Monday, April 26, 2010

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year C 2010

"Get Up"

04 Easter C 10

Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23

Revelation 7:9-17

John 10:22-30

Happy Easter, church. Yes, it's still Easter. This is the fourth Sunday we're continuing the celebration and we have three more Sundays we're going to celebrate the resurrection. In Greek the word for resurrection is "anastasis." Remember that word because we're going to come back to it later this morning. It's a very important word. I might even argue that it's the most important Greek word you might ever want to know.

I've been led, I think by the Spirit, to preach this season of Easter on the book of the Acts of the Apostles. I'm kind of hoping that some of you, if not all, might read the book of Acts and ask yourselves, how much does our congregation look like or feel like this story? Can we see ourselves in these stories of many disciples and many congregations, of exorcism and healing and miraculous escape and dead folk coming back to life? Acts is the story of the church. Can we see our church today in this story?

Since Easter we've reflected on the stories of the people who were immediately affected by the resurrection, by the anastasis of Jesus. Last week we talked about a certain Pharisee named Saul who got knocked off his horse by the risen Christ. That was this same chapter, you know.

I noticed that this chapter, chapter 9 of the Book of Acts, keeps repeating a certain phrase. If you'd like to get out your bible and follow along, take a look at verse six of chapter 9. In it, the voice of Jesus says, "But get up and enter the city." Go a little farther to verse 11, and Jesus is speaking again here, this time to Ananias, and he says "Get up and go to the street called Straight." Now go to verse 18, when Saul is healed of his blindness and the scales fall from his eyes, and Luke says "he got up and was baptized." Now go on to verse 34, where Luke describes the healing of Aeneas by Peter, who says to him "get up and make your bed." Now go to verse 39 from the passage we read today, and Luke says that "Peter got up and went with them." And here finally in verse 40, we hear Peter say to Tabitha, "Tabitha, get up."

The phrase "get up" or "got up" appears many, many times in the book of Acts. There seems to be a whole lot of getting up going on.

In this particular case, we find ourselves at a funeral of a woman known as "Gazelle." Dorcas was the Greek name and Tabitha was the Aramaic name.

I suppose we have to travel a little distance to get to where this story is. We have to leave the world in which clothing can be bought for a dime at a thrift shop and cloth is cheap. We need to go to a world in which cloth and the dyes needed to color it were expensive. We need to go to the world where there were no clothing factories.

In such a world, a woman who had the time and money to make clothing for poor widows would have been a very wealthy woman. It's hard to tell from this brief story what readers of that day might have understood, but the idea of giving away clothes or even making clothes today is very different from the same idea then.

Tabitha is not a middle-class 21st century country girl with a Singer sewing machine and lots of cheap fabric at some nearby JC Penney. She is a powerful, wealthy 1st century woman, who uses a great deal of her own personal resources to directly support the poor around her. Not just lots of her time, not just lots of her talent, but lots of her money as well.

The widows gather around at her funeral and display the clothing she gave them. Now if this had been a matter of cast-off polyester pants suits or worn out jeans or sweaters with pills all over them, I don't think the widows would have bothered to take them to the funeral. No, I expect the reason the widows brought these things is because they were gorgeous. I suspect they were made of the finest materials and executed with the most thorough craftsmanship. How do we negotiate the distance between then and now? Maybe we could say they were the first century equivalent of first-run designer wear right out of a high-class Paris shop. This is what Tabitha was giving away to poor women. It wasn't just about helping out someone who was unfortunate. It was about making a statement.

Poverty then and now is feminized. The most at-risk of poverty, working or not, are women. A recent study shows that women are still paid less than men for the same work. An interesting discovery from former Wal-Mart execs is that Wal-Mart deliberately opened stores in rural America because they knew they could gather a workforce of cheap female labor from the less educated, more fundamentalist female population of such areas. The conservative church of course still teaches that women are somehow inferior to men and are supposed to be submissive slave labor to them.

In the cities, a poor woman doesn't bother with Wal-Mart. Once she figures out a waitress job won't feed her and her children or put a roof over their heads, once she and her kids have spent a little time living in a car, it's a no-brainer to get into the sex or drug trade. That or the welfare system, which is nearly a full-time job itself.

It wasn't much different then. At-risk women were a significant group among Jesus' disciples.Without a male protector or benefactor, many women had to turn to begging or prostitution. Some were lucky enough to come into some wealth, and these often were the disciples that offered up the first homes as places of worship of the underground Christian movement.

So when Peter says, "Get up" to this beautiful Gazelle, he is saying "Let this Spirit continue to move in the world; let this resistance continue; let this blessing to the poor go on. Let this testimony be made forever."

The reality of life is that we die. This Gazelle, this Tabitha, would go on to die herself. The point of this story is not about personal ongoing life. It's about a Spirit continuing to be present in flesh and blood action, here in this world. It's about that Spirit getting up again and again in someone's body, in many bodies, in all these who are clothed in white.

You remember that word for resurrection, anastasis? This phrase "get up" is the same word in Greek, just a different tense. In other words, when we say Jesus rose from the dead, the Greek really says, Jesus "got up" from the dead, that what we are celebrating in the season of Easter is "the getting up."

The church in the book of Acts is a ever-growing community in which people are getting up from out of their death, their blindness, their disease, their false beliefs. The church in the book of Acts is the getting-up people.

So let's ask ourselves today, church, is Paul getting up at Philippi? Is Tabitha getting up here in Deltaville? Is Peter, Aeneas, Ananias? Is the Spirit of God filling up the flesh and blood of the people here at Philippi?

Is Jesus getting up?


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Third Sunday of Easter Year C 2010

03 Easter C 10

April 18, 2010

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)

Psalm 30

Revelation 5:11-14

John 21:1-19

How Much He Must Suffer

Breathing threats is how Luke puts it. Have you ever been resentful? I don't mean angry at someone. I mean have you ever had a kind of chronic desire to fight with someone? To breathe threats is something like bathing in them, having them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Getting up in the middle of the night for a little late-night threat-snack.

Saul is an authority guy though. He's not going around busting heads illegally. He follows the law. The radio call goes out, you know, "We've got a code 53 going on, Straight Street, Damascus." Officer Saul dutifully makes sure he's got the warrant in hand before he cranks up the siren and flips on the flashing lights.

This is not to say he's cool, calm and collected though. He's mad. He's outraged. These people, these followers of "The Way," will not stop slandering his sect. Nor will they acknowledge the authority of the council in Jerusalem. They told Peter and his disciples to shut up about Jesus and the council's role in the crucifixion not once but twice. But would they shut up? No, they would not. And then Saul himself was present when that Stephen was brought before the council and right to their faces accused them of participating in the wrongful execution of this blasphemer Jesus. The crowd had stoned that one to death, and good riddance.

You've got to trust the people in charge, the people who are the big shots, who have everything under control, the people with the big sticks. I mean, if you can't trust them, who can you trust? You can't just go around saying you're not going to obey them anymore, you're not going to be a citizen of the country you live in anymore, you're not going to go along to get along anymore. You just can't do that. It's chaos. The system may not be perfect, Saul might have granted you that, but without it everything would go to hell in a hand basket.

And then on his way to silence the enemies, a voice comes that is so powerful it literally knocks him off his horse. You know, this is how I've come to know the Holy Spirit. Have you ever suddenly found yourself getting turned 180 degrees? Have you ever been in the middle of being really, really mad at someone, having your threat-snack in the middle of the night, and suddenly realize that it's not them you're mad at but yourself? Have you ever suddenly seen yourself as the bad guy in your story, when all along before you had thought you were the hero?

That's one of the reasons I personally think God does not naturally indwell in all human beings, but offers himself to be accepted or rejected. Insights like "I'm the one at fault" in the midst of being certain that everyone else is to blame is the kind of insight that cannot begin within oneself. There are plenty of people who have chronic low self-esteem and blame themselves for all sorts of things. I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the one who is absolutely sure he is right and everyone else is wrong, who suddenly sees that the truth is almost entirely opposite, not necessarily that everyone else is right, but that he has been profoundly wrong.

The story of the apostles is a story of resurrection power. It's the story of the kind of radical transformations the resurrection of Jesus brings about. This power is entirely consistent and continuous with the power that infused Jesus throughout his ministry before his own transformation. It's Holy Spirit power.

The authority of our day is a much more powerful deity, a much more insidious and baffling foe. It is our own desire to control not only our own lives, but the lives of others. It is not a failure of willpower that makes us fat, greedy, drunk, stoned, selfish or violent; it's actually an overabundance of willpower. It's our own individual wills that are trying to run the show, and it's so pervasive in our culture, so absolutely blessed and baptized, that we are coming to a place where we know nothing but power struggle. Is it any wonder that people are getting sick with stress all around us? Is it any wonder we are getting sick with it? We spend our days feeling embattled and besieged. We are told constantly that there is some threat to fear.

What if all the stuff we are hearing is simply a lie?

What if it isn't up to us at all? What if the threats everyone is saying are threatening us really aren't? What if there wasn't anything we could do about them anyway? What if there really is enough for everyone, and we really don't have to protect our own? What if we just stopped believing anything we hear but the word of God, who announces, "I love you, and I love the world, and my rule is the only just rule there is"?

What if God all of a sudden just interrupted your late-night threat-snack and said, "Why are you crucifying me? Why are you persecuting me? Why are you laying me in the tomb and remembering me like some dead family member? I'm not some dead god who died a long time ago that you have to do without. I'm alive, I'm right here, and I love you."

Well, that might just knock you off your horse wouldn't it?

It's quite a feeling, having such a realization. It feels like you've gone blind all of a sudden. It feels like you suddenly don't know anything. You know, it's a wonderful feeling, really. Sudden darkness and silence. All the running chatter of rationalization and self-justification going through your head just kind of goes quiet. Your whole museum of convictions just goes dark. Sort of like dying, but strangely wonderful. What if none of the bull manure the world was shoveling you just wasn't true? Ahhhh. That's better. Got a little room now. Not so crowded in here. Not to mention the somewhat better smell.

And the voice of God comes: "Why are you persecuting me? Do you love me?"

And the voice of God says, "Want a job?"


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Second Sunday in Easter, Year C, 2010

We Must Obey God

Sermon on Acts 5:27-32

The high priest was really starting to get nervous. They had carried off the whole thing beautifully. No one had known that it was him and the council that had been behind the whole thing.

Jesus was a loose cannon, certainly. And he had been whipping the crowds up into quite a frenzy. Speaking of whipping, he had come into the temple and interrupted the very profitable Passover business going on there ever since the Romans had taken over. The crowds loved it of course. They like a good show. But it was a very, very dangerous thing to do. The Romans must not think for a minute the people might be rising up against them. That's pretty much what religious leaders are for, aren't they, to keep the peace, to bless the flag of the republic?

And so they had acted very wisely in quietly working behind the scenes, arranging Jesus' downfall. A few half-truths here, a few false testimonies there, a bribe to the right disciple, a midnight arrest, and by morning, the crowd, always ready to change their minds at the drop of a statistic, turned against Jesus nicely. The crucifixion should have erased him.

But then these rumors started about his rising from the dead. People shouting in public that they had seen him, even had dinner with him. He should have been erased, forgotten, wiped from memory, but crowds were gathering again, this time around his disciples. And worst of all, they were going around telling everyone that he and the council were behind the whole thing.

They'd arrested them already, Peter and his compatriots. But they really were pretty much powerless to do anything about it. Too many followers. And when they'd put them in jail, somehow they'd just walked out. That story was everywhere.

Something had to be done.

We may not have the high priest anymore, or the Pharisees and Sadducees. Yes, we still have those who stand right out in the public square and tell the truth, while those who work against them sneak around in the dark. But this wasn't about good people or bad people, then or now.

Then and now, the conflict is not really between those who are dishonest and those who are honest, those who are forthright and those who are sneaky. The real conflict is between authorities, spiritual entities that claim the allegiance of followers. The behavior is simply the indicator of what authority is being followed.

In our culture, we claim to be religious or spiritual or whatever you want to call it, but the same studies that show a wide interest in spirituality also seem to show that we seem to regard spirituality as a lifestyle accessory, like driving an economical car or shopping at Target. This same so-called spiritual culture we have is also caught up in addiction like it never has been before. We say we are spiritual, but our behavior says we are addicted. We say we seek a relationship with God, but our behavior says we are seeking only control, we simply want our way.

Food, money, sex, drugs, nicotine, alcohol, oil, power, you name it, we are an addicted culture. Two out of three Americans are obese; not just overweight, obese. One out of ten, conservatively estimated, is addicted to alcohol. Yet another one out of the same ten is addicted to some other substance like heroin or prescription drugs. And the symptoms of addiction, whether in an individual, a family or a nation, are the same. Dishonesty, immaturity, self-centered fear, chronic anger and resentment, grandiosity, defiance and denial. Whether personally addicted or not, and there are very few who are not personally addicted, addiction poisons whole relationship networks with certain classic symptoms, like collective blindness, using heroic people as proof there's nothing wrong, and using scapegoats as the cause of everyone's problem. Other classic symptoms: fear of direct conflict, gossiping, betrayal, an inability to respect the boundaries between one person and another.

This is nothing new. There have been other words used to describe it, but it has always been around. It is a spiritual malady, almost entirely. It has to do with the authority in one's life. Iti comes down usually to two choices: the self or God.

When Peter comes before the council, it's not the council he ultimately has to worry about. He ultimately has to worry about whether he will put his own well-being ahead of the truth. Will he go toward feeling comfortable or will he go toward the will of God? Will he do what makes him happy or will he do what makes God happy?

It's not that easy of a choice. Hard-core addicts who have entered recovery will tell you there was a moment when they were looking at dying of their illness on the one hand and embracing a real and authentic spiritual life on the other, and in their eyes it was a toss-up. Because an authentic spiritual life requires a complete shift in allegiance from one authority, the self, to a new authority, God.

Look, the high priest says, we just want you to play along with us for crying out loud. Keep the peace, don't rock the boat. Be reasonable.

And the voice of destiny might as well have been saying to Peter, "Here are two roads; one leads to a long but compromised life, the other to a short but authentic one. One leads to happiness, the other to joy."

Peter will end up crucified. But here we are, two thousand years later, chatting with him, having a meal with him. Apparently he is risen from the dead. Hmmm.

Who is the authority in my life? Who must I obey?


The Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Day, Year C 2010

01 Easter C 10

April 4, 2010

Combined Service at 10:00 a.m.

A lesson from the Early Church:         Acts 10:34-43

   34 Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

A Song from Ancient Israel:        Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!
2 Let Israel say,
     "His steadfast love endures forever."

14 The LORD is my strength and my might;
     he has become my salvation.
15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
"The right hand of the LORD does valiantly;
16 the right hand of the LORD is exalted;
     the right hand of the LORD does valiantly."
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
     and recount the deeds of the LORD.
18 The LORD has punished me severely,
     but he did not give me over to death.
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
     that I may enter through them
     and give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD;
     the righteous shall enter through it.
21 I thank you that you have answered me
     and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
     has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the LORD's doing;
     it is marvelous in our eyes.

To Us Who Were Chosen

One of the most amazing and unusual things about our Christian religion is that we believe that everything that is and everything that ever came into being, particularly every thing that is living, came though God saying something.

We're noticing, many of us, that our grass is taking seed and growing tall and green in our yards. We're noticing our perennials popping up again, and those bulbs we planted talking root and sprouting from the ground. And there are those in some of our families that have enjoyed the miracle of becoming pregnant, of feeling that new life growing within, and some we know have even given birth in the past year. And we who are Christian, we who believe, we who, as Peter puts it, were chosen, believe that all these things, these flowers and bunnies and birds and babies all of them begin with a word, with God saying "let this happen, let this thing be real."

I don't know exactly whether people in the church really appreciate this idea, but in most other religions, the role of words is hardly important, much less central. But words are terribly important to us Christians and with Jews as well. Everything that is, everything that really has any meaning to us at all, came through God's word.

Stories are made of words, and the Christian faith, in fact, every Christian person and every Christian community, is founded entirely on a story, a series of words, words in a certain arrangement, a certain order, a certain set of sentences. Nothing but some words.

And the words are basically these:

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power... he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.

It doesn't matter who you are or where you come from or what religion you grew up in. If you hear these words and believe them, in almost any kind of way, to even the least degree, a power begins to work in your and through you, a power that changes not only you, if you let it, but the world around you, if you let it.

Jesus of Nazareth was anointed by God with the Holy Spirit. He used the power of this Spirit to go about doing God and liberating people from the power of the devil. A number of special people were chosen to follow him around as witnesses. Then, "they," meaning the religious and political leaders of that time, arrested him and executed him by crucifixion, the punishment of choice for those found guilty of insurrection. But three days later, God raised this Jesus from the dead and allowed him to appear to certain people who had been chosen to be witnesses of the resurrection, chosen to eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded those witnesses, that is, we who were chosen, to testify that Jesus is ordained as God's judge.

Now the funny thing about this story is that when certain people hear it, it starts weird things to happening. It draws people in. It gets them thinking. Pretty soon, it gets them feeling things. Next thing you know, they get to seeing things, things like the risen Jesus eating and drinking with the people of God, the people who have been chosen. They begin to hear the Lord Jesus giving them commands, pronouncing his judgment.

Yes, all of this comes out of this story, and all the many stories that have been collected about this story. It comes also out of other stories, stories of things that happened as a result of telling these stories, things like this Roman Centurion giving up a pretty highly paid job killing people for the emperor of Rome in order to give his life to the peace-loving, non-violent king of the Jews and savior of the world. It's really a remarkable thing. You tell this story---Jesus filled with the Spirit, Jesus healing, teaching and exorcizing, Jesus crucified, Jesus risen from the dead, Jesus leading his church---and it causes things to happen.

God says, "let this grass grow," "let this egg hatch," "let this child be conceived," and these things come to pass. And we say, "Christ is risen," and it is as if God said, "Let this new life begin," "let this person be reborn," "let this church come into the world and turn it upside down."

If we believe this story in some kind of way, and I think most of us can at best only believe it in some kind of way far less than perfection, if we believe this story some kind of way, then it ipens this rather amazing door for us. It is, as Jesus tells us, a rather narrow door, a rather tiny little gate, one perhaps that we will only barely squeeze through, but the gate and the door and the way is nevertheless open.

The way is open to the kingdom of God, a kingdom in which the one who made the living universe is in charge, a kingdom in which all those things we formerly thought might be impossible become possible. Forgiveness. Transformation. Healing. Freedom.

You know all those things people say will never change? You know those things that people say are just outside our control? You know all those things that are unacceptable that people tell us we just have to accept? Of course, they are right. We can't change certain things. Many things are far outside our control. Many unacceptable things must simply be accepted. In fact, these are important spiritual realizations that some really can't manage, but need to.

But once we accept the unacceptable, once we let go of things we can't control, once we give up trying to change things we can't change, we who believe, we who for some strange reason have been chosen to be witnesses to the resurrection, have this gate, this door, this way open to us, into this kingdom where there is one who can change anything, who can control anything, who does not have to accept the unacceptable. If this first man, the first one who was chosen, if this first one, the one who was crucified, if this first one rose from the dead, then it may be that the thing that never will change, will change, the thing we can't control will be controlled, the thing we can't accept may not have to be accepted, because when the power of God enters the picture, everything, friends, everything is possible.

Even peace. Even justice.

Just a story. We just tell the story, and these things happen.

Do we believe it?