people oriented themselves longer than anyone can remember. Her members are proud, all the community leaders are members, their families have been attending for generations. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, bankers, business owners are replete at any service. Sunday ushers have worn pale gray morning coats that are carefully passed on from one generation to the next since her founding. St. C’s is a magnificent church.

Charles has fallen on hard times; actually harder times, all his life has been hard. He grew up poor. School was not valued in his family. As a young adult, he was able to get by on hard manual labor, which there was plenty of until the day he was hurt on the job. His medical treatment tended to the immediate injuries; however, there was no follow-up care. The lack of money, transportation, family or neighborly support, and willing doctors all conspired against him. Unable to work it wasn’t long before he became a shameful dishonor to his family. He left. There wasn’t any place for him to go, so Charles lived on the streets. He subsisted on meager coins that people would give him, mostly to get him along down the road. He rummaged through trash for food that had been thrown out. He rummaged the county trash heap looking for scrap he could sell for a pittance. The bright spot in his life was church. Every Sunday he would find one group or another to worship his Lord with.

No one ever knew why; no one ever asked why, but one Sunday morning, when a dark gray sky framed the world, the morning’s first sun rays lit up St C’s towering steeple like a shining beacon and drew Charles to her. He waited until the stream of people thinned out; straightened his ramshackle coat, did his best to fix his hair with his hands, and made his way through the front doors, down the right side aisle, to a vacant pew up front. Someone pointed him out to an usher, who went to the head usher, who stopped the procession in the side hall and called the police. The response was quick. Four officers made their way down the center and right aisle. One from each side approached, there was no conversation, they simply took hold of him by each arm, lifted him from the pew and dragged him out by the center aisle. Charles didn’t resist or struggle; all he did was cry, “All I want to do is worship my Lord!  All I want to do is worship my Lord!” When the shameful presence of a street person gone, St. Curmudgeon began her regal worship.

 

Centuries upon centuries ago Luke shared another story of shame. A woman crippled for nearly two decades, unable to walk or stand up straight comes into Jesus’ presence. He calls her over, gently lays his hands on her and tells her “You are set free from your ailment.” It’s curious language for a medical condition; you’d expect or Jesus to say “healed from” or “cured of.” It’s almost like her condition was some sort of being, and in 1st century Palestine such conditions were considered to be the affliction of a demon (Epperly). It’s also curious to hear that she “was straightened up” as the Greek more correctly reads, implying divine action is involved (Jacobsen).

The synagogue leader objected, and accuses Jesus of breaking the Laws governing Sabbath. In fact, he is taking advantage of a very narrow understanding of the 613 rules governing Sabbath, which is as much a day of delight and serving the purposes of God, as a day of rest (Hoezee). The leader’s behavior appears to be a public effort to shame the woman, the crowd, and Jesus. It doesn’t work and in the end, the leader is publicly shamed when Jesus notes its allowable to release oxen or donkey to go drink. In releasing the woman, Jesus brings honor to her and to God. The crowd gets it as they rejoice at “all the honored things” Jesus was doing (Pankey).

Jesus also honors the woman when he calls her “daughter of Abraham.”  Recognizing her as a daughter of Abraham creates a moral obligation to restore shalom, peace, wholeness of life, healing (Jacobsen). Being freed from her infliction, demonic or medical, also restores her to the community. A closer look at most of Jesus’ healing and you will notice that most, if not all of them, result in a restoring of the person to their community. It’s such a prominent notion I believe that restoring people to their families, and community should be part of a modern practice of medicine.

 

There is a prophetic element in this story. It is revealed not in Jesus’ words, but through Jesus’ behavior. The power God offers Jeremiah is known in service, mercy, healing and reconciliation. It is important, and perhaps a bit unsettling to understand God offers the same power and calling to us (Helmer).  It is even more unsettling as we recognize the urgency implicit in God’s telling Jeremiah “today I appoint you…” (Bratt). There is urgency in our call also.

Once you’ve recognized the prophetic element in Luke’s story we might just wonder “What is God, Jesus or the Spirit is calling you to do?” [i]. This question is far more expansive than we might realize. In Jeremiah’s day God’s reign is not limited to Israel; in our day our prophetic calling is not be limited to our church, our neighborhood, or our community; our calling may take us to places and to people in whose presence we are not comfortable (Nysse).

Yes, it is quite a shock to realize how God’s vision is so much more expansive than our vision. It is natural to doubt our abilities and to fear the way ahead. Remember God reassures Jeremiah “Do not be afraid for I am with you.” It is also helpful to remember all this is really sharing your relationship with God, just as it is, not as what you imagine everyone else thinks it should be, and then inviting the one you are with to come and see.

 

[i] Borrowed from African Bible Study Method

References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 16 C | Jeremiah 1:4-10. 21 8 20016.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scriture Notes Proper 16 | Ordinary Time 21 | Pentecost 13, Cycle C (2016). 21 8 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary Pentecost 14 – August 21, 2016. 21 8 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Helmer, Ben. “The Power of the Spirit, Proper 16 (C).” 16 8 2016. Sermons that Work.

Hoezee, Scott. Proper 16 C | Luke 13:10-17. 21 8 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. Commentary on Luke 13:1017. 21 8 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Daughters of Abraham. 21 8 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Nysse, Richard W. Commentary on Jeremiah 1:410. 21 8 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Pankey, Steve. “[New post] Honor and Shame.” 21 8 2016. Draughting Theology.

 

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.

How Absurd

A sermon for Lent 2

Genesis 17:17, 15-16, Psalm 22:22-30, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

Decades ago, God promised Abram an heir. God was taking time, a long time, to keep it, so Sari gave Hagar to Abram to as a wife to him. It worked, Ishmael was born. Things did not go well, it takes a divine intervention to impose a peace. Now, more than a decade later Abram is 100 years old, Sarai is 90 and here’s God making the same promise. Abram falls on his face perhaps in obedience, except he is laughing thinking to himself: “What again!” How Absurd. (Howard, 2015)

It’s all a bit similar, to last week’s covenant story when God through Noah promises all life “Never again.” This too is an absurd story. It all begins when God asks Noah to build an Ark, big enough to hold two of everything and his family. Water is nowhere in sight. How absurd it is to build a boat, even as a hedge against a flood, so far from water.

On their way from Bethsaida to Caesarea-Philippi, Jesus asks who they think he is, Peter answers “The Messiah.” He’s right! Then, as we hear this morning, Jesus begin teaching about his suffering, rejection, death and resurrection. This is not Peter’s image of the messiah. What he and all Israel really want is freedom from the Roman occupiers. No one can free their people by dying! Suffering, rejection and death, is exactly the opposite of the messianic hope. How absurd! So, never one to stop and think, Peter pulls Jesus aside, and sets him straight.

Several millennia later we know there is nothing absurd about any of these bible stories. These stories are central to our faith, through them the divine covenants

  • with Noah that never again will a flood cut off a life,
  • with Abraham and Sarah who are to give rise to nations and Kings, and are our spiritual forebearers
  • and through Jesus salvation is offered to all.

There is nothing at all absurd in these stories. Except, the absurdity with in the texts themselves.

The gleaning I share this morning is absurd. Literally ‘absurd.’ “How absurd” just may be the most common first response to a divine encounter. I’m coming to see receiving a divine word as absurd is perhaps a warning to pay particular attention. If you receive a calling to go do something absurd, like building a floating zoo miles from any water, intentional deliberate prayerful discernment as to how to go about getting it done is a faithful path. When you receive a divine promise you will be a part of, or are central to, or will attain the impossibly absurd, prayerful, discernment preparation, is a faithful path. Upon receiving a particularly insightful understanding of God in the world, prayerfully discerning what you know that is about to really change is a faithful path.

At our vestry meeting, immediately following worship, we will choose which of this year’s goals to take on first. All of you are absurdly busy. Nonetheless discerning which ministry you are called to be a part of, whether it’s on this list or not, is part of today’s agenda, its art of living into our baptism, perhaps part of a Lenten discipline.

You have heard that at convention a few weeks back Bishop Benfield challenged us to go beyond open doors. For the next couple Sunday school classes we will do the exercises Bishop Benfield led us through during convention. First, we draw our parish boundaries. We’ll begin with a very short history lesson about parishes and boundaries. Then we’ll project a map of the surrounding area, and literally draw the boundaries. Secondly, we will take a closer look at what’s around us, just a few blocks in each direction. Both are an exercise in hearing God’s call to go beyond our front doors, into our parish boundaries, friendly or not, with all our regrets and grievances, into mutually responsible, interdependent relationships with all our neighbors and Christ. My take from today’s scripture lessons is that the most important thing we need to do is to listen for the absurd.


References

Brueggemann, W. (n.d.). Interpretation (Vol. Genesis). (P. D. Miller Jr, & P. J. Achtemeie, Eds.) Louisville.

Epperly, B. (2015, 3 1). The Adventurous Lectionary. Retrieved from Pathos: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2015/02/theadventurouslectionarythesecondsundayinlentmarch12015/

Fretheim, T. E. (1991). Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING (Vol. Exodus). (P. D. Miller, Jr., & P. J. Achtemeier, Eds.) Louisville: John Knox Press.

Hoezee, S. (0205, 3 1). The Lectionary Gospel. Retrieved from Center for Excellence in Preaching: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-2b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

Hoezee, S. (2015, 3 1). Sermon Starters – Genesis. Retrieved from Center for Excellence in Preaching: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/

Howard, C. B. (2015, 3 1). Commentary on Genesis 17:17,. Retrieved from Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org

PERKINS, P. (1991). THE GOSPEL OF MARK, INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS (Vol. 8 ). (J. P. Miller, & P. J. Achtemeier, Eds.) Louisville: John Know Press.

Rev. Whitney, R. (2015, 3 1). 2nd Sunday in Lent (B) – 2015. Retrieved from Sermons that Work: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2015/02/06/2lentb2015/

Rogness, M. (2015, 3 1). Commentary on Mark 8:31-38. Retrieved from Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2316

Williams, L. J. (1983). Interpretation: A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING: Mark. (J. L. Mays, P. D. Miller, & P. J. Achtemeier, Eds.) Nashville: John Knox Press.

Nothing will ever be the same

In his commentary on Matthew Eugene Boring writes:

 Moses and Elijah are here paired because they were both prophets who were initially rejected by the people but vindicated by God, both were advocates of the covenant and the Torah, both worked miracles, and both were considered by first-century   Judaism to be transcendent figures who did not die but were taken directly to heaven [i]

I am not a miracles worker, I am not a transcendent figure and not likely to be either. However, to so follow God’s will as to be rejected by the people, and to advocate for the covenant, and Torah (at least in its moral and ethical bounds) fall, if not into the realm of likely, then at least into the realm of Gospel calling. There is a much for us to learn about ourselves here as there is for us to learn about Jesus.

For Peter, James and John this is a boundary moment. If they continue to follow Jesus, nothing will ever be the same. The last Sunday after the Epiphany is a boundary moment as we move from reflection in light, to self-examination in sack cloth and ashes. As we go forward we go, knowing nothing will ever be the same.


[i] Eugene Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible,  Volume 8, The Gospel of Matthew, Introduction, Commentary and Reflections, 

One wonders about the rest of the story …

A blogger and colleague of mine quoted a scholar, I believe David Lose, who says there are two parts of the church year: the story of Jesus (Advent to Pentecost) and the story of the churches living into Jesus’ ministry (after Pentecost), at least that’s what I recall. Anyhow we are slap in the middle of the living into Jesus’ ministry time. And as tempting as it is to hear this week’s readings as an individual I am certain there are enormous lessons for the Church (the body of Christ) and the church (the institution, what ever variation you are affiliated with).

 Jeremiah hears God’s call, hears God tell him: go where I send you, say what I tell you to say, do not be afraid. And yes, you will have to pluck up, pull down, destroy and overthrow; you will also build and plant.

 Hebrews Paul is very clearly saying, as hard as it is to hear, the choice is oh so very one sided, Jesus is the way over the top superior choice. But there is a choice, and there are consequences for your choice.

 My undergraduate degree is in Sociology, and though many years ago, I remember enough about statistics to prudently trust numbers. The numbers (declining metrics of all sorts) tell me, that for a long time, (and according to Diane Butler Bass, longer than we acknowledge) we have not listened to God, not gone where God is sending us, are not saying what God is telling us to say. We are holding onto what we hold dear, while we should be, if not plucking them up, or destroying them, at the very least, letting them go. The sad reality is the harder we hold on, the less able we are to plant and build awareness of the Kingdom of God on earth.

 Hebrews Paul would tell us “You are choosing poorly.” I would add that the consequences are weighing us down. We are now so bent over, we can not see the truth of the world around us; we can not even see the truth about ourselves.

 My greatest fear is that as congregations and congregational leaders continue to act out of a perception of scarcity, continue to act out of fear, we can not hear God in Jesus calling us. One wonders about the rest of the story …