Witnessing: Working the Work God Has Given Us to Work

After a short break to begin adjusting to life as a retired priest, I have returned to weekly preaching.

A sermon for Ascension on Easter 6; Acts 1:1-11

We had been at Scout camp for nearly a week. Every day the camp leader was doing things for various groups of Scouts. We watch, we listen, we ask questions, we do the things we are asked to do – most of the time. Somewhere in all that I think we help. When we gather the next to the last morning, nothing was laid out. Our camp leader comes around the corner and just before we get anxious he calls us to follow him. We hike out of the Scout Camp through no man’s land, which was off limits, so we had never been there before, to the Cub side of camp. He leads us to a spot, explains that a group of new Cubs Scouts, who have never been to camp before, are arriving the next morning, and this site needs to be ready. We can see that everything that was needed is there, neatly stacked, ready to be put to good use. He looks at us and says “It is your task to have this camp ready for them when they arrive.” Then, he turns and walks up the hill into no man’s land. We stand there for some time, staring at the top of the hill. Then someone speaks up “Well it’s time to put to use everything we have heard, and seen, and been taught and practiced this week.” And after a short pause, we get to it. I won’t say there are not any challenges, there are. I won’t say there aren’t disagreements, there are. I will say we have everything we need. I will say that by nightfall we have done what we were called to do. And the next day those Cubs arrive to a campsite all set up just for them.

A couple millennia and 33 some odd years ago a young Mary accepted the calling of her angelic messenger to be the mother of the Son of God. Some 30 years later, two of John the Baptist’s followers heard a young rabbi say, “Come and see.” and they do. The next day this young rabbi says to another “Follow me.” and he does. For the next three years a growing group of men and women, Jews and gentiles, common folks (Gaventa and Petersen), perhaps a Temple priest, a member of the Sanhedrin, perhaps a scattering of folks from one prestigious group or another follow this young rabbi. They walked all over Israel, Galilee, and parts of Samaria. They watched, they listened, asked questions, went where they were asked to go, did what they were asked to do. They witnessed miracles; people healed, outcast restored to the families, untouchables reconnected to their communities, thousands feed, unbelievers become believers, outsiders reveal profound faith. They were uncomfortably close to direct challenges to Jewish authorities, and Roman overlords. They came to believe. They understood this young, itinerate rabbi, from nowhere, was who he said he was, the Messiah. They put everything they had into the promise he was going to restore the world. They believed everything would change. And then at the last Passover, he died. No, he was killed by jealous, angry Jewish political, business, and religious authorities. He died at the hands of a fearful Roman governor, who knowing the charges were false, authorized a crucifixion. He died abandoned by that hopeful band of ordinary folks. But then, he was alive again. No one believed the women who went to anoint his body. But then he showed up in the middle of a locked room. And did it again a week later when Thomas was there. For the next couple of weeks, maybe 40 days (Harrelson), they watched, listened, asked questions, and did the things they were asked to do.

The followers grew in numbers, strength, courage, and hope. They asked him “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). To their surprise, he answers, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority…” (Acts 1:7). But he is not finished, continuing

… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

After that, he goes up into the sky. The disciples are standing around looking up into the sky. Then suddenly two strangers speak up, Why are you staring into the sky?” Just this side of an uncomfortable pause they continue “This Jesus will return the same way you saw him go into heaven. Here begins the rest of the story. Here begins our story, my story, your story.

Today is the 6th Sunday in Easter, Wednesday is the feast of the Ascension when Jesus returns to heaven. The disciples want to know if now is the time when it will be like they think it will be. Jesus tells them that is not anyone’s business except God’s. He also tells them that there is more to come, that by the power of the Spirit, they are to be his witness here, there, all the way to the ends of the earth; with an emphasis on the ends of the earth (Gaventa and Petersen). Their witness is to proclaim the truth about the one true God against the alternative visions of all the nations’ cultural-theism (Harrelson) (Keener and Walton). Their witness is to upset all competing authorities, local, national, empire, religious, business, whatever, and to bring salvation to all (Gaventa and Petersen). Their witness is to promote Jesus’ message about the overarching presence of the kingdom of God (Gaventa and Petersen). Jesus shifts the emphasis away from the expectation of his imminent return toward practices of witnessing the gospel day-to-day (Harrelson). The two men description of Jesus’ return does remind the disciples of the end of days as written in Daniel (7:13-14) (Keener and Walton); so even if it cannot be known where, or when, or how, it is nonetheless a divine promise.

All these thoughts are divine forces shaping our calling as witnesses. They define what we are witnesses too; they define where we are to witness; and by implication, they define how we are to witness. But, none of it matters when all we do is to stand around staring into the sky; and there are an amazing number of ways to stare in to the sky. As a Scout the sky can look like a hill top; as a faith community, the sky can look like anything from a program we are excited about to a controversy we are angry about, or anything that diverts our attention. As a city, county, state, or nation it can be anything that threatens us, drawing us to seek other means of protection that diminishes our trust int God. You get the idea, there are many things that keep us from doing the work we are called to do.

You have heard my take on Godly work, drawn from the story of the man born blind in John 9. The disciples ask Jesus “Who sinned?” which is a staring into the sky question. Jesus answers

No one sinned. This man was born blind. Now is the time for us to work the works given us to work.

All those years ago, when I stood with my fellow Scouts, all it took was one of us to speak out, and then all of us began to work the work that had been given us to work. The Book of Acts is a series of stories of one person speaking up and the community beginning to work the work given them to work.

In the Ascension story, I see two challenges for us. Learning what is your, what is our favorite way of staring into the sky. And secondly, to follow the Spirit’s nudging us to speak, thereby unleashing the Spirit driven power which empowers all of us to be witnesses to the love of God revealed in Jesus to the end of the earth, which from Jerusalem looks at lot like right here and right now.

The Ascension is the story of Jesus’ return to Heaven. It is also the beginning of the story of our witnessing, our working the work God has given us to work.

 

References

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.

Smith, Mitzi J. Commentary on Acts 1:1-11. 29 5 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

Walton, John. Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1978.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.