“Do you…?” “I do” | May 20

Texts: Romans 8:22-27; Acts 2:1-8

The records don’t show who he was speaking to, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said this: “You are being baptized today as a Christian. All those great and ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be pronounced over you, and the command of Jesus Christ to baptize will be carried out, without your understanding any of it. But we too are being thrown back all the way to the beginnings of our understanding. What reconciliation and redemption mean, rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, cross and resurrection, what it means to live in Christ and follow Christ; all that is so difficult and remote that we hardly dare speak of it anymore. In these words and actions handed down to us we sense something totally new and revolutionary, but we cannot yet grasp it and express it.” (Written while imprisoned in Tegel, 1944).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s.  He was one of the few voices in the German church who spoke out against the rise of Hitler and the persecution of the Jews.  He helped found the Confessing Church and an underground seminary which resisted Nazi rule in the name of Christ; He was eventually forbidden to print or publish, was arrested, and in 1945, was executed, only a month before Germany surrendered to Ally forces.

In other words, he had a strong sense of what he was talking about when he said that these Christian ideas of reconciliation and redemption, rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, add up to something so totally new and revolutionary they lead us to the edge of our understanding.  He knew these things were so difficult and seemingly remote that we hardly dare speak of it anymore.

But there he was, daring to speak.

And here we are, daring to once again enact this ancient rite of Christian baptism.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Bill P, even as we remember our own baptism and how it continues to shape us.  Or, if you have not been baptized, ponder whether baptism might be a part of your faith identity in the future.  Because Hey, after hearing a martyr story – that this decision could cost you everything – who wouldn’t want to join up?!

It’s been a good to meet with Bill and his sponsor Jeff L over the last weeks.  It was Bill who made the connection between these baptismal vows and wedding vows.  Like, you’re pretty sure you want to be the kind of person the vows describe, but you actually have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.  But you know enough to take the step.  One of the effects of a good wedding is not just getting a couple married, but reminding everyone who witnesses it of their own deepest commitments.

For us, the baptismal vows are these four sets of questions that we’ve included in the bulletin at the end of the worship liturgy.  They are based on traditional vows and come from the Mennonite Minister’s Manual – which is the secret society book you get when you graduate seminary, also available on Amazon.com.  Some of the language of these vows has been slightly altered to better fit the faith expression of this congregation.    And so, as we anticipate baptism, as we remember our baptism, I’d like to walk through each of these vows and say a little bit about how each one speaks to a baptismal identity that we carry throughout our lives.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world, and accept the forgiving grace and steadfast love of God as the guiding power in your life?

Baptism is a public way of saying Yes:  Yes to God, to the church, to life.  It’s a lot to say Yes to.  Each of these four baptismal questions that will be asked today are answered in the affirmative.  “Do you accept forgiving grace…?” Yes, I do.  “Do you believe…?” I do.  “Do you commit…?” I do.  “Are you willing…?” Yes, I am.

This first one, however, highlights that in saying Yes to these things, we are also saying No to other things.  What we say No to, what we renounce, is what Christian tradition calls “the evil powers of this world,” or, more simply “sin.”

Sin certainly has a personal dimension to it.  I think the Call to Worship put it beautifully: “For all that we have done, and left undone, all those we have left behind, and left unloved.”  For this there is overwhelming, renewing grace and forgiveness.  Forgiveness from God, and also forgiveness that we extend to one another.

Mentioning “The evil powers of this world” widens the scope to bigger forces at work.  The book of Ephesians has some important things to say about these powers.  “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

The enemy, this and other parts of the Christian Testament emphasizes, is not flesh and blood.  Another way of saying this is that ‘if it bleeds, it’s not the enemy.’  We all get caught up in these forces and powers to some degree, but people themselves are never the enemy.  Thus the radical call to love your human enemy.  In our time we have named many of these forces as the “isms.”  Racism, sexism and heterosexism, materialism, militarism, nationalism, individualism.  Bonhoeffer’s struggle was ultimately not against Nazis, but the Nazism that had consumed his people.

Where do these isms come from?  They are very real, but can’t be fought with material weapons alone.  Only the spiritual weapons of truth and peace and wholeness/salvation that Ephesians goes on to mention will overcome them.

It’s abstract, perhaps, but this vow starts to mess with you when, for example, you do an audit of your personal library and confirm that 90% of the books you’ve read in the last decade and a half were written by white authors, most of those straight men.  And you realize you need to repent of seeing the world through such a narrow lens.  Not that this has anything to do with anything I did a couple years ago.  Just a random, hypothetical example.

Do you believe in God, maker of heaven and earth; in Jesus Christ, who showed us the way of peace; and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life?

Genesis 1:27 says that humankind, male and female, were created in the image of God.  It’s been said that very soon after, humanity returned the favor and created god in our image.

As soon as we start talking about God, or saying that we believe in God, we are instantly in danger of reducing God to our own limited imagination.  Even to speak the name, to try and contain the ultimate within the confines of language, is itself a dangerous act.  It is far too easy to turn God into an extension of our own ego, our own small wishes about Reality, rather than submitting our wishes to what is ultimately Real.

This is why the medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart writes, “I pray God to free me from God.”

Anne Lamott has written that as soon as it turns out God dislikes all the same people that you dislike, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve created God in your own image.

And so, to say “I believe in God,” rather than being an act of grasping on to certainty, is an act of letting go.  I believe in that which cannot be named or contained.  This involves just as much unlearning as it does learning.

Part of the discussion with Bill and Jeff centered on what we say about Jesus – the one “who showed us the way of peace.”  The language of “personal Lord and Savior” is not in these baptismal vows, partly because it’s nowhere to be found in the Bible.  When the early Christians used the language of Lord and Savior for Jesus, they were appropriating it from Caesar, who was hailed as both Lord and Savior of the world.  To claim the Jesus way is to claim the one who showed us the way of peace.  An entirely different way of being Lord and Savior of the world.  A different kind of power.

Mention of the Holy Spirit identifies us with the same life and power that birthed the early church in Acts chapter two.

Do you commit to a life of spiritual growth; studying the Scriptures, prayer, loving your enemies, and listening for God?

One of the things we’re now aware of is that we can only see a small percentage of light waves.  We are constantly bombarded with waves of light like radio waves and ultraviolet waves, but we have only developed the kinds of bodily sensitivities to perceive that little range of light in the visible spectrum.

It’s a good analogy for the life of the spirit.  To be committed to a life of spiritual growth is to have faith that, as poet Gerald Manly Hopkins put it, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  Yet we perceive so little of it, allow such a small percentage of it into our consciousness.  The prophet Elijah, on top of Mt. Horeb, experienced this range of the previously unknown utterances of God as the still small voice or, as one translation puts it, the sound of sheer silence.

How does that register?  Can we hear that?

The Gospel stories of the many healings of the deaf and the blind speak not only to physical healing, but to spiritual perception that Jesus brought to those around him.

And so, in order to see and hear, we have what we refer to as spiritual disciplines.  Habits and practices which attune our spirits to the Spirit of God.  This question mentions a few of these: Prayer, studying the Scriptures, loving your enemies, and listening for God.  To these we could also add serving the poor, practicing hospitality, visiting the sick and those who are in prison, shared meals, loving your neighbor, loving God with all your mind, practicing silence.  These are some of the ways that we encounter the Christ whose presence we could not perceive outside of these practices.  Like the walkers to Emmaus, Christ by their side the whole time, but unrecognized until they extended the act of hospitality, the shared meal, the breaking of the bread.  So we can commit to a life of spiritual growth, and in doing so, fling our senses wide open to all of the undiscovered wavelengths of God’s presence among us.

Are you willing to give and receive counsel in the congregation?  Are you ready to participate in the mission of the church, that God’s beloved community of healing and justice come on earth as it is in heaven?

The spiritual life, living in a baptismal identity, is not meant to be done in isolation.  You are a part of community.  Not only this local expression of the church.  The worldwide fellowship of sisters and brothers which transcends national boundaries.  And not only extending out spatially around the globe in this way, but extending through time.  We are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, the communion of the saints.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meister Eckhart, Mary Magdalene, Sara and Abraham.  Anne Lamott – who would laugh to hear her name included, which is exactly what qualifies her.

Your gifts are valuable.  We need your gifts.  The world needs your gifts, your love, your devotion to doing justice.  Dare we even say that God needs your life to carry out whatever larger purpose there is in store for you.

And a baptismal identity calls on one to call on the church to live up to its highest calling.  Whenever the church falls short, or gets too comfortable, or loses its pilgrimage spirit, then you will become disappointed and perhaps even disillusioned.  And when this happens, remember your baptism, remember who you are, remember who we have all been called to be, and help lead the way.  Help us remember what we’ve forgotten, and to see when we’ve become blind.

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Critical yeast | May 6

Texts: Acts 10:44-48, Matthew 13:33

For today’s focus I’d like to borrow an idea, a phrase, from John Paul Lederach.  If you haven’t heard of John Paul Lederach, let me build up his credentials a bit to show why it’s worth listening to his ideas.

John Paul is an international leader in the field of conflict resolution.  While immersed in the work, he came to see the limitations of the framework of confliction resolution, proposing instead a larger framework of conflict transformation.  That shift itself has been widely influential in the field.  He has worked extensively in Nicaragua, Colombia, Nepal, and the Middle East.  He has sat at the table with militias and gangs, impoverished rural women, and high ranking officials.  Rather than treat conflict as a set of presenting issues and problems, he has developed methods of drawing out the stories of those involved to get at what they want, and what they need.  He tells organizations and foundations investing in peace they should think in terms of decades rather than short term projects whose immediate results are more easily measured but whose long term effects may be minimal.  He’s a professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame and has taught many years at Eastern Mennonite University.  He is a Mennonite, still living, in his early 60’s.  He’s written over 20 books, but consistently credits the people he works with, often without formal education, as the innovators of peace.

You actually can’t learn a whole lot about John Paul through Wikipedia.  My theory on this is that many people probably write their own Wikipedia page, and he’s too busy or humble to write much of an entry about himself.  Just a theory.

An excellent introduction to John Paul Lederach is this 2012 interview with Krista Tippet titled “The Art of Peace.”  https://onbeing.org/programs/john-paul-lederach-the-art-of-peace/

OK, so now that I’ve built this guy up, this better be really good.  The phrase I’d like to borrow from John Paul has to do with his observation about how change happens – how substantive positive transformation takes place.

John Paul says that social movements are often spoken of in terms of critical mass.  You build a movement and communicate a message that energizes and gathers enough people, and at some point you tip the scales.  Without diminishing the importance of critical mass, John Paul says he’s come to think of change as involving “critical yeast,” meaning a smaller number of people who hold a certain quality of relationship within a group or a system or an institution.  A certain quality of relationship that ultimately alters the functioning of the whole.  Like the way a small amount of yeast is distributed through flour to make the whole dough rise.  He’s observed this happening time and time again.  Critical yeast.

So that’s what the sermon title is about.  It’s not critical yeast like yeast that’s critical of other yeast for not eating their share of glucose.  It’s critical yeast as an idea to be understood in conversation with critical mass.

This phrase might be original to John Paul Lederach, but it’s an old idea.  There’s that wonderful concise parable of Jesus in Matthew 13:33:  “The kin-dom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”  When you picture three measures of flour, don’t picture three cups of flour, the exact amount we use to make our household favorite long rise, no knead, bread recipe.  Three measures of flour, one seah times three, was about 50 lbs.

“The kin-dom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”  So picture this woman, white powder everywhere, large bowls all around, mixing up a feast for a multitude.  There’s way less yeast in the dough than flour, but it gets distributed throughout, and transforms the loaves.  The kin-dom of heaven works this way, Jesus says.

It fits alongside other parables of Jesus where small things, or seemingly insignificant people, exude a certain quality of relationship.  Like the tiny mustard seed that grows to become a living refuge for birds.  Or small crystals of salt that flavor and preserve: “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus tells his followers.  Or the widow with no social standing, no economic or political power, who keeps petitioning the no –good judge to grant her justice, eventually wearing the judge down.  The judge declares, and I quote from the parable in Luke, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:5).

These are not stories of critical mass, but critical yeast.  Here, transformation does not depend on an overwhelming quantity of something, but a certain quality of presence.

This is perhaps a counter-intuitive message to be preaching on the eve of the BREAD Nehemiah Action.  The Nehemiah Action is our largest gathering of the year where we are absolutely focused on getting a critical mass of people of faith and goodwill to fill the Celeste Center.  We want to demonstrate to our public officials how vitally important these issues are to us.  If you’re only involved in the work of BREAD one day a year, tomorrow is the day.  The lofty aspirational goal of our 40+ congregations is to each turn out our average weekend worship attendance.  There are 52 Sundays in a year to show up for worship, and one day a year we can all show up together to do justice.

Thus the chant 52 – 1.  52 -1.

Our Annual Report, completed just a few weeks ago, notes that our average Sunday attendance for the last year was 181, so we are making the modest goal, which would still be a record for us, to turn out 100 people tomorrow to have a strong CMC showing for doing justice in Franklin County with our brothers and sisters of other faith traditions.  Imagine 3000 people of all ages – Baptists, Unitarian-Universalist, Reformed and Conservative Jews, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Mennonite, and other, gathering en masse, one team, cheering on the side of affordable housing, restorative practices in our schools, living wage jobs, and a Municipal ID for homeless and undocumented folks among us.

That widow petitioning the judge could get what she needs a lot faster if she’s got people standing in solidarity with her.

Join the critical mass, even if you’re slightly critical of all the methods BREAD has used in the past.

The Nehemiah Action is a critical part of the work of BREAD.  But it only happens once a year.  When the event is done we’ll each drive home, back to our different neighborhoods throughout Franklin County.  The critical mass will make the evening news, but it will be the critical yeast that continues its work throughout the rest of the year.

There’s something freeing about critical mass not being the only factor needed to tip the scales, shift the conversation, change the culture.  I think about this with our Sanctuary work.  As of now there are only about 40 public sanctuary cases around the country.  That’s a very small percentage of people facing deportation and separation from family who are in sanctuary.  It’s a very small percentage of congregations that exist in the whole country who are providing sanctuary.  We do not have a critical mass.  But I wonder how all of this is working as critical yeast.  I wonder how the relatively small presence of sanctuary within the wider system is leavening the whole loaf, creating a certain quality of relationship based around neighborliness and solidarity.  Thinking in terms of decades rather than weeks and months, I wonder what is slowly rising in the dough.

More broadly, all of us, each one here, is a part of the critical yeast of the kin-dom of heaven, no matter where we’re distributed among the loaf.  How about this as a thought experiment: Think about where each of us might be say on a Tuesday afternoon, and imagine each dot on the map as a bit of yeast in the dough.

On a more personal level, I’m guessing we can all identify one relatively small presence in our life – a mentor, a teacher, a book, even just a stray phrase we pick up along the way – that has served as yeast for us.  These people and ideas get sprinkled into our lives, and it’s the quality of their presence, not just the quantity, that does its work over time.  There’s likely a book or two waiting to be written about the critical yeast method of parenting and grand-parenting.

This is one of the ways the kin-dom of heaven does its thing.  It tends to take an unpredictable course.  This was the experience of Peter in the book of Acts who, through a series of events not of his own making, found himself in the home of Gentiles.  With his world neatly divided into the tired old categories of “Us” and “Not us,” Peter was suddenly face to face with “Not us,” a group of Gentiles.  And, much to his surprise, the same Spirit of life and liberation he had experienced through Jesus shows up among these Gentiles.  The yeast jumps loaves, does the same thing in different mixing bowls, causing Peter and the early church to ponder the unfathomable reality that maybe there’s just one big loaf, with the same yeasty Spirit spread throughout.  This is the good news that consumed the early apostles, the good news we still remember when we share from the one loaf of Communion.

I want to draw this together by ending with a collective meditation.  A gratitude prayer of sorts.  So you can get yourself positioned in whatever way works best for you to do that sort of thing, eyes open or closed.  We’ll start with the inward journey dimension and work our way out.

So first of all, let’s call to mind the people who have served as critical yeast in our own lives.  Those people who’ve had a certain quality of presence.  Maybe just a brief appearance, maybe a consistent presence, but people through whom the Spirit has lodged itself in our lives.

And now let’s recognize that we play that role in the lives of others.  Let’s call to mind the people we especially hold dear who could perhaps use some critical yeast that we have to share.  And we’ll do this and the other parts silently.

Let’s imagine this in our interpersonal relationships, and in the organizations and institutions where we give our energy.  This work is not an additional burden, but a gift of the Spirit given through us.  Places where, through the grace of God, we might be that critical yeast.

Let’s also call to mind those people we’ll never meet, whose names we’ll never know, who are critical yeast in their communities, in their neighborhoods.  The kind of folks John Paul Lederarch works with.    Folks doing the slow work of peace.  Folks who cross language barriers, folks who get others to sign petitions, folks who administer care in whatever form.  People in positions of power and people with no formal power.  Peacemakers in troubled parts of the world, including our own.  We give thanks for these folks, and pray for strength and courage for them.

Let’s move another concentric circle out and imagine our congregation and other congregations around the county and country and globe as critical yeast in this one big loaf of a world that God loves so dearly.  All the small ways the kin-dom of God bubbles up through these communities.  Our prayer is that we continue to develop the quality of relationship with God and one another that keeps us vital.

And finally, let’s imagine critical yeast coming together with critical mass, for events like tomorrow’s Nehemiah Action.  When we join and concentrate our energy in a show of people power.  Critical yeast plus critical mass, so that the Spirit of life and liberation, the Spirit of love of justice might do unexpected things among us, so that the kin-dom of this earth might look a little more like the kin-dom of heaven.  This is our hope, this is our prayer, this is our faith in action.  Amen.

Pilgrimage | April 29

Text: Acts 8:26-40

 

This is a story about pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage is different than a trip, or a vacation.  It’s different than tourism or site seeing.  The difference is mostly in how one approaches the journey.

TS Elliot wrote about pilgrimage toward the end of one of his long poems.

With the drawing of this Love (capital L) and the voice of this Calling (capital C)
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.   (Little Gidding, V)

To say “we”, “We shall not cease from exploration,” is to make this a common thing.  This is not the calling of a select few.  Pilgrimage is not just for the spiritual athletes among us, or the overly religious.

In the Canterbury Tales it’s not just the Nun and the Monk making the pilgrimage from London to Canterbury.  It’s also the Merchant and the Physician, the Knight and the Cook, the Wife of Bath.

This is a human thing.  We’re explorers.  And when we explore well, we arrive back where we started, and know the place for the first time.  Which is to say that we know ourselves, we know God, in a deeper and truer way for having taken the journey.

This story in Acts chapter 8 is about one particular pilgrim, and an encounter he has along the way with Philip, one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus.

We find out what the author wants us to know about this person within the span of a single verse: “Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.  He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home” (Acts 8:27).

This is our pilgrim.

The label “Ethiopian” had a fairly broad scope.  It referred to anyone with dark skin, especially people south of Egypt, a black African.  Ancient writers from the Mediterranean world often wrote about these peoples favorably, known for their dignity and handsome appearance.

Contemporary African American theologians point back to this black man – who is eventually baptized by Philip – as an indication that Christianity is not merely the religion of white slave owners.  Long before white Europeans colonized North America and enslaved Africans, many of whose descendants became Christian…long before this, Christianity was thriving as an African religion in Africa, partly through the message this African man carried back to his people.  And so, they note, when enslaved persons claimed Jesus as their own, it was not a submission to the religion of their oppressors.  It can be seen as a re-claiming of something which had, over the centuries, become indigenous to parts of the African continent.

To say this pilgrim is Ethiopian is also to say that he is from far, far away.  We are told he served as a court official for the Candace, the queen, and we know where that capital city was, and we know it was about 1500 miles from Jerusalem – one way.  From Columbus Ohio to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  This is not a pilgrimage one would take on a whim or every spring or fall.  It was perhaps a once in a lifetime pilgrimage.  If Jerusalem is the center of your world, as it was for the New Testament writers, this pilgrim is from the far periphery.

To say that he was a “eunuch” is to say something about his sexuality.  In various cultures of the ancient world males who served in courts were castrated.  This prevented them from being sexual rivals with their male superiors.  Eunuchs were highly valued as loyal and trustworthy servants, serving in some of the most intimate aspects of a ruler’s life – personal grooming, a bedchamber attendant.

This would have complicated matters for our pilgrim headed to the Jerusalem temple.  The Torah had something to say about people like him.  Deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  Last week Eliza noted that Psalm 23 was one of those scriptures her Sunday school teacher had them memorize even if they didn’t know why at the time.  I’m guessing very few Sunday school teachers put Deuteronomy 23 on the memorization list, although it might be one thing from church kids would indeed remember the rest of their lives.

But eunuch didn’t always mean castration or mutilation.  With “man” as the standard for what it meant to be a vital human, eunuchs were often referred to as “unmanned” because they no longer, or perhaps never had, conformed to gender expectations.    In some cases, one might also be deemed a eunuch if it was determined that one did not naturally respond sexually to women.  Our names for this have been homosexual or gay or queer.

Jesus likely makes reference to this in Matthew 19:12 in the context of why a man might choose to not marry a woman.  He says, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth – there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God.  Let anyone accept this who can.”

In these words about why someone might not enter traditional marriage, Jesus makes space for three very different kinds of “eunuchs.”  In reverse order: There are people who choose eunuch-hood, celibacy, or singleness, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, freed from the bonds of marriage in order to carry out the work of God they are called to do.  There are eunuchs made that way by others, by castration or mutilation.  And there are “baby I was born this way” eunuchs.

“Let anyone accept this who can,” Jesus says.

Just as black theologians have delved into this pilgrim’s blackness, so queer theologians have delved into the breadth of meaning of eunuch – this fluid term that can more broadly mean someone outside the gender and sexual norms of male heterosexuality.

And so it is that one of the earliest encounters a disciple of Jesus has after Jesus is gone is with a queer, black unmanned man who may just as much have converted Philip as been converted by him.  Philip, too, was on a pilgrimage to discover how gloriously wide and wondrous is the creativity of God, the love of Christ.

Lest we think this Ethiopian eunuch pilgrim is a completely marginal person, geographically, and sexually, we are next told that he’s in charge of the entire treasury of the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians.  He is a person of great power and access to wealth.  He would have had many others under his command, a full staff, surrounded by advisors to help inform his decisions.  He’s traveling this great distance in a chariot, no doubt with a full entourage.  He had charge of the entire treasury.  He held the trust of his ruler and his people.  Unlike most people of his day, he is well educated and versed in world literature.  He can read.  When Philip meets him he’s reading from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah.  He had just put down his copy of TS Elliot:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

This traveler is not on a vacation, and not merely on a trip or site seeing.  He is on a pilgrimage.  He has removed himself from his usual surroundings in order to go on a great journey to the land of the Jewish Temple – even though he was barred from certain parts of it because of who he was.  The draw was still to encounter the holy.  To explore that which is beyond himself, and to know the expanse of it all the more.

He is one of hundreds, millions, now billions of pilgrims.  And he is not easily classified as this kind of pilgrim or that kind of pilgrim.  He is a person of privilege.  He is a person from the margins.  He has power in a hierarchy.  He has been “unmanned” or was never oriented toward the narrow confines of traditional manliness.  He has a clearly defined role in society.  He is fluid and moves outside of strictly defined categories of gender and geography.  He is an explorer.  He is a swirl of identities, ultimately beyond categorization, not reducible to titles or roles.  He is a human being, and a pilgrim.

If you ever want to do a fascinating study you can read Acts chapter 8 alongside chapter 17 of the Autobiography of Malcolm X titled “Mecca” – the pilgrimage of the Ethiopian eunuch treasury secretary to Jerusalem in the first century, and the pilgrimage of the black American Muslim leader to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in the 20th century.  I had a good chunk I wanted to say about that, but it started to feel like an entirely different sermon.  Maybe when this passage roles around in the lectionary again in three years.

If you’ve ever been far from home for whatever reason you know the feeling of both openness and vulnerability we feel in these circumstances.  We are removed from the routines of our familiar surroundings. The answers no longer live in the well worn pathways of our neurological circuitry.  Because of this we can become more intensely aware, more curious, more disoriented.

One of my favorite family vacation memories from childhood is when we got lost in Harlem…driving in our large baby blue station wagon pulling a pop up camper.  We did emerge, eventually, with an extremely clean windshield.  Multiple times us kids watched in amazement as someone would come from the sidewalk toward our car, voluntarily wash our windshield while we were locked in traffic, behind a red light, then wait patiently by the window.  Fortunately, my dad knew this meant they expected some payment, which he always did.  It was disorienting, and wonderfully re-orienting to a world larger than rural Ohio.  It turned at least that part of the vacation into a pilgrimage.

The grand archetypal pilgrimages point us toward the small pilgrimages that come much more frequently.  For a pilgrimage to count as a pilgrimage it need not be to one of the historic holy sites – Jerusalem, Mecca, Canterbury.  Pilgrimage is a way of going about life.    The difference is in how one approaches the journey.  On the pilgrimage one is especially open to the messages one encounters along the way.  Usually these encounters weren’t on the itinerary.  Philip comes alongside you to interpret the scripture and tell you good news.  Fellow hajis to Mecca show you brotherhood and sisterhood in a way you never previously imagined possible.  Strangers come and wash your windshield and help you see the world more clearly, even if you’re still lost.

Pilgrimage is for everyone, and if you don’t take it yourself, it may come and find you.

One of the surest things of life is that we will make many journeys into unknown places.  The question is whether it will be merely a trip or whether it will be a pilgrimage.

One of the joys of congregational life is that we see these pilgrimages happening all around us, and we’re enriched by them.

To those who have made the pilgrimage of coming out to themselves and their family and friends and the world: we are honored to know you and grateful for how you have expanded our world.

To those in stages of life ahead of us, making pilgrimage through adulthood as a single or married person, the pilgrimage with infertility or into parenthood and the empty nest that follows, into retirement, caring for aging parents, and the loss of various personal abilities: your stories help us see that the road can be traveled with grace.

To those making pilgrimage through the dark valley of cancer, or through divorce – loss of a hoped for future, we sit with your grief and share the simple joys that become all the more precious.

To all of us making pilgrimage through a highly racialized society with deep and lingering injustices, may we travel with courage and determination.

The gift of pilgrimage is that is offers a baptism.  Under the waters of this baptism all of our swirling identities find their rest and home in the ultimate identity of being a child of God.  Beloved to the core.  A bearer of the Divine image.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling we arrive back where we started and know the place for the first time.

 

Deeply personal, radically communal | May 14

Text: Psalm 23; Acts 2:42-47

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’s conversion: Getting down to business | 1 May 2016

Text: Acts 16:9-15

Joel

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.

Jodi

“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.”

Joel

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.

Jodi

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.

Joel

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.

Jodi

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.

 

Another conversion of Peter | 24 April 2016

Text: Acts 11:1-18

 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.

ego-ethno-world

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 conversion of Saul: A revelation of blindness

Text: Acts 9:1-19a

 

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.”