The sermon today and next week will be multi-voiced. We’ll be hearing from our new members. I’ve gently suggested they keep their sharing brief, so I’ll follow my own counsel.
Today’s scriptures speak of a faith that is deeply personal and radically communal.
Psalm 23 proclaims God as a shepherd. And not just any shepherd, but my shepherd. “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” How many people have recited these lines through the millennia?
And who doesn’t need shepherded? Is there anyone out there who has it all figured out, knows exactly where they’re going and why? Does anyone always know the way to green pastures and still waters? Most of the time we’re stumbling in the dark, or, as the Psalmist says, in “the valley of the shadow of death.” It doesn’t say we avoid the valley or the darkness. It says we are accompanied through it, and that we need fear no evil.
There is a dimension of faith that is deeply personal, and there are paths we alone have to walk. Psalm 23 proclaims that when we do, we are accompanied by the great Shepherd, with goodness and mercy trailing close behind.
And there is a dimension of faith that is radically communal.
Acts chapter 2 gives a summary of life in the early church. “Awe came upon everyone,” Luke writes. “All who believed were together.” They “had all things in common.” “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Radical is perhaps an overused word. It means to get at the root of something. For the early Jesus movement, the root of faith included an economics of sharing, and a life oriented around community. We Mennonites are the heirs of the Radical Reformation in 16th century Europe. The Anabaptists set their sites on digging down to the root of faith, which rested in the life and teachings of Jesus.
In our highly individualized society, we hunger for community. Community gives us life, but it also asks of us. It asks that we participate in the Divine economy of sharing, that we give, and receive, and thus flourish together.
The Lord is our Shepherd. Jesus is at the root of our faith. We are welcomed into, formed within, and challenged by the community of faith that bears his name.
Lydia was a businesswoman. More specifically, she was “a dealer in purple cloth.” Her conversion was important enough for the early church to include it among the limited selection of stories in the book of Acts. But it’s a brief story, and it provokes just as many questions as it answers about the person of Lydia.
We’re told that Lydia was from the city of Thyatira, long known as a center for purple cloth production. Kind of like saying you’re a corn farmer from Iowa. Thyatira was in the region of Lydia in Asia Minor. So not only are you a corn farmer from Iowa, but you are named Iowa. Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth and she was… Lydia.
But when we meet her in this passage, she is not in Thyatira, or Lydia, or Iowa. She’s in the city of Philippi, a major economic hub a couple hundred miles northwest of Thyatira. And she has a home in Philippi. She has a home. She has a household.
We are told that Lydia was already a “worshiper of God.” On a Sabbath she hears a message from another traveling salesman of sorts, a spiritual entrepreneur. Paul is preaching to a group of women, and she’s one of them, gathered outside the city gate by the river. She likes what she hears. She joins this gospel movement and is baptized. She and her household are baptized. She invites Paul and his companions to join her, in her home.
And this is pretty much what we know about Lydia.
How does she come to be from two places? Why is she the head of a household in a patriarchal world? What exactly did baptism mean to her if she was already a worshiper of God? And in those waters of conversion, how did her baptism and her business swirl together?
I thought it would be worthwhile to see what kind of thoughts a real live business person might have with this Lydia story. So I went out and found one. Ta-Da.
So, Jodi, for those who don’t know, why don’t you say something about what you’re in the business of doing.
“I’m a music teacher!” Pete noted when he is asked what his wife does, he responds, “She owns a music studio with excellent teachers. They do piano, voice, and guitar lessons. Here’s her card!” Yep, he always has my business cards. When invited to speak today, I turned to some mentors. “Talk about you–and how you started Allegro!” Ack. I stopped asking after the third similar response. In my imaginings, Lydia is an expert–dyeing processes, fabrics, fashion trends. Would she have answered, “I dye fabric!” or “I deal in purple cloth. I have exclusive outlets from Thyatira to Phillipi. Here’s my card.”
My first identity is music teacher. My conversion, becoming more Christ-like, was becoming a business owner. The music teacher part is easy— at the end of jr. high I was presented the school Vocal Music Award AND I attended Music Camp at Friedenswald. The next 15 years, I worked towards becoming the greatest choir director in the state! Or that was the plan. In 2005, if I wanted to keep teaching, a state law mandated I finish my Master’s degree. I loved teaching in the public schools. With pressure to fund a Master’s degree that may price me out of my field, and a growing number of private students, I figured I’d put that money into a business.
Typically, private music instruction is either teach out of your living room, or rent a space at the music store. Both are fairly isolating, without much collaboration or standards and everyone’s stuck doing their own bookkeeping. So at Allegro, we’d have a full-time staff of employed, not independently contracted, teachers dedicated to helping students become joyful learners and musicians. And it turned out to be a GREAT idea! I became a much better teacher than I ever was teaching out of my living room—daily collaboration with other great teachers–students experiencing a variety of instructors—parents getting expert instruction for their children–we established an outstanding, unified, developmentally appropriate, curriculum–the staff never had to think about billing and self-employment taxes. Everybody wins! That’s how business should work!
In Lydia’s time, purple cloth was so precious there were often laws about who could and couldn’t own and wear purple. Lydia had exclusive customers. So do I. Not everyone can afford lessons at Allegro even though I believe that music is for everyone. Lessons at Allegro are a luxury, yet unlike expensive fabric–music instruction can last a lifetime–through dementia and other trials of old age–music stays. I wish I could open my doors to any eager new student. How do I reconcile the priceless value of music, yet still a luxury item, with a belief that we all deserve this quality instruction? Did Lydia have this struggle? Maybe she believed we all deserve to be beautiful; we all deserve the dignity and respect of “purple.”
One of the things that intrigues me about Lydia is that her first act after her baptism is an act of hospitality. She invites Paul and his companions to come and stay at her home. And there’s one extra piece to the Lydia story that doesn’t show up in this reading. Paul and Silas are soon put in prison for disturbing the peace of Philippi. They make an earthquake-assisted prison break, and the first place they go when they are free is Lydia’s home, like it had already become a hub of the church of Philippi. A letter written later to the Philippians from Paul is one of the books of our Christian Scriptures, and one can only wonder if that letter would have been read to a group eagerly gathered within Lydia’s home.
I wonder how many other people of relatively high social status like Lydia there were in the early churches who don’t get mentioned by name. I think of the gospel’s brief reference to a group of female disciples who provided for Jesus out of their own means, key financial sponsors of the movement.
I’m intrigued with how business owners who are people of faith often see their business as a place of hospitality. Along with providing a needed service, and jobs, businesses often sponsor community events, and donate a portion of profits to social causes. When I hear you, Jodi, talk about your studio, I think about the ways it’s a place of hospitality for your teachers, and your students and families who get to learn in a carefully shaped environment.
And I know you have a different first response when you read about Lydia persuading Paul and the others to stay with her, which you’ll be mentioning later. But you have an important story about how being a business owner inspired you to first get your own financial house in order. Like when we know we’re inviting people into our house it makes us take a closer look at what all we’ve got laying around in there.
In the May issue of the Atlantic, Neal Gabler writes an article, “The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans.” He cites a survey where 47% of respondents said they would cover a $400 emergency by borrowing, selling something, or not coming up with the money at all. Half of us can not cover a $400 emergency. Another survey reveals that 62% of us would not cover an unexpected $500-$1000 expense with saved money. The shame is what Gabler calls “financial fragility,” living on the edge of financial peril, often while having the privilege of middle class status to nearly continually take on new and more debt. I relate!–except that I became a business owner and had to do some hard thinking about my relationship to money. Remember how nice and neat the music teacher part is? The business part isn’t. There is shame connected to it. It revealed my weaknesses and vulnerability. This may be TMI-too much information for some of you–and I agree personal finance IS personal. My intention is not to “preach” at you; my intention is to bring awareness, empathy, and hope. When I was first struggling financially it never would have occurred to me to turn to the church. I was too filled with shame to realize it was also crushing me spiritually. So I am going to share with you today because that shame kept me silently alone for too long and the stats tell me half of us are in this situation. You are not alone. If I have learned just one thing from business it is that we all belong to each other.
So how does this connect to Lydia? As a woman and probably a widow, Lydia would have been keenly aware of “financial fragility.” She would have felt the weight of providing for her household and I imagine she had to become very educated and exact about how she was going to relate to money. When she heard about Jesus–who spent most of his ministry talking about money & power–and how we relate to money & power–she would have recognized this TRUTH as a Truth with a capital T.
Gabler & I both realized we had accepted that our spending and not saving–was “normal.” Spending beyond our means–yet just to get by, not anticipating future maintenance or replacement costs–essentially being owned by our stuff, having no emergency fund and not enough retirement–our intent was never extravagance or out-doing “the Joneses.” As a society, even Mennonite society, rather than debt being a rare and brief event in life, we have accepted continual debt as normal. “You’ll always have a car payment!” NEVER in my life have I lived in a household that didn’t have some debt; my parents carried debts through my childhood, I left college with hefty school loans, then a car loan, a credit card or two, a medical bill, a mortgage…or two–and then a generous business line of credit and credit card. At one point our income was so low and our debt so high that it was not mathematically possible for us to pay our creditors and give a tithe. We were owned. Scripture taunted me, “You cannot serve two masters.” It was heart-breaking. How “shameful!” I cried, alone. In December of 2009, with an underwater mortgage (2!) we were one financial crisis– a minor crisis–away from financial ruin. That’s what they refer to as a “Come to Jesus moment.”
Financial fragility carries psychological weight and shame that keeps (47%-62%) of us silently suffering. It mars and distorts interactions with others. Instead of a car repair being a normal event in owning a car, it becomes an anxiety-filled emergency– and then resentment–attempting as much of the repair yourself as possible (you don’t want to expose yourself as being unable to afford the repair!); cynically second-guessing the mechanic who’s probably over-charging (it’s hard to feel generous or trusting when you don’t have a penny to spare). Financial fragility, I believe is a modern-day slavery of first world society–and I believe a large part of the Good News from the Torah to the New Testament is about setting the captives free. In the responsibilities of being a business owner I gradually, humbly learned that our loving almighty God–Creator of the Universe does not need my piddly tithe; God wants the captives freed. As we paid down debt, and were able to start giving, it was like a light bulb—or maybe the sun–morning by morning new mercies I see.
Since Dec. 2009, we have refused to take on any new debt. Ever. It has made for some very interesting choices. Humbling choices like wanting to expand the business over 3 years ago–think of what we could do with the larger space–think of the larger expenses and smaller raises for my staff. I learned in business, debt magnifies your mistakes. Having funds set aside and telling the money you do have where to go magnifies your generosity. Changing how I related to money was exhausting. Many times I’ve just wanted to quit; remodel the house or finally go on vacation and put it on a credit card; trade-in our 15 yr.-old car and get a ‘small’ car loan, do some necessary and major home repairs using the financing available; just live like everybody else! It is exhausting and exhilarating; impatient tedium and building peace-of-mind each time we paid off one more debt. We currently have no debt except our ONE mortgage. Working our way to becoming debt-free (and we’re still working) has been the most life-changing, character-building, self-improving experience in my life. It is awful. Yet, the freedom is bliss. Guess how different my attitude is WHEN, not IF, I need to go the mechanic? Did you know there are amazing humans doing good work all over the place? One of the most ecstatic moments of my life, was making that last payment on my business line of credit. I cried at the bank.
Early on I thought, if we can just get more students–THEN I’ll finally make enough money to feel free! –THEN I can be really generous! And for some of us, a little more income might be part of the solution. The life-changing question during my “Come to Jesus moment” was, “What would you do if you had NO payments?” And, “What would my business do, if it had no debt?” One of many conclusions for me was that most people, tend to do pretty great things–usually for and with other people. My conversion reframed my beliefs about people, stuff, and wealth. Our Jesus spent a lot of time talking about those topics. And after crying at the bank, I gave my staff raises.
Part of what I’ve learned from our conversation is how helpful it can be when we bring our own stories and experiences to these biblical stories. At their best, these biblical stories can give us a greater permission to tell our own stories and hold them up to the light so we all learn something about ourselves and about the way the Spirit is inhabiting our lives. Even our financial lives, which can be hard to talk about. I know we’re not all business owners here, but I see this as a congregation filled with a lot of Lydias. A lot of resources. A lot of creativity. We might even think of this space the same way Lydia thought of her house. A hub for spiritual entrepreneurship. I like to think that our baptismal identity makes us unpredictable to our culture, even as we seek the common good for one another and our neighbors.
Do you know how many women are quoted in the Bible? I can’t tell you–even the Google didn’t understand my question. Lydia was, and maybe still is, unpredictable,–a wealthy, female, Jesus-following, business owner who actually gets quoted! (Acts says:) ‘And she urged us saying, (And here’s the quote:) “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.’ I don’t think she was offering a cushy bed and hot breakfast. This was a command, from someone who gets things done–someone who quickly identifies a process where everybody wins–someone who endlessly thinks about how we are all connected–Lydia recognized the Truth with a capital T and she urged and prevailed upon those with the ability to communicate the Truth, to stay and get it done. So for those of us who are currently “normal” middle class Americans, I prevail upon you, “What could you do if you had no payments?” I urge you to release your shame, ask for help, you are not alone, we belong to each other.
During the Easter season we’ve been talking about different conversions. Not just a one and done experience, but a series of experiences that convert us toward the overflowing love and grace of God. We looked at Thomas, then Saul, the artist formerly known as Paul, and last week Chris talked about Oscar Romero. With Peter up this week I’m aware that makes for four men in a row, so I’m glad to report that next week the lectionary features Lydia, the seller of purple cloth, and the week after that, Mother’s Day, we’ll meditate on the Divine feminine.
As I looked at this Acts 11 story, which is one of Peter’s many conversions, I was reminded of a model I’ve found helpful in thinking about spiritual growth. We’ve included an image of that as a bulletin insert. It’s a pretty simple model, based on concentric circles, or in this case concentric hearts. Rather than being linear, it starts inward and moves outward, from egocentric, to ethnocentric, to world centric. And then there’s a fourth ring which for some reason isn’t in this image. It’s sometimes called cosmo-centric, or being-centric, or Christ-centric. I’m not even sure who to credit for this model. I learned about it through the writing of Ken Wilber, who has done a lot of work integrating different wisdom traditions.
So I invite us to think about conversion this way this morning, as a process of expansion, growth outward in all directions. And we can see how this Peter story follows this trajectory.
In the egocentric phase our awareness is pretty much limited to ourselves. Ego is just Greek for “I”, so to be egocentric is to be centered on I, me, oneself. This carries all kinds of negative connotations, nobody wants to be “egocentric,” but like these other circles, this is an important part of development. This is how we all begin life. For the infant, the young child, they are the center of the world, at least their world. This is sometimes much to parents’ chagrin, but there’s a certain beautiful necessity to this. Being egocentric, in its best sense, has to do with getting what we need to survive and even thrive as a self.
The bulk of Acts chapter 11 is something of a flashback. Peter has had a transformative experience with Gentiles, non-Jews, in the Roman city of Caesarea, and he’s recounting all of this to the Jewish members of the Jesus movement back in Jerusalem. Acts 10 is the first telling of this, the live event, and Acts 11, which we read, is Peter’s retelling. Peter had been in the coastal city of Joppa, staying with a man known as Simon the tanner. The story begins in the most basic and human of ways. It’s noon and Peter’s hungry. He wanted something to eat, and is waiting for the food to be prepared. Hunger is the unavoidable I-centered experience we all have multiple times a day. We won’t say how multiple. But it’s a good thing we do. Hunger is our body’s friendly reminder that we need more than just the self to survive. We need sustenance. We need nourishment from outside the boundary of our body to give us life.
Hungry Peter falls into a trance and has a vision of animals, lots of animals. They appear to Peter on something like a sheet, lowered from heaven by its four corners, like a large high definition projection screen. We aren’t told any names or species, just that there were four-footed creatures, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. A number of them would have been on the “do not eat” list of the Mosaic law, which Peter, an observant Jew, would not have dreamed of eating. Except that he is dreaming, and there is a voice which says, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.” Peter refuses, claiming that nothing profane or unclean has ever entered his body. This happens three times, each time the same way, and each time the final response of the voice is, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
So Peter is in this ego-centric state of hunger, but the story is subtly, or not so subtly, transitioning to the ethnocentric. Ethno is related to ethnic and has to do with being part of a group. And there are different levels to this. The group can be held together by shared blood line, the biological family; shared experiences and practices, a culture; shared boundaries and laws, a nation, a state. Ethnocentric can also have negative connotations. And it can be quite destructive. But gaining and maintaining a sense of group identity is an important part of human and spiritual development. It’s hard to move beyond ethnocentrism when one has no group that helps define who they are, or when one’s group or family has been traumatized.
This is one of the reasons why the “Black Lives Matter” movement is so important and responses of claiming to not see color, or claiming that “All Lives Matter” misses the point. The ethnos, like the ego, has a body, a collective body, and that body rightly seeks its own health, its own survival, its own healing. There is a sacredness to the collective body, which needs to guard against whatever seeks to profane it.
It is this collective body, and the question of the sacred, the holy, that becomes a major focus of this Peter story. Peter soon realizes that his vision is not so much about food, but about people. Not so much about his own body, but about the collective body he thinks of as “my people.” His ethnos. As soon as that visionary sheet goes up the third time, Peter is visited by a contingent from outside his people. They are agents of Cornelius, an officer in the occupying Roman army. Cornelius has had his own vision, and has sent these people to search and find Peter. They are to bring Peter, if he’s willing, from Joppa up the coast to Caesarea, where Cornelius is stationed, for Peter to speak whatever message he has to these Gentiles. Gentiles was a word that meant, simply, not-Jewish, or, for Peter, not-my-people.
As Peter later describes it to the Jerusalem believers, he felt compelled by the Spirit to go with these Gentiles, and “not to make a distinction between us and them.”
Not to make a distinction between us and them. This is the next shift, the next concentric heart outward, Worldcentric. On the diagram it goes from “us” to “all of us.” We could also say it goes from “us and them” to “We.” The family gets expanded. The nation gets transcended. This doesn’t displace the ego or the ethnos. Ken Wilber and others are quick to point out that the inner rings are included, and transcended, moving outward. Include and transcend. Include and transcend.
For Peter, it involves the shocking experience of witnessing these Gentiles filled with same Spirit he and others had come to know. This spirit is specifically called Holy Spirit. Peter discovers the holy, the sacred, outside the boundaries of his own group, and it leads to a conversion that has direct impact on us. Being here this morning is a direct result of the early believers eventually accepting this major shift in how one went about being considered eligible for the people of God. We are the Gentiles, the non-Jews, and this becomes good news for us because there is an opening up taking place where God’s covenant with the Jews is being made available even to those who don’t convert to Judaism. Don’t take on physical requirements of the law like circumcising all males, eating kosher food, observing the specifics of Sabbath commands. We are saved, loved, embraced, welcomed, as Gentiles. And there’s nothing wrong or unholy or unclean about being a Gentile. What makes us clean is that we receive the Spirit, which leads us into Jesus’ commandment of love, the law of the Spirit, as Paul would later call it.
Ramon Panikkar was a Spanish Catholic theologian, born of a Hindu mother, who dedicated his life to interfaith dialogue, listening to the religions of the world. In an essay, he uses this vision of Peter’s as an example for how the Christian tradition contains at its inception this boundary breaking kind of openness to the Spirit. He says that the lesson from Peter’s vision is that we have no control over God and that God can show up in any household of any particular human group. And so we are constantly in the process of being awed and surprised, like Peter, at where we detect the lively Spirit of God at work.
We could ask ourselves, in our relationships, friendships with people of other faiths, how we have detected in them the Spirit that we would call Christ. And just as the Gentiles were affirmed as Gentiles, without having to take on the particularities of Jewish religion, we can wonder if there are ways that our Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish friends can be affirmed in their identities without taking on our particular expressions of faith. Because God is in the process of making all of us holy and clean.
On this Earth Day weekend we might consider how a world-centric awareness informs how we live and pray on our home planet. We might revisit that vision of Peter, filled with animals of all kinds, and ask how these creatures exist not just for our own consumption, but as manifestations of the Creator. We might seek peace not just among our species, but between ours and other species.
There’s one more conversion which I think is also happening here, a cosmo-centric, or Christ-centric awareness. And maybe there no ring on the diagram for this because at this point it becomes unbounded. The book of Colossians speaks of Christ as the force behind the entire unfolding of creation. The self-emptying action of Christ is the very power that generates and holds together all things. “In Christ all things hold together,” Colossians says. This is the Cosmic Christ.
The part of the Acts 11 passage I’d like to identify with this Christ-consciousness comes in the very last verse that was read. When Peter tells the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem about his experience with Gentiles, and the Holy Spirit’s presence with them, Acts says, “When they heard this, they were silenced.” That’s the NRSV translation. Rather than “silenced” the NIV says “they had no further objections,” and the King James, eloquently as always, says, “they held their peace.” But in this case “silenced” is a good translation. There’s one Greek word involved, which means, pretty much, “silent.”
I asked Jenny to pause when she read that part, just to give a bit of an effect. It was a necessarily brief pause, but I like to think that the live event involved a much longer period of silence. Like much longer. Like the kind of silence where someone eventually has to get up to take a bathroom break, their footsteps back into the room still the only sound. And not just that, but the kind of silence that lives on no matter how long the actual time of no-talking lasts. A silence that moves through the rest of the Christian scriptures, a silence that hovers over the decades and centuries of history that follow. A silence we still live with.
Christ-centric, cosmic silence is the kind of silence that has that unique quality of being both empty of words and full of all words. Nothing to say and too much to say. Like the way the human eye experiences white light. It is both the absence of color, and the combination of all wavelengths that make up the color spectrum. Run it through a prism and all of sudden the white light is bursting with the colors that were there all along. It’s a full silence, pregnant with meaning and possibility. One gets a glimpse of the immensity of what one is dealing with, and the only adequate response is to be silenced. This kind of silence is an essential form of prayer, a way that we practice Christ-centric awareness.
Peter’s report is full of good news, and it leads to this silence, but I feel like we’ve also gotten a taste of the other side of this in our congregation recently. We’ve experienced among us the deaths of parents. Some of you are giving time and energy to care for aging parents and struggling family members. There are reports of cancer and arrangements for treatment plans, the upcoming years suddenly full of the unknown. We scramble for words of love and care, to adequately address one another, as we should, but we are more aware than ever that what we are really doing is entering more deeply together into the silence. Facing the immensity of mortality, and the wideness of a grace we can’t yet fully detect. With nothing and everything to say about it. When Job’s three friends heard of his plight, they left their homes and went to visit him. As the text reports: “They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word.”
Eventually the silence hits the prism, words soon separate themselves out and give their message, but even when they do, the silence remains.
Whether it be overflowing good news, or overwhelming troubling news, I hear an invitation in this passage, in Peter’s conversion, for us to enter the silence together. I pray that this silence can both include and take us beyond our own ego, our own group, even our own pale blue dot of a planet, and set us more firmly in the presence of the one who holds all creation in being. The one in whom all things hold together. The one reconciling all things, and drawing all things toward itself. We are not yet there, brothers and sisters, but the Holy Spirit beckons us, and Jesus has led the way.
I ask that we have about five minutes of collective, prayerful silence, after which we will sing Breathe on me, Breath of God.
If you aren’t sure how to pray with silence, one way to do it is to choose a simple word like Love or Healing or Peace. You let your breath in be a way of receiving that, and let your out breath be an act of giving that away.
The first time we meet Saul he’s a part of a dramatic and violent scene. He’s overseeing the stoning of a man named Stephen. This is the end of Acts chapter 7. Stephen has just given a lengthy public speech, a sermon, highly critical of his own people. The individuals listening are agitated to the point of transforming into a mob. In the words of Acts, “with a loud shout they all rushed together against him.” Outnumbered and overpowered, Stephen is dragged out of the city and stoned to death.
Had everyone there paused, surrounded Stephen’s lifeless body, and posed for a photograph, it would have looked remarkably similar to the many pictures of lynchings from within our own country. In 2015 the Equal Justice Initiative published a five year study recording 3,959 such lynchings of black women, men, and children that occurred in the US between 1877 and 1950. A number of these lynchings included a congratulatory group photo, duplicated as souvenirs and postcards.
Stephen is remembered as the first Christian martyr. Saul of Tarsus, who we also know as Paul, as in the Apostle Paul, as in St. Paul, is remembered as having been there, apparently a key instigator. Acts says that this crowd “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul,” and that Saul “approved” of Stephen’s killing. Several verses later we’re told “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women, (committing) them to prison.”
Were Saul alive today we may very well refer to him as a religious terrorist. Is it going too far to suggest that Saul of Tarsus could have been Saul of the KKK, or even Saul of ISIS? Maybe, maybe not. Or maybe this makes Saul seem too different from us, someone we could never be.
There is more to the story. Quite a bit more. Famously, Saul undergoes a radical conversion. It takes place as he is traveling on the road to the city of Damascus. He’ on a mission to find and arrest people who were followers of the Way – what Christians were called before they were called Christians. What happened on that road has had a remarkable impact on Christianity as well as Western culture. His being blinded by the light, and then having scales fall from his eyes are images and phrases that we still use. It’s the classic conversion experience. Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, finds the event so important that he includes it three different times throughout Acts, recounting the same story, with only minor details changed each time. The first time, which we read in Acts 9, is told through the voice of the narrator. The second time, in Acts 22, Paul tells the story to crowds who want him arrested outside the temple in Jerusalem. The third time, in Acts 26, Paul includes it in his testimony to King Herod Agrippa, before he heads to Rome.
One way of thinking of Paul’s conversion is that he is converted from hate to love. A man of violence in converted to peace. That’s one way of thinking about it.
But what if this way of thinking of Paul’s conversion misses the key insight? I suggest that the pre-conversion young man, the violent religious extremist, was motivated not by hatred and bigotry, but by love and faithfulness. Saul of Tarsus, Saul of the lynch-mob, was driven by devotion, committed to the good, and filled with love, yes love, not after his conversion, but before.
Before you start looking around for stones to hurl at me for suggesting such a thing, consider…
Consider the world through the eyes of Saul. Or, just consider the world.
For as long as recorded history, and before, humans have formed group identity by defining an in group and an out group. We depend on our group, our tribe, our religion, our nation, to give us a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, and, more theologically, a sense of goodness, righteousness. Our tradition is blessed by God, or Providence, and our own wellbeing flows from the wellbeing of the group. It follows that the proper response to any threat to the group is met with resistance. The greater the threat, the greater and more justified the resistance. The more one loves the family, is faithful to its calling, is devoted to its principles, the more one is driven to guard and protect it, no matter what the cost. To allow the threat to fester is an act of betrayal.
Ironically, the greater the threat, the more unified it enables the religion to become. Internal and minor disputes are put aside and people join together in the righteous cause, to cast out the trespasser. At times such an enemy can almost be a needed glue to hold a group together.
This is the game, the cultural pattern, that we homo sapiens revert to so easily. Rather than being an exception, an outlier, Saul is a chief embodiment of this pattern. He is completely devoted. He is utterly committed, not to evil, but to preserving the good, the integrity of his tradition. He is faithful to the extreme. These deviant Jews, followers of the Way, must be sought out and extinguished for the sake of God and all things holy.
Last week, Abbie took Lily and Ila to visit her family in Kansas for spring break. Left with a quiet house, Eve and I decided to have a Star Wars movie marathon, watching episodes 4 and 5, then watching 1-3 to fill in the back story. I’m a little movied-out, but we’ll likely watch 6 and 7 soon. I was familiar with the basic outline of the story, but had never watched a whole Star Wars movie all the way through.
Now that I’m semi culturally literate in this area, I’ll try to refrain from filling every sermon with a Star Wars reference, but here’s one for today. I didn’t find the transformation of the young Anakin into Darth Vader convincing on all accounts, but one of the most persuasive parts of the story was portraying Anakin motivated not completely by some sinister wish to rule the galaxy, but motivated by love, by saving a life of someone he loves, and, even by peace. After helping defeat the enemies of the empire, the new emperor assures his new servant Darth Vader that he has brought peace to the galaxy. Darth Vader becomes evil by becoming absolutely committed to the good, or at least a twisted version of the good. Or, at least, that’s one thread running through the story.
When Saul travels the Damascus road he goes with a clear sense of the righteousness of his cause. He’s defending his group against the threat from within. He goes in the service of God, the good, the sacred. What he experiences is a complete undoing of this entire way of seeing.
The voice of Jesus, which Paul will later understand as the voice of God, speaks out to him and says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul, servant of God, encounters the Divine, the risen Christ, not as one who affirmed his in group, but as the very outsider he was seeking to destroy. He had drawn a circle around the Divine, only to have the Divine appear to him as one locked out of his circle, the victim of Saul’s own righteousness. The voice speaks, the light flashes, and Saul’s whole way of seeing the world collapses.
Light typically helps us see, but in this case, the light is a revelation of blindness rather than sight. The light of Christ reveals to Saul that he has been entirely blind all along. It doesn’t help him see, at least not initially. It lets him see that he can’t see. Now he actually experiences blindness as a physical reality. Acts says that he was without sight for three days, and neither ate nor drank during this time. In short, Paul stops functioning as a living being in the community of life. The given and take between world and self ceases. No light or food or water enters his body. The three day period is likely no coincidence. It mirrors the time between Jesus’ own death and resurrection. If Saul is to re-enter the land of the living, it will be on completely different terms than it was before. He will not be able to pull himself up by his own bootstraps and continue life as usual. There is a clean break. His world has been uncreated. It will take an act of grace for him to begin life as a part of a new creation. The new creation will not just be in his own soul. It will be the creation of a new way of forming group identity. A new way of being a part of the land of the living.
This is what gets underway when Ananias, one of the enemies Paul had been pursuing, goes to Paul, enters the house in Damascus on the street called Straight, reaches out his hand to blind, hungry, and thirsty Paul, and says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” The new creation begins when the old sacred structure collapses, and one formerly deemed outsider now becomes brother. This is what enables Paul to see, not just a person standing in front of him, but a possibility of a new way of forming community. One without outsiders, neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. Everyone a child of Abraham, a child of God. One in which there are no more crucifixions or lynchings or stonings of the enemy.
To quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, himself one who was cast out when he challenged the sacred structure of Soviet Russia: “It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.” “The Gulag Archipelago” p. 24. This could have come right out of one of Paul’s epistles.
Reading Paul’s conversion this way might help us see our current polarizing world with fresh eyes. Seeing with these eyes can help us resist the idolatry of nationalism and militarism even as it might help us engage more compassionately with those promoting these very things. Or at least it can help us reframe the conversation. Rather than seeing everyone who disagrees with us as motivated by hate, we might wonder or ask what it is they are seeking to be faithful to. What vision of reality motivates them? What is it that they love? Their answers may be different than our own, but it’s a different kind of conversation than mutual disdain. For those of you who have been the target of a righteous mob, who have had all the anxiety of a group focused against you, to cast you out, I recognize that these kinds of conversations, where your own humanity is at stake, can be toxic. Sometimes it’s better to stay away and let friends and allies have those conversations for you.
Perhaps more importantly, reading Paul’s conversion this way might help us turn this story back on ourselves. Rather than just creating a new in group, a new circle of righteousness that defines itself over and against other groups, we can wonder what it might be like to be a part of a group in which there are no outsiders. As soon as we draw a circle around who is worthy and who is not, who is enlightened and who is ignorant, as soon as we draw that boundary, Christ appears to us not as an insider, but as an outsider. We are a part of a new creation with a mighty center and no perimeter, and there are no borders to defend. As the converted Paul repeatedly said to the Galatians, “You are free.”
Every once in a while one of the lectionary readings for the day is pertinent enough to current events that it might have been the passage one would select even if one had all of scripture to choose from. Today’s reading from Acts is one of those passages.
It’s the story of Philip, one of Jesus’ original 12 apostles, and his encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch, an official in the queen’s court, who had made the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship and is now on his way home. The Ethiopian eunuch is studying the prophet Isaiah, and Philip uses the opportunity to talk with him about the good news of Jesus…convincingly, because the man requests to be baptized right there on the spot, which Philip gladly does.
Given the events of the past week in the Supreme Court’s hearing on marriage equality, one could focus, if one were so inclined, on the fact that as a eunuch, this man was a sexual minority of his time. As was common in various kingdoms of the ancient world, men who served in the court were often castrated so as to remove the threat of them being a sexual rival to the king or a threat to the queen. One could become a eunuch early or later in life. Eunuchs oversaw various functions of the court including being guardians of the harem. Eunuchs were seen as being less-than, a deficient version of the full complete human being, the fertile male. In the Ottoman empire the name given to eunuchs literally meant, “Chief of the girls.”
The most important first century historian of the Jewish world, Josephus, writing just a few decades after the events of Acts, wrote this: “Let those that have made themselves eunuchs be had in detestation; and avoid any conversation with them who have deprived themselves of their manhood, and of that fruit of generation which God has given to men of the increase of their kind; let such be driven away as if they had killed their children, since they have lost what would produce (children); for it is evident, that their soul has become feminine, they have transferred that effeminacy to their body also. In like manner to you treat all that is of a monstrous nature when it is looked on.” (Antiquities of the Jews 4:290-291)
But Philip does not avoid the conversation. He does not treat the man as monstrous or a detestation. Instead, he invites him into the Jesus way.
The eunuch is intrigued, compelled by this message. He says to Philip, as if anticipating a rejection: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” What about this man’s being might prevent him from being baptized and fully joining in the Jesus way? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. They go down into the water, and Philip baptizes him, and the Spirit shows up.
There’s more that could be and has been explored here, pertinent to the events of our time as it relates to sexual minorities and full participation in the life of the community.
Given the events of the past week in Baltimore, the thousands of peaceful protestors highlighting the unjust death of another young black male, the hundreds of looters who became the subject of media attention, one could focus, if one were so inclined, on the fact that as an Ethiopian, this man had dark skin – a black male of African origin. This would not have been the liability that it is now, and in the ancient world Africans were often spoken of as a beautiful and dignified people.
If you’re a black male in America, we basically have about three options for you: You can be an athlete, you can be a rapper, or you can be a thug. We’ll gladly wear your jersey, buy your album, or lock you in prison. If you don’t fit into any of those categories, we’re not quite sure what to do with you. We get confused. We even get scared. When in doubt, we focus our eyes, our video cameras, on something that fits into one of those categories and reinforces our stereotypes.
Here, in this encounter with Philip, is a black man who fits into none of these categories. He is a seeker, a spiritual pilgrim. He is a reader, a student, perhaps even a scholar, thoughtfully engaged with a holy text. He is a conversation partner. He is a brother in Christ, a member of the universal family that knows no national or ethnic boundaries. He messes with our categories and invites us to see our world with fresh eyes.
Either of these aspects of the Ethiopian eunuch could be the focus of an entire sermon, but now that I’m already well into this one, I want to pick up on a third aspect.
Tomorrow, as you most likely know by now, is the Nehemiah Action for BREAD. We’re hoping that 100 of us Columbus Mennonites can join 3 or maybe even 4000 other people of faith from around the area and make ourselves counted. One the great strengths of BREAD is that it enables us to directly engage our public officials on matters that lead to specific research-based changes that make Franklin County a more just place to live. A lot of the hard work happens in smaller meetings, but this Nehemiah gathering is a way of showing our people power and giving public officials the courage and the cover to make the difficult changes we are requesting.
One of the other aspects of Philip’s encounter with this individual, is that the Ethiopian eunuch is actually a person of considerable power. He is a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He’s treasury secretary – this is Hank Paulson, Timothy Geithner – a cabinet level power broker, no doubt having some sway over where funds are and aren’t spent. He’s riding in his chariot, his limo, and reading up on one of the key thought leaders of these foreigners he has just visited – the prophet Isaiah of the Jews. In some ways, it’s actually Philip, of no special social status, who is the one with little power. But the Spirit instructs him go and talk with this public official.
What unfolds is a dream scenario for everyone who has ever participated in BREAD or social activism. Philip runs up to the chariot, as it says, and in a stroke of great fortune, meets the official while he’s in an open frame of mind. He’s reading a text about injustice, and wants to learn more. The prophet Isaiah had written about his own people’s suffering by saying: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter…In his humiliation justice was denied him. His life is taken away from the earth.” It’s a perfect set up. The official is reading about a great injustice, and looking for what he might do – perhaps even identifying with that injustice himself through his own story. He invites Philip to get in his chariot and sit beside him – a seat at the table, a place in the limo. And Philip tells him about the way of Jesus. We aren’t told what Philip says, but I’d like to think it sounded something like this: “Yes, the prophet Isaiah speaks of injustice. I am a follower of a great leader who committed his life to living among those who suffered like this. He was so extreme in his passion and love that he himself was condemned and killed as a common criminal, much like the way Isaiah describes. Even though he died, he is still powerfully alive and this outcast has called on us to gather the outcasts and those who have been denied justice to create a new kind of community. Will you join us by giving your loyalty to this leader above all other leaders and siding with the poor, the outcasts, the victims of injustice?”
The public official is convinced on the spot, joins the movement, and goes his way rejoicing as a new agent of justice and transformation.
That’s the dream version of what BREAD hopes to accomplish and, frankly, that’s the version my peaceful Mennonite self much prefers. I love the picture of the commoner Philip and the powerful treasurer sitting down together and gaining better understanding and finding a common commitment – the official even undergoing a transformation that will ripple out to those within his sphere of influence. Maybe the treasurer went back to his homeland and proclaimed a Jubilee, declaring that all of society should benefit from its collective wealth, and that all debts were forgiven. This fits into my romanticized narrative that if we all just sat down together we can find common ground, get along, and help everybody out.
If you’ve ever participated in anything BREAD does, you know that this is not how things typically unfold. It is much more confrontational, much more conflicted, much more of a power struggle. The official is embedded in an entire system that tends to resist change, and Philip is not just an individual, but is a diverse coalition of human beings with mixed feelings about what kinds of tactics and strategies to be employed to achieve the desired outcomes.
The most common biblical framework BREAD uses to think about itself is not Philip and this official, but Moses and Pharaoh. Pharaoh is stuck in a narrative of scarcity in which there’s not enough to go around and power must be protected rather than shared. Moses confronts Pharaoh with righteous anger at the slavery of his people, with a narrative of abundance that there is indeed enough resources to address our persistent problems, and demands Pharaoh to ‘let me people go.’
We have been literally acting out this framework in how we have addressed trying to get municipal identification cards for undocumented immigrants in our county. Ohio was recently rated last of all the 50 states in policies that benefit undocumented immigrants. (April 16, Dispatch). That’s 50th out of 50. Last. For the last two years BREAD has been petitioning city council to either recognize national id cards such as the Mexican Matricula Consular or issue municipal id cards to improve the lives of immigrants in our community. After getting basically nowhere, BREAD leadership decided to make ten trips to city council meetings, like Moses making his ten trips to Pharaoh, and use the opportunity for public comments to urge for an ordinance regarding these ID’s. We didn’t threaten plagues, although we have thought of ourselves as perhaps a plague of gnats who keep annoyingly buzzing in people’s ears. You can swat away one gnat and forget about it, but a whole swarm will get your attention, maybe even change your mind. The tenth and final trip to city council happened just a few weeks ago, and included about 150 Latinos who came out of the shadows and packed the chamber, a few testifying about the fear they live with. It feels like we may be making some progress, but there has been no conversion or baptism to date.
This year’s problem area has been crime and violence and BREAD is proposing an approach that has had significant affects reducing violent crime in other cities, including Cincinnati. More details will be given at the Action tomorrow.
The Ethiopian eunuch treasury secretary embodies both the oppressed face of the sexual minority and the black male, and the powerful face of the public official. It’s one of the things I love about these stories from scripture – they are multi-faceted and can speak in different ways in different circumstances.
I want to close by posing that question directed to Philip: “What is to prevent me?”
Officials have their own answers for what is to prevent them from doing what BREAD requests, but what is to prevent us from engaging that conversation? What is to prevent us from turning out 100+ peace and justice minded Mennonites at tomorrow’s Nehemiah Action.
I prefer to end sermons with good questions rather than good answers, so I will resist attempting to answer that question for everyone, but I will share how I am working on answering that for myself.
“What is to prevent me” from engaging in the work of BREAD?” The time commitment, my uncomfortability with public confrontation and some of BREAD’s tactics, the little voice in the back of my mind that things aren’t going to change and that one more body in a seat at a meeting isn’t going to make a difference. Those are the main things.
“What is to prevent me” from engaging in the work of BREAD? Not much, maybe nothing. I am continually challenged by the thought that those many people who experience injustice on a daily basis do not have the choice or privilege of whether or not to be engaged. It has engaged them. There are many ways to work for justice, but I find BREAD to be the best of model of faith communities doing justice together that we’ve got going for us in Columbus.
If you have other ways of answering this question, “What is to prevent us…?” let’s talk about it. I am grateful that this congregation is adding a bit of Anabaptist flavor to the loaf of BREAD and I’m grateful for all the ways you all work for dignity and goodness in the settings in which you are engaged.
Maybe this has happened to you before: You’re in a group that’s praying the Lord’s Prayer without a script, everything is going smoothly until: “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our…” At this point, unless a leader has prompted the group ahead of time, you have one of four options. You can say “sins,” “forgive us our sins.” You can say, “debts,” “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” You can say “trespasses.” Or, you can make a noncommittal mumble or simply stay silent as a way of yielding to whichever choice the majority of others go with. I think I’ve tried all four options at different times.
One can cite Scripture for using any one of those three words, but on closer examination, there is one that comes out as the leader for the original intent of the prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer appears twice in the New Testament, once in Luke’s gospel, and once in Matthew. Jesus is giving his disciples words to use when they pray. The prayer condenses Jesus’ theology into just a few statement. Luke’s is the shorter and more compact version and goes like this: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” So Luke uses both “sins” and “debts.”
Sins 1, Debts 1
Matthew is the more commonly cited version of the prayer, the one Eve and Lily recited, which occurs in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. Right after Jesus teaches this prayer in Matthew, he says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” Trespasses doesn’t occur within the prayer itself, but it is one of the ways that Jesus immediately clarifies and interprets the prayer, so we should give it a point.
Sins 1, Debts 1, Trespasses 1.
It’s neck and neck. All tied up.
Within Matthew’s version of the prayer, it says this: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
And we have a winner. “Debts” it is.
In some ways these three words communicate a similar idea and can be used interchangeably. They speak to a wrong, or harm, or injustice committed. In order for forgiveness to come to fruition, we are both givers and receivers of forgiveness. And the way both prayers are worded, interestingly, we are the ones who forgive first, which clears the way for us to be forgiven. “Forgive us (now)…as we also have forgiven others (past tense).”
But these three words are also quite different, and the one we use in our praying can affect how we practice and receive forgiveness. “Sins” is the most general and could include internal thoughts or outward actions or speech of any kind. “Trespasses” has its own unique references and perhaps feels the most archaic to say. It has to do with crossing a line and boundaries that ought not be crossed – which could include things like sexual boundaries which Mark talked about last week.
But what about debts? Forgive us our indebtedness, as we have forgiven those indebted to us. This has a much more direct economic dimension to it. Not limited to this, but certainly including it. On the one occasion when Jesus gave his followers a set of words to use when they pray, he included a phrase about praying for and practicing the forgiveness of debts.
First century Roman controlled Palestine was a much different world than 21st century America, but one thing they have in common is the prevalence of crippling debt. In first century rural Galilee where Jesus lived and taught, the primary basis and creator of wealth was land. Sociologists classify that type of arrangement as an agrarian and peasant society. Urban elites had control of nearly all the land, holding the power to issue rents and taxes to the villages and countrysides, paid not in the form of cash but in the form of grain and goods produced, making for what one scholar calls, “a relentless flow of wealth away from the rural producers to the storehouses of cities, private estates, and temples” (The Social World of Luke-Acts, Neyrey, ed., p. 156). Farmers were actually laborers, or tenants, or maybe managers, working on land previously owned by their ancestors, still dependent on its output for their own sustenance, but having less control over what was grown and how much they could keep for their families and livestock. Studies have estimated that about 2% of the population was a part of the ruling elite, 8% made up the service class such as the soldiers, merchants, craftmen, and priests, and the other 90% worked the land (Neyrey, p. 155). A poor year, combined with various other taxes and tolls owed to the Romans and Herod and the temple could lead to a cycle of indebtedness from which one might never escape. The frequent reference to slaves in the New Testament often refers to debt slavery – perpetually working to pay off a debt that never goes away.
Reading the Gospels with an eye toward these economic realities is a window into this world. Jesus’ parables are populated with managers overseeing the land and wealth of their absent master; slaves whose manager goes away on a long trip, temporarily entrusting the operations of the estate to the slaves; tenants in vineyards; slaves thrown into debt prison for their inability to pay the massive sum they owe; day laborers looking for hire; taxes owed to Caesar and the temple. The farmer in the parable who sewed seed among the stones and thorns and beaten path and good soil would likely need to surrender up to half of that abundant harvest to the landlord. The anonymous man going up from Jericho to Jerusalem in the parable of the Good Samaritan falls victim to a class of people who had checked out entirely of the system of patronage and debt, instead living in the hills and surviving through robbery and banditry.
Jesus encounters tax and toll collectors, rich rulers who want to follow him but don’t want to surrender any of their wealth, beggars completely dependent on the goodwill of those only slightly better off than themselves, masses of hungry people. I was reminded in some study this week that even those fisherman Jesus called to be his first followers weren’t the independent entrepreneurs we may see them as being. They too were a part of the state run political economy, the Roman emperor collecting port and road taxes and tribute from Herod Antipas, who had local control over the waterways like the Sea of Galilee, harbors and fishing rights, selling licenses to brokers, tax collectors, who sold them at inflated cost to fishing families, who formed cooperatives to bid on fishing contracts, and hired workers to assist in the manual labor. In both Matthew and Mark the first disciples are from fishing families – Simon, Andrew, James, and John – and the next disciple called – Levi, also called Matthew – is the broker manning the tax booth, probably overcharging for fishing rights in the same little fishing village of Capernaum where Peter and crew live and work. It’s quite a strategy of Jesus for forming a group that is called to practice an ethic of forgiveness and mutual aid. I wonder how they all got along in those early days.
Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
The April issue of Sojourners magazine carried an article with the appropriate title: “Forgive us our debts,” specifically about student debt in the US. The lead in line states: “The high cost of US education loans is causing a new form of indentured servitude.” The article notes that US education debt now totals $1.2 trillion and that more than 7 million borrowers are in default. Education loans now have unique rules in that they can’t be refinanced to a lower rate and are impossible to walk away from like a car or house loan, not eligible for bankruptcy. Not only do they never go away, a missed payment or default gives a lender the ability to issue penalities up to 25% of the balance and legally increase the interest rate to several times the original rate. If one falls behind in payments one can have their federal tax return withheld and up to 15% of their wages garnished. Bloomberg Business Week reports that in 2013 the federal government withheld full or partial Social Security payments from 155,000 retirees to pay off student debt. The article says: “For millennials, their whole life is caught up in this debt.”
Medical debt is also a major source of indebtedness in the US and one hopeful and creative response to this is a campaign called “Rolling Jubilee” which grew out of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Rolling Jubilee is operated by folks who have an inside track on the debt collection industry and use donated funds to buy up debt – mostly medical debt – that is in default just like a collection agency would. Only rather than going after the debtor, they send them a letter that says that their debt has been abolished and that they owe nothing. Because they can buy this debt for pennies on the dollar, Rolling Jubilee has currently used over $700,000 in donations to buy and forgive nearly $32 million in debt – a small slice of overall debt, but significant, especially for those random folks who had their debts forgiven.
Rolling Jubilee is not a religiously based group, but that concept of Jubilee is borrowed directly from the Hebrew Bible. Leviticus 25 decrees that every 50 years the Israelites were to return all land holdings back to their original family owners, such that those who had fallen under misfortune and needed to sell their land to stay afloat, and those who had accumulated wealth over the 50 year period were balanced out in a system reboot. Leviticus 25:10 says, “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you.” Although it is enshrined in Torah there’s no literary or archeological evidence that it was ever practiced. Deuteronomy 15 details a similar type of program, perhaps a more manageable legal reworking of the Jubilee, in which debt slaves were released from their obligations every seven years, so that no Hebrew would be perpetually enslaved to another. You were not only to let your fellow Hebrew/Israelite slave go, you were to send them out with provisions so they could have a fresh start. You do this, the text says, because you remember that you were all once slaves in Egypt, and you are to create a society in which you no longer enslave one another. There was to be institutionalized debt forgiveness.
And so, like many of Jesus’ teachings, rather than offering something brand new, when Jesus taught folks to pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” he was calling on his people to implement the ethical teachings already commanded in Torah – reigniting the memory and the vision of the people, and creating a community which, at least among themselves, put these commandments into practice. We get a little glimpse of that in Acts chapter 4. It doesn’t refer specifically to debt forgiveness, but it does note that this particular community of believers held everything in common such that there was not a needy person among them. They were becoming the answer to their own prayers.
So there are practical things we can do. We can vote for public officials who are going to push to make better rules about issues like student debt – allowing for refinancing of student debt, capping penalties and interest rates and all those good things. We can give to Rolling Jubilee and help a random stranger become freed from a debt.
I would also like us to try something among ourselves, just within this congregation. If we pray together, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” might there be a small creative way to start to become the answer to our own prayer? We are practicing resurrection this Easter season. Debt is a complex, messy, and sometimes overwhelming problem, but one of the aspects of practicing resurrection is that none of those things gets the final word. So today, and over the next two weeks, we are going to have a window of practicing resurrection by practicing a modified form of jubilee. I’ve been in conversation with our Finance folks and the Shepherding Team and Worship Commission, and got a thumbs up on this, so here’s what we’re going to do.
I want everyone to take out a piece of paper in pew. Adults, kids, everyone.
Write your name.
Everyone is going to write one more thing on it, but let me explain first what we’re doing.
You will be writing “Debt” under your name if you have any education debt, or if you have any other kind of debt such as medical or credit card, or other debt, that you consider overly burdensome, overwhelming. If you have a mortgage and are doing fine with monthly payments, this wouldn’t be included.
If you do not have any student debt or other forms of burdensome debt, you will be writing “Jubilee” under you name. You can fold that paper in half, and when we pass the offering baskets around, put it in. Only me and a couple of our financial folks are going to see these slips of paper.
And for all you who write Jubilee, you are invited, this Sunday and the next two, to give to a Columbus Mennonite Jubilee Fund. We’re going to take that Fund, divide it by however many people wrote Debt under their name, and mail out checks to each person which are to go toward paying down the principle of the loan.
This is not going to wipe out anyone’s debt. So let’s say, for example, we raise $10,000. That would pretty easy for us to do. And let’s say there’s 50 people who write Debt under their name. We will be mailing out checks of $200 to 50 different people. I think we can raise $10,000. This is not money for an outside project. Every dollar that you give will be going directly to debt relief for someone here, someone you worship with, someone you know.
Here’s one way to think about how much to give: If you have paid off a student loan, you can go back and see what your monthly payment was, and give that amount to this fund. So Abbie and I were fortunate a few years back to pay off our last student loans. One of the payments was $60 a month and one was $90, so that’s $150 into this Jubilee Fund. That’s maybe too much of a stretch for some, others of you can give lots more than that. For kids, elementary school, high school, if you have not yet borrowed money, you can give into this fund. Use your share fund from your allowance and give a couple dollars or a couple quarters and you’ll join the Jubilee party.
So here’s a few technical things:
All gifts are tax deductible, which helps. Those who wrote “Debt” are not expected to give. This is a time for you to receive. If you have some but not a lot of debt, or if you have debt from your kids’ education and don’t know whether to write debt or jubilee, then please choose whichever you need most. If you need to give, choose that. If you need to receive, choose that.
Checks are made out to “Columbus Mennonite Church,” but have to be designated in the Memo Line as “Jubilee Fund.” If you don’t make that designation, they’ll go toward our general budget, and this giving is above and beyond general budget and pledging. Or if you give cash, you’ll need to give in an envelope designated “Jubilee Fund.” And I realize most people won’t have their checkbooks ready right away here, so we’ll be collecting this the next two Sundays and there will be plenty of reminders.
OK, so one more thing. I’ve also been in conversation with Everence, the Mennonite Stewardship agency, and they are able to match up to $2,250 of this Jubilee Fund, so that’s going to help as well. The only technicality here is that they don’t match giving toward student loans, so if your debt is only student loans, please write ‘sl’ in front of it. We’ll work the math to make sure everyone still gets the same Jubilee check, but I want to honor their policy of what they match.
So go ahead and write you name on the paper, and under that write either Jubilee, or debt, or sl debt, and fold the paper in half, and put it in the offering plates when they come around.
There’s a story in the Torah, in the book of Numbers chapter 11, that takes place just after the Israelites depart from Mt Sinai where Moses received the teachings of the law on the people’s behalf. They are again on the move and they are again complaining about the lack of dining options in the desert. Nothing but this bland manna to eat. The people are upset, and this makes Moses, their leader, upset. Moses has it out with Yahweh saying that this is an impossible task, too heavy a burden to bear, and that if Yahweh is indeed merciful that Yahweh should end his life at once.
Yahweh’s response is to have Moses gather 70 of the elders of the people together. Yahweh says, “I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” Moses is skeptical, but goes along with the idea. He calls these elders together, takes them outside the encampment and has them circle up around the tent of meeting, which was the place Moses would go to meet with Yahweh. Kind of a mobile mini temple. A temple for nomads. They circle up around this tent of meeting, and sure enough, Yahweh comes down in a cloud and takes some of the spirit that was on Moses and distributes it to the 70 elders. The spirit rests on them, and they begin prophesying, speaking profound and insightful words.
The only catch to the situation was that two of the elders either didn’t get the memo or were lagging behind and were still back in the camp with the people, not gathered at that special tent of meeting. But when the spirit came on all the others out there, it still came on those two in the camp. And they prophesied as well. A young man in the camp sees this and runs out to tell Moses that these two elders are prophesying. One of the elders, Joshua, son of Nun, hears the news first and tells Moses to make those men stop. Moses answers by saying this: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, and that Yahweh would put the spirit on them.”
There’re a couple important things going on in this story. One of them, perhaps the more obvious one, is that the special spirit of wisdom and leadership that Moses possessed, or that possessed Moses, is being spread around to a wider group. Rather than Moses being the singular leader, we have the beginnings of a leadership group, a council of elders, with each having the spirit on them. This is a new development, but it’s not what bothers Joshua. What bothers Joshua is that two of these elders had not been in the right place when this happened, and yet it still happened to them. They had not been at the holy, sacred, set apart location where gods and humans talk. They had been in the camp, with the common people and common articles of life, and yet they too had the spirit. There is a boundary violation going on between the holy and the common, and it messes with Joshua’s sense of proper order. He doesn’t want Moses to put an end to what’s happening at the tent of meeting with the 68 elders, that’s where that kind of thing is supposed to happen. He wants Moses to shut down those two others who have no right prophesying away from that sacred circle around the tent of meeting.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, sometimes referred to as the birthday of the church, and what we celebrate today has everything to do with the Holy, and how that relates with community and, ultimately, all of creation. This theme has been showing up the last couple weeks of worship, although it hasn’t necessarily been planned that way. Two weeks ago Linda Mercadante talked about how Spiritual but not Religious persons are encountering the holy outside the bounds of traditional religion and not identifying with any particular church or temple or mosque community. Last week at the outdoor service Sarah Zwickle made the confession many of us can identify with of loving creation but tending to romanticize it. It’s one thing to find holiness in a sunset or peaceful woods and another thing to find something redeemable in the violence everywhere throughout the natural world.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we each have places that are more holy than others, or at least places where it’s much easier to see the holy. The tent of meeting is pitched in different places of our lives, usually in a similar fashion as it was in the desert for the Israelites: outside the encampment. Outside the place where the common things of life take place. We need to escape that to find the holy. Go out for a walk, or close the door, take a retreat, go to church.
Pentecost is a not-so-gentle reminder that the Holy has invaded every aspect of our lives and does not depart from us. In Acts 2, a group that had known Jesus in his lifetime, now wondering what is next, is gathered together in one place and experiences the sound of violent wind and fire of a presence among them which they decide is best named not just spirit, but Holy Spirit. Each of them has something like a tongue of fire “resting on them” as Luke says, and they begin speaking all these different languages. These are real languages and because this is a festival day in Jerusalem Jews from all over the world are gathered, and they each hear these wonderful things being expressed in their own native language. The Holy is not contained within one particular people or one particular language, but is native to all people, and all languages. The Holy is native to all places. The Holy is native to you.
There is this movement in scripture from holiness being that which is set apart and separated, to holiness being that which overcomes and breaks down that very separation. From boundary making to boundary breaking. From outside the encampment, to all throughout the encampment. And this is really the main point here. Holiness becomes not so much about taboos and forbidden practices as it becomes about entering into loving relationship with the brokenness of the world, recognizing one’s own brokenness, and encountering the Holy in the very space which was once deemed unholy.
This is not just an Old Testament/New Testament difference, although it comes into more clear focus in the New Testament. There are pictures of this throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the story of Moses and the 70 elders being one of them. The passage from the prophet Joel that Peter quotes at Pentecost being another. “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, old and young, even on the slaves I shall pour out my spirit.” This is the pattern of Jesus’ life. This is what he did all the time, entering into the spaces and lives deemed unholy. This is what’s going on on the cross. Crucifixion is not a holy thing, it’s a complete desecration of a human life. Jesus even cries out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s a God-forsaken scene, yet it’s that very location of God-forsakenness that becomes the ultimate revelation of the Divine presence. Even the most unholy space is made holy.
Simon and Garfunkel famously sang that the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls. They most likely did not consult with Joshua, son of Nun, before writing these lyrics, but I can hear Moses and Jesus saying “Yes, would that all my people were prophets. They too have the Holy Spirit, the prophethood of all believers.” Columbus doesn’t have any subway or subway walls, except for all those sandwich shops where you can occasionally get a five dollar foot long, but if any of you wants to do a cool project you can go around the city and take pictures of the words of the prophets written under the bridges and on the sides of buildings and in the artwork hanging in the hallways of elementary schools. And maybe a few bumper stickers. It would make for a nice visual sermon presentation sometime.
So we’re back in the encampment. Back amidst the common things. And it can be hard to see Holy Spirit here. You almost have to see it in other people’s lives before you can see it in your own. You go to the grocery store and you see a mother with two kids and you can see that what she’s going is holy, raising these children. Even heroic. But she doesn’t see it now. From her perspective, she’s just barely holding it together. Or you have a friend who’s committed to a cause and who feels frustrated and tired and but can see how bold and courageous the person is being.
Holy Spirit is among us, we just sometimes need other people to remind us that the flame of the Spirit is burning over our head. We can see everyone else’s flame, just not our own.
We’re here to remind each other that the flame is there.
And so we have these special places we go outside the encampment to get in touch with Holy Spirit. Sunday worship being one of those. But the point isn’t that this is where Holy Spirit dwells, the point is to remind ourselves that Holy Spirit is everywhere, in all things. This is where the Spiritual but not Religious folks are on to something. Of course the holy isn’t confined to one tradition. But it’s the tradition that keeps teaching us that. The Holy Spirit is always sending us out to be prophets and messenger of good news.
This morning, rather than saying that a tongue of fire rests on each one gathered, we could say that a radiant comforter rests on each one. Or that we rest of them. We send these beautiful comforters, lovingly made, charged with Holy Spirit, into the desecrated parts of the earth, where refugees wonder and seek shelter from violence. They are part of our mission as a Pentecost people, speaking the native language of warmth, of love, of comfort. Common cloth and threads made holy by the one who makes all things holy.
Even a common loaf of bread and a normal cup of grape juice become holy for us now as they re-present us with the body and blood of Christ.