Sunday’s sermon: Singed But Sacred

Text used – Acts 2:1-21

  • You cannot come away from fire unchanged.
    • In the benign sense
      • Fire warms us
      • Looking at the light of the fire leaves a temporary imprint on the backs of your eyes
      • The smell of fire clings to us → transports us to memories of other times when we’ve been in fire’s presence
        • Campfires
        • Bonfires
        • Snuggled up next to the fireplace on a cold winter evening
      • Even tickles our tastebuds in the sense of tasting the char on a marshmallow or hot dog or some other delicious bit cooked over an open flame
    • Cannot ignore the more perilous side → fire’s unpredictable and destructive nature
      • Fires that consume people’s businesses, homes, even lives
      • Wildfires that can blaze out of control for days or even week and consume millions of acres of land and property
        • Wildfire that was burning in the BWCA just this past week[1] → relatively small
          • Believed to have been started by a lightning strike
          • Burned about 950 acres
          • Slowed by the recent rain we’ve gotten
        • Massive wildfires in the last decade
          • California wildfires in 2018 (including the Camp Fire)[2]
            • Deadliest fires of the decade: combined 188 lives
            • Destroyed more than 41,000 buildings
            • Burned nearly 2 million acres
          • Australian bush fire in 2019-2020[3]
            • Blazed through roughly 46 million acres
            • Destroyed nearly 6000 buildings
            • Took the lives of 34 people
          • BWCA wildfire in 2011[4]
            • Also started by lightning strike
            • Burned for about 2 weeks à consumed more than 100,000 acres
            • Peter and I actually drove past some of the destroyed areas the following summer. I was interviewing with a church up in Ely, and on our way there, we drove past mile after mile of charred forests that looked like someone had stuck giant, spent matchsticks into the ground.
    • On the other hand, we know through historical accounts and through wisdom passed down from generation to generation that Indigenous peoples had been using fire for thousands of years as a tool to both cultivate and regenerate the land. → known as “cultural burning”: the intentional lighting of smaller, controlled fires to provide a desired cultural service, such as promoting the health of vegetation and animals that provide food, clothing, ceremonial items and more[5]
      • Article from The History Channel website: Anthropologists have identified at least 70 different uses of fire among indigenous and aboriginal peoples, including clearing travel routes, long-distance signaling, reducing pest populations like rodents and insects, and hunting.[6] → yet another element of Indigenous life that European colonists completely misunderstood and tried to eliminate
      • What the Indigenous people knew that the European colonists didn’t: that many ecosystems actually require periodic burning to not only survive but to thrive → National Geographic article (“The Ecological Benefits of Fire”): Many ecosystems benefit from periodic fires, because they clear out dead organic material—and some plant and animal populations require the benefits fire brings to survive and reproduce. For example, as dead or decaying plants begin to build up on the ground, they may prevent organisms within the soil from accessing nutrients or block animals on the land from accessing the soil. This coating of dead organic matter can also choke outgrowth of smaller or new plants. When humans perform a prescribed burn, the goal is to remove that layer of decay in a controlled manner, allowing the other, healthy parts of the ecosystem to thrive. Moreover, nutrients released from the burned material, which includes dead plants and animals, return more quickly into the soil than if they had slowly decayed over time. In this way, fire increases soil fertility.[7] → We’ve all seen the images – either real life images or the kind produced for the benefit of Hollywood cinema – of a small green shoot or delicate flower poking out of the blackened and burned debris around it. There is renewal and life and possibility after the flames … but that doesn’t make the flames any more comfortable, any more tame. It doesn’t make them any less destructive or erratic. You cannot come away from fire unchanged.
  • Today = celebrate the holy day of Pentecost
    • Birth of the church
    • Gift of the Holy Spirit coming down on the disciples gathered in Jerusalem and alighting on them in the form of fierce, howling wind and tongues of flame → fracturing the good news of the gospel into a dozen languages and spreading the word of God like … well … like wildfire
    • Pentecost is a day born of and marked by Holy Spirit flames – by a fire that blazes and consumes and renews and changes things like none other. And sure, now we observe Pentecost as a day of celebration and joy! But I have to wonder what that day must have been like for those who lived it: for the disciples who felt the burning, ever-distrupting presence of the Holy Spirit descending upon them and rushing and swirling around and in and through them; or for the people watching, those who witnessed not only the wind and the flames but the after effects as well – the disciples, the known Galileans, the Jews who had all been speaking to one another in their own language just a moment ago but were now suddenly speaking a dozen different languages, probably with shocked and confused and even frightened expressions on their faces as the word of God poured out of their mouths. Did the disciples even understand what they were saying? Or was it more like those immediate translation programs that they have at global meetings like the United Nations or the G8 – those ones that translate whatever language is being spoken on the spot into whatever language the listener requires? … You cannot come away from fire unchanged.
  • Yes, we often talk about the joy and celebration of Pentecost. But we don’t often talk about the disruption. We don’t often talk about the upheaval. We don’t often talk about the scattering that that original Pentecost event caused in the life of the church.
    • From that moment, gospel began to be taken out into the wider world
    • From that moment, the disciples’ lives would never be the same
    • From that moment, many of them were marked for death → would die as martyrs spreading that same message that they proclaimed by the work of the Holy Spirit that morning
    • From K. C. Ireton’s The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year (fabulous little book that explores the history, the wonder, and the worship that can be found in every season and holy day of the church year) – chapter on Pentecost: Stunning and scary. Beautiful and powerful. Wild and luminous. These words strike me as reflecting the paradox of the Holy Spirit, whose outpouring on the followers of Jesus we celebrate on Pentecost.[8] → Stunning and Beautiful and powerful. Wild and luminous. You cannot come away from fire unchanged. Especially not the fierce and stirring flames of the Holy Spirit.
      • And I think this is a paradox that we’ve felt particularly acutely over this past year.
        • Come to a new appreciation of the power and pull of community … but only because we’ve had to stay apart this past year.
        • Come to a new appreciation for the vital work done by so many in our community: healthcare professionals, essential workers (grocery store employees, mail and package delivery people, childcare professionals, etc.), teachers and those in education … but only because we’ve seen the sheer exhaustion and utter depletion they’ve experienced this past year.
        • Come to a new appreciation for the strength and capability of our own bodies … but only because we’ve seen so many suffer through the pandemic and even lose their lives this past year.
        • Come to a new appreciation for the power of compromise and coming together … but only because we have seen how truly devastating and toxic divisiveness and political in-fighting can be.
        • (Hopefully) come to a new appreciation for the gifts and stories and experiences and the very lives of our Black, Indigenous, People of Color siblings … but only because we have seen and heard of too many acts of violence done against them in this past year alone (let alone the centuries leading up to this one).
        • You cannot come away from fire unchanged. And while we cannot say that we have completely come away from this fire yet, my friends, we can say with certainty that we have been changed. We have been singed by the pain and the loss and the stress and the isolation and the desperation that this past year has brought in so many different ways. But it is my hope and my prayer that you have come through this past year knowing and believing that God is with you – that God has hunkered down in the midst of social isolation; that God has sat vigil at the side of ICU beds and grieved with millions of loved ones across this country and around the world; that God has paced the house with you in the middle of the night as you worried about distance learning for your kids or your grandmother’s health in her residential care facility or your mounting bills or how the heck you’re going to try to work from home tomorrow and actually get anything done with everything else going on; that God has irrevocably declared the lives of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color to be good and worthy and valued and beautiful. We have come away singed, yes, but we have come away reminded that we are also sacred.
          • Ireton: I want to see the Holy Spirit at work, transforming lives, drawing all people to Christ, changing hearts, comforting the afflicted, convicting the avaricious and the apathetic. Of course I want that. I just want it on my terms – slow and quiet. And a lot of the time, that’s how the Holy Spirit seems to work – slowly, inwardly, quietly, subtly, in ways that are not easily discerned unless one is paying attention or taking a long view of things. But sometimes the Holy Spirit is loud, raucous, obvious, even violent, as in the Pentecost story.[9]
  • Throughout Lent, we used some of the poetic blessings written by Jan Richardson in her book Circle of Grace.[10] Today, I want to leave you with the words of another one of her blessings – “This Grace That Scorches Us: A Blessing for Pentecost Day.” This one comes from Richardson’s website, “The Painted Prayerbook.” [READ “This Grace That Scorches Us[11]] You cannot come away from fire unchanged. Amen.

[1] https://kstp.com/minnesota-news/wildfire-moves-out-of-boundary-waters-canoe-area-wilderness-bwcaw-toward-cabins/6115424/.

[2] https://blog.batchgeo.com/largest-wildfires/.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019%E2%80%9320_Australian_bushfire_season.

[4] https://wildfiretoday.com/2011/09/14/minnesota-pagami-creek-fire-mapped-at-100000-acres-evacuations-ordered/.

[5] https://www.history.com/news/native-american-wildfires.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/ecological-benefits-fire/.

[8] K.C. Ireton. The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year, tenth anniversary edition. (Edmonds: Mason Lewis Press, 2018), 98.

[9] Ibid, 100.

[10] Jan Richardson. Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. (Orlando: Wanton Gospeller Press), 2015.

[11] http://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/06/01/pentecost-this-grace-that-scorches-us/.

Sunday’s sermon: Somewhere Between Doing and Believing

Text used – Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

  • At the college I went to – the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire – they have an event every year called the Viennese Ball – V Ball, for short.[1]
    • Spans 2 nights in early Apr.
    • Big fundraiser event → money raised goes to scholarships and awards for music, international study, etc.
    • Use the entire student center for various venues
      • Concerts (chance to showcase incredible talent of instrumental and vocal groups alike)
      • Drinks and refreshments
      • Silent auctions
      • 2 separate ballrooms for dancing
        • Viennese waltz (all night)
        • Swing dancing/polka (alternate every hour)
    • Kind of event that alumni return for every year long after graduation, even those who have to fly halfway across the country to attend
      • Been going on for more than 40 yrs.
    • Tickets go on sale in early Feb. (if memory serves correctly) → better get them quickly because they sell out fast!
    • When I was a student and Peter and I were dating, a choir that I sang with was performing, so I got one ticket for free. I lined up with everyone else and got a second ticket so we could go together, so with tickets in hand, there was only one more thing to do: we needed to learn how to dance. → friend of mine from InterVarsity (who was a trained and exceptionally gifted ballroom dancer) ran a day-long workshop for anyone who wanted to learn
      • Viennese waltz
      • Foxtrot
      • Swing
      • Salsa (just a little)
      • And let me tell you what … it was a day. Lots of very different dance steps. Lots to remember. Lots of people in a relatively small room with less-than-satisfactory air circulation. It was hot. It was tiring. It was a miracle my saint of a husband didn’t wash his hands of the whole thing by lunchtime! Do we remember much of it today – more than 15 yrs. later? Not really. A few steps here and there, enough to have fun and look just a little bit fancy at any wedding dance.
    • Thing about that day = we needed both the learning and the doing to make the day work, both the rules of it and the feel of it
      • Couldn’t do the dances without the instruction
      • Couldn’t complete the learning without the movement
      • By the end of the day, the rules that we learned at the beginning had found a sort of fulfillment as we made our way around the room with the other couples. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t elegant. There was certainly room for improvement! But the point is we were moving. We were dancing. Our movement was inspired and led by the music but informed by the instruction.
  • Today’s Scripture reading = this complex and challenging passage from Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia wrapped up in this idea of the rules vs. the feel, instruction vs. movement, Law vs. faith → Part of what makes it so complex and challenging is the way it’s been used throughout history.
    • One of many passages (many of which have been written by Paul) that have been used throughout history by the church to promote and cultivate anti-Semitism
      • History that began to be examined back in 1947 when it became clear after the end of WWII that anti-Semitism was still rampant → effort to quell that = gathering of 65 religious leaders – both Jews and Christians – from 19 different countries met in Seelisberg, Switzerland[2]
        • Based its work on a critique written by Jules Isaac, a Jew → spent years in hiding during the war studying hundreds of ancient church documents → traced Christian hostility toward Jews all the way back to the early church when Jesus’ followers were trying to differentiate themselves from their Jewish roots → Isaac’s critique: Christian [teaching], once started in this direction, never stopped. Utterly convinced of its rights, it has repeated and [spread] these mythical arguments tirelessly, with methodical thoroughness, through all the powerful means that were—and still are—at its disposal . . . The result is that the myths . . . have eventually taken on the shape and consistency of facts, of facts that have become incontestable. They have ended up by being accepted as though they were authentic history. They have become an integral part of Christian thinking; nay, of the thinking of all educated people living in a traditionally Christian civilization.[3]
      • And our text for today is part of that legacy – that legacy of the Church trying to set itself apart from and even above Judaism after the death of Christ. The arguments that spurred Paul to write this letter to the churches in Galatia in the first place were the beginnings of that legacy. Paul’s arguments in our text today are part of that legacy. And it’s important that we recognize that legacy and name it for what it is, how it’s been used, and the immeasurable harm that’s been done because of it.
    • Also have to recognize that there’s cultural and historical nuance here that we’re losing because we’re more than two millennia removed from Paul and these words → This text – and many of Paul’s other writings that have to do with Christians differentiating themselves from the Jews – speak about the Law in this way. – text: Before faith came, we were guarded under the Law, locked up until faith that was coming would be revealed, so that the Law became our custodian until Christ so that we might be made righteous by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian.[4] → It sounds like Paul is being pretty negative, doesn’t it? It sounds like Paul is saying the Law – the Jewish Law, the spiritual practices laid out in the Torah that included things like dietary laws, cleansing and purification rituals, laws about observing the Sabbath, and even circumcision … it sounds like Paul is saying the Law is unnecessary, obsolete, inferior. But that’s not true.
      • John Frederick, lecturer in NT at Trinity College Queensland (Australia) – same scholar that I read last week also wrote about this week’s text: Paul did not conceive of Christianity as the replacement of Judaism, but as the fulfillment of the promises of Judaism for the sake of the whole world through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.[5] … Central to the narrative of Galatians—and to the story of salvation throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture—is the truth that Judaism does not exist as a sub-par foil for a superior religion called ‘Christianity.’ Rather, Christianity exists as the gracious fulfillment of the already gracious Judaism. Christianity is the “climax of the covenant,” as N.T. Wright has said, not its cancellation.[6] → Remember, Paul himself was born a Jew and highly educated by Jews. Before his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, he was actually a Pharisee – one of those tasked with adhering to and interpreting the Law of Moses so that his fellow Jews could live lives that were honoring and pleasing to God. à This brings it back to the idea of fulfillment instead of replacement. – text: Understand that in the same way that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, those who believe are the children of Abraham. But when it saw ahead of time that God would make the Gentiles righteous on the basis of faith, scripture preached that gospel in advance to Abraham: All the Gentiles will be blessed in you. Therefore, those who believe are blessed together with Abraham who believed.[7]
        • Hear how Paul is honoring the covenant God made with Abraham
        • Hear how Paul is trying to include Gentiles in the fold even all the way back through Scripture – Paul refers to God’s blessing of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 17): I will bless [Sarah] so that she will become nations, and kings of people will come from her.[8] → Heb. “nations” = word that was specifically used for other peoples … pagan peoples … Gentile peoples → So Paul is trying to draw the Gentiles back into the fold using God’s own words of promise to Abraham, the first father of the people of Israel.
  • Central dilemma that Paul is trying to address in today’s text = those other Christians who had come to Galatia trying to convince the churches that their faith didn’t count unless and until the participated in Jewish rituals and followed Jewish Laws → I think we’ve made it clear that Paul’s main issue is not about the flavor of faith, if you will, that brought people to Christ. It’s about the idea that their actions could earn their faith. This is not an argument about Jews vs. Christians. It’s an argument about legalism and the efficacy of grace.
    • Unnamed Christian teachers to the churches in Galatia: “Your faith is only faith if it follows the Law. You can only be part of the fold if you follow the Law. Without the Law, you cannot be a Christian and cannot be saved.” → represents fundamental misunderstanding of the Law
      • Purpose of the Law = to help people of Israel lead lives that were pleasing and honoring to God → a way to put their faith into action, not a way to earn their place with God
        • Today’s text = Paul trying to help the Christians in Galatia understand that, while their faith can be informed by the Law, it cannot be earned by the Law → It’s sort of like that dance workshop Peter and I went to a million years ago. Our movement was inspired and led by the music but informed by the instruction.
      • Yet the Law was being wielding in this way by these unnamed Christians as they attempted to bend the early Galatian churches to their will. But in doing so, they completely negated the purpose of Christ’s coming in the first place: grace – undeserved, unearnable, unconditional grace. A grace that was available for anyone and everyone, regardless of who you are, where you come from, or what you bring with you.
    • Clear in Paul’s words at the end of today’s text: You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothes yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Now if you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.[9] → Paul is holding up three of the most stark lines that could be drawn between people in his time – cultural heritage (neither Jew nor Greek), indentured status (neither slave nor free), and gender (neither male nor female) … Paul is holding up these stark lines and saying, “None of these matter when you follow Christ. You are a child of God, a child of the promise. That’s what matters.”
      • John Frederick: Now, clothed in Christ, we are no longer meant to function as autonomous individuals separated along party lines, but as integrated co-communicants knit together in love by the Spirit who makes us one. Our identity is no longer informed and governed by the characteristics of our individual selves in separation from one another. Rather, we are transformed as persons in communion with one another, and we are guided by the characteristics of the Christ in whom we have been clothed. In a season of great national and global division, it is the call of the Church to live out this radical charter of unity in Christ through our union with Christ.[10] → And we get to live out that unity in Christ through our union with Christ not because we’ve earned it. Not because we deserve it. Not because we’ve checked the right boxes or dotted the right I’s or crossed the right T’s but because God’s grace through Christ Jesus has set us free – free to approach God with confidence, free to love one another with hope, free to follow the movement of the Holy Spirit in us and through us. Grace upon grace. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] https://www.uwec.edu/centers/viennese-ball/.

[2] https://www.facinghistory.org/holocaust-and-human-behavior/chapter-11/christian-churches-and-antisemitism-new-teachings.

[3] Jules Isaac. The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), 42.

[4] Gal 3:23-25.

[5] John Frederick. “Commentary on Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/one-in-christ-2/commentary-on-galatians-113-17-211-21-3. Accessed May 16, 2021.

[6] John Frederick. “Commentary on Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/living-by-faith/commentary-on-galatians-113-17-211-21-4. Accessed May 16, 2021.

[7] Gal 3:6-9.

[8] Gen 17:16.

[9] Gal 3:26-29.

[10] John Frederick. “Commentary on Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/one-in-christ-2/commentary-on-galatians-113-17-211-21-3. Accessed May 16, 2021.

Sunday’s sermon: Authentic Faith

Text used – Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21

  • In December 2011, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life put out a report entitled “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.”[1]
    • Produced as part of Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project – initiative jointly funded by Pew Charitable Trusts and John Templeton Foundation
    • Purpose: analyze religious change and its impact on societies around the world
    • Findings:
      • 2,184,060,000 Christians in the world → just under 1/3 of the global population
      • Of that 2 billion
        • 50% = Catholic
        • 37% = Protestant
        • 12% = Orthodox
        • Remaining 1% = other traditions (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, etc.)
    • Working definition of “Christian” for this research = “very broad”: The intent is sociological rather than theological: We are attempting to count groups and individuals who self-identify as Christian. This includes people who hold beliefs that may be viewed as unorthodox or heretical by other Christians. It also includes Christians who seldom pray or go to church.[2] → gets at a really important point when it comes to Christianity = DIVERISTY
      • Catholic worship looks different than Lutheran worship looks different than Greek Orthodox worship looks different than Presbyterian worship looks different than Pentecostal worship
      • Worship practices in different congregations of the same denomination look different → Just here in our presbytery – our local geographical area – I can guarantee that worship at First Presbyterian in Rochester looks different than worship at Community Presbyterian Church in Plainview looks different than worship at House of Hope in St. Paul looks different than worship here at the Presbyterian Church of Oronocoand that was the case even before the pandemic!
      • Worship practices from the same denomination look different in different global settings
        • Catholic mass at a small, rural parish in South America looks different than Catholic mass at Our Lady of Mercy’s Church in the Bronx looks different than mass celebrated at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City
      • And we can only imagine how different worship looks in those nations around the world where it is dangerous to practice Christianity in any form – North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Pakistan (just to name the top 5, according to Christianity Today[3])
    • All that vast and varied difference in the body of Christ!
      • Different languages
      • Different practices
      • Different worship elements
      • Different hymns
      • Different prayers
      • And yet, here we all are … part of the body of Christ. Here we all are, bearing the name “Christian.” Do we agree on everything? Definitely not. But instead of causing rifts and arguments between us, those differences should bolster our faith because it means that we’re practicing our faith in a way that is truthful and real – a way that is authentic to who we are, where we come from, the stories we carry with us, and the life that has formed us.
  • Assertion of importance of an authentic faith is what Paul is getting at in our Scripture reading this morning
    • Interesting Scripture when it follows what we read last week (Acts 15:1-18) because this passage from Gal is Paul’s account of that same encounter … and Paul’s account is a little different! – text: But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong. He had been eating with the Gentiles before certain people came from James. But when they came, he began to back out and separate himself, because he was afraid of the people who promoted circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also joined him in this hypocrisy so that even Barnabas got carried away with them in their hypocrisy.[4] → From the Acts account that we read last week, it sounded like Peter and the other apostles came around to the decision to include the Gentiles without requiring circumcision pretty quickly. But from Paul’s account this morning, there was more to it than that.
      • Contention
      • Backpedaling
      • (To use Paul’s word) hypocrisy
    • And it’s this hypocrisy, this flip-flopping, this disingenuous way that others were living into their faith that really got under Paul’s skin.
      • Problem is not that Peter was a Jew eating with Gentiles or that Peter was a Jew eating with Jews → problem is that Peter was a Jew happy and content to be eating with the Gentiles until “certain people came from James” → after this relatively unnamed contingent shows up, Peter flip-flops and begins to separate himself from the Gentiles because he’s afraid of what the other Christians would think
        • John Frederick, lecturer of NT at Trinity College Queensland (Australia): By refusing to eat with Gentile Christians when a faction of Jewish Christians arrived, Peter was essentially saying that there are actually two classes of Christians divided by ethnic lines. To be a ‘real’ Christian, Peter was inferring, all disciples (whether Jew or Gentile) must live according to boundary markers of the Jewish Torah. Paul was not having any of that.[5]
    • Actually, that’s the whole purpose of Paul’s letter to the Galatians in the first place! – scholar: Paul’s angry, passionate letter to the churches of Galatia provides a glimpse of the controversy that surrounded the expansion of the Christian movement into Gentile communities in the ancient Mediterranean world. The identity of the newly established mission churches was up for grabs: Were they to be understood as branches on the tree of Judaism, or were they to be understood as belonging to a new and distinctive community, neither Jewish nor pagan? Were Gentile converts bound to accept Jewish practices and values? In what ways were they free to maintain their former ways of life?[6]
      • Clear in Paul’s words: When I saw that they weren’t acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of everyone, “If you, though you’re a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews?” We are born Jews—we’re not Gentile sinners. However, we know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.[7] → It’s clear that Paul is upset by Peter trying to put on a face for other Christians – trying to play the part of the staunchly observant Jew when there were other staunchly observant Jews around but playing the part of the all-embracing, welcoming leader to all Christians – Jews and Gentiles alike – when he was in the company of Gentiles. At this point, Peter had already made it clear that he believed the Gentiles were welcoming into the Christian fold.
        • After his encounter with Cornelius, the Centurion, Peter: “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all!”[8]Those are Peter’s own words … and yet, according to Paul’s account in our Scripture this morning, Peter was acting like God did show partiality for the Jews over the Gentiles just because he was in the presence of those who “promoted circumcision.” It’s inauthentic. And as John Frederick said, Paul was not having any of that.
  • Interesting inclusion at the beginning of our text today – interesting choice by those who selected the verses for this lectionary passage
    • Begins with Paul explaining his own origins in faith: You heard about my previous life in Judaism, how severely I harassed God’s church and tried to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my peers, because I was much more militant about the traditions of my ancestors. But God had set me apart from birth and called me through his grace. He was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might preach about him to the Gentiles.[9] → Paul, who established this church in Galatia himself, is reminding them that he himself is far from perfect. He’s made mistakes. His faith journey has been a rocky one. But God still called him in the midst of that rocky journey.
    • See Paul’s conviction in that purpose in his words later, too – text: We know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. We ourselves believed in Christ Jesus so that we could be made righteous by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the Law—because no one will be made righteous by the works of the Law. … I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.[10] → For Paul, that’s it. That’s the point: “The life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.” That’s all of it!
  • Many of you have probably heard of Brené Brown.
    • Professor, researcher in field of social work, author, speaker → spent the last 2 decades of her career studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy[11]
      • TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability” is one of the top 5 most viewed TED talks ever → 50 million views worldwide
    • Big element in Brown’s work is authenticity: Authenticity is a daily practice. Choosing authenticity means: cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are. Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving – even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough.[12] → Friends, we spend too much of our lives comparing ourselves to others. We spend too much of our lives worrying about what others will think, especially when it comes to our faith. Our faith – like our faces, our homes, our Bibles, and our prayers – looks different. Your faith won’t look like my faith. Your prayer won’t sound like my prayer. Your walk with God will wander into places I’ll never even see. But in all that difference – in all that diversity that spreads across Christianity as it’s practiced in every corner of this world – in all that difference, what matters is that Christ died for you. Christ rose for you. Christ prays for you. And Christ loves you. What God wants from us is an authentic witness of our faith in this world – a witness that matches the unique, precious, beloved person that God created you to be. Amen.

[1] Conrad Hackett and Brian J. Grim. “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.” (Washington D.C.: Pew Research Center), 2011. https://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2011/12/Christianity-fullreport-web.pdf.

[2] Ibid, 7.

[3] “The 50 Countries Where It’s Most Dangerous to Follow Jesus in 2021” from Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/january/christian-persecution-2021-countries-open-doors-watch-list.html. Posted Jan. 13, 2021, accessed May 9, 2021.

[4] Gal 2:11-13.

[5] John Frederick. “Commentary on Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/living-by-faith/commentary-on-galatians-113-17-211-21-4. Accessed May 9, 2021.

[6] Richard B. Hays. “The Letter to the Galatians: Introduction” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 183.

[7] Gal 2:14-16a.

[8] Acts 10:1-36

[9] Gal 1:13-16a.

[10] Gal 2:16, 20.

[11] https://brenebrown.com/about/

[12] https://brenebrown.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Authenticity_download-1.pdf

Sunday’s sermon: Faith Out of Discord

Text used – Acts 15:1-18

 

  • There’s a short story by Dr. Seuss called “The Zax” which can be found in the book The Sneetches and Other Short Stories[1] (originally published in 1953).
    • 2 characters: a north-going Zax and a south-going Zax
    • Paths of these two characters just happen to meet head-on
    • Both Zax refuse to alter their course by even a single side step
    • Stand there arguing with each other in perpetuity as the world goes on around them because neither is willing to give an inch
      • World develops around them
      • Highway is built over them
      • But they continue to stand there, neither of them actually going anywhere anymore, because “this is who I am, and this is the way I do things, this is the way I’ve always done things, and no one can make me change! Things would be so much easier, so much better, if you did them my way because clearly, my way is the right way, so you must be wrong!”
        • An attitude that doesn’t work out terribly well for the Zax → still standing there arguing at the end of the story (with the distinctly Seussian implication that they’re still standing there arguing to this day)
        • An attitude certainly not confined to the pages of whimsically-rhyming children’s books
          • Attitude that has permeated the halls of Congress
          • Attitude that has polluted many relationships – families, friends, co-workers, neighbors
          • Attitude that has plagued many communities of all sizes – small towns all the way up to big, teeming cities
          • Attitude that has pervaded even the stained-glass beauty of the Church → In fact, it’s an attitude that’s as old as Christianity itself. It’s the very attitude that sent Jesus to the cross because those in power felt threatened by the message Jesus was spreading. And clearly, from our Scripture reading this morning, it didn’t stop there.
  • Today’s text sounds like it could have come out of contemporary headlines
    • Background: Paul and Barnabas have returned to the city of Antioch (modern day south-central Turkey) after one of their long, evangelizing/church-planting journeys – text leading up to what we read this morning: They sailed to Antioch, where they had been entrusted by God’s grace to the work they had now completed. On their arrival, they gathered the church together and reported everything that God had accomplished through their activity, and how God had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles. They stayed with the disciples a long time.[2]
      • Important point: Paul and Barnabas reported to the church in Antioch “how God had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles” → Remember that at the very beginning of the early church, the vast majority of those who were Christians were also Jews. There were a few Gentiles that Jesus had interacted with during his ministry, but within the congregation of the early church, they were certainly the exception, not the rule. Yet on the other hand, remember that all of Paul’s many long mission journeys took him only into Gentile lands, so Paul’s entire life and mission was to bring the good news of Jesus Christ and God’s love to Gentiles … to The Other.
        • People that the Jews had grown up being taught not to mingle or intermarry with
        • People that had probably conquered or oppressed the Jews at some point in their long and difficult history
        • People whose wide array of gods certainly looked nothing like Israel’s God
        • And yet here were Paul and his helpers taking the good news of Jesus Christ to these Gentiles.
    • Clearly this is where the problem arises – laid out in the beginning of our text for this morning: Some people came down from Judea teaching the family of believers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom we’ve received from Moses, you can’t be saved.”[3] → “This is who we are, and this is the way we do things, this is the way we’ve always done things, and no one can make us change! Things would be so much easier, so much better, if you did them our way because clearly, our way is the right way, so you must be wrong!” Even more dangerous: “If you want to be part of us, you have to be like us. You have to look like us on the most intimate, visceral level. Your discomfort doesn’t matter. Your pain doesn’t matter. If you don’t look like us, you don’t belong.”
      • Plenty of times this same mentality has been applied throughout history … never for good → most immediate example that comes to mind: Indian boarding schools
        • Established through the Civilization Fund Act (1819)
        • Established for the sole purpose of obliterating Native culture and language all across the country → America’s attempt to solve the “Indian problem”
          • From an article in The Atlantic marking the 200 yr. anniversary back in 2019: This is what achieving civilization looked like in practice: Students were stripped of all things associated with Native life. Their long hair, a source of pride for many Native peoples, was cut short, usually into identical bowl haircuts. They exchanged traditional clothing for uniforms, and embarked on a life influenced by strict military-style regimentation. Students were physically punished for speaking their Native languages. Contact with family and community members was discouraged or forbidden altogether.[4] → “If you want to be part of us, you have to be like us. You have to look like us on the most intimate, visceral level. Your discomfort doesn’t matter. Your pain doesn’t matter. If you don’t look like us, you don’t belong.” Friends, this is a legacy that the Presbyterian Church participated in. This is a legacy for which we need to repent.
            • Work that the PC(USA) has recently embarked on[5]But we’ve still got a long way to go.
    • In today’s reading, Paul and Barnabas push back → argue their point until it becomes clear that they need some 3rd party intervention → take the matter to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem (This certainly was no small feat. It required a journey of roughly 300 miles. And yet, they went.) → arrive in Jerusalem → both sides make their arguments before the apostles and elders → apostles and elders confer and come to their conclusion (delivered by Peter) – text: “Fellow believers, you know that, early on, God chose me from among you as the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and come to believe. God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.”[6]
      • Paul and Barnabas put a powerful and inspiring emphasis on Peter’s words with more stories of “all the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through their activity”[7] → This is their testimony. This is their public witness of the faith that God has not only worked through them but in them.
      • Apostle James puts the final note on the assembly by quoting words of hope and promise and restoration from the prophet Amos, not just for the Jews, but for all – text (God speaking): I will rebuild what has been torn down. I will restore it so that the rest of humanity will seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who belong to me.[8]
  • Friends, we cannot deny that change is difficult, especially for something like the Church – something that is big and expansive in structure and doctrine, something that is old and established, something that is near and dear to the hearts of many. But change happens. Change comes. All the time. No matter what.
    • Think back to the Zax who stood arguing about who would change and who would not → The longer they stood there, the more they argued, and the more they argued, the longer they stood there. Little did they realize that in refusing to give, they’d both already changed who they were. The minute they refused to change – the minute they refused to open their minds and eyes and hearts to a new idea, a new possibility, a new way – they ceased becoming a north-going Zax and a south-going Zax because they weren’t going anywhere anymore! They weren’t going north or south. They were standing still. They were stuck. That core element of their identities that defined them so deeply that they couldn’t let go of it was necessarily erased by their obstinance and unwillingness to find common ground.
      • Today’s Scripture = tale of hope and tale of warning about who we can become and what can become of us when we try to cling so desperately to church “the way we’ve always done it” or when we open our hearts and our doors to something new
        • Spill the Beans commentary: Perhaps what is significant is that debates such as the one in Acts 15 are the mark of the church moving beyond what it originally understood itself to be. There were no signposts, no one had been this way before, and so as the church faced these open seas, the whole structure creaked like a boat suddenly changing direction as it tried to come to terms with what it understood itself now to be.[9]
    • Here’s the crazy thing, all. This Church – capital C “Church,” as in the whole body of Christ, all believers, the Church universal … this Church that we think is constant and unchanging is far from it.
      • Late Phyllis Tickle, Christian writer who was one of the most respected and internationally renowned authorities on religion in America until her death in 2015, wrote a book called The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why[10] → In this book, Tickle talks about how, every 500 yrs., Christianity goes through a shift – a major shift. She playfully calls these times “rummage sales – when the church cleans out its attic.”[11]
        • 500 yrs. after the death of Christ = councils that established things like which books would be included in the Bible, what was sound doctrine and what was heresy, the established structure of the church
        • 500 yrs. after the councils (1054 C.E.) = The Great Schism → disagreement which ended up establishing the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western/Roman Catholic Church
        • 500 yrs. after the Great Schism (1517) = The Reformation → birth of Protestantism and the thousands of branches that have grown out of that central Christian trunk since then
        • And if you add 500 to 1517, friends, you’ll realize that we are exactly there. 2017 was the 500 yrs. anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses being nailed to the door of that church in Wittenberg. And here we are, 4 yrs. past that anniversary. We are in the throes of just such a time of change, and like those in our Scripture reading this morning, we don’t know what waits for us on the other side. We don’t know what the Church will look like. But as Peter reminded those early Christians and reminds us even today, God is working. God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires. God, who makes no distinction between us and them (no matter how we choose to define “us” and “them”). God, who saves everyone in the same way: by the grace of Jesus Christ. So as this change swirls around us, how will we let it change us? Will we be Zax who dig their heels and lose themselves in the argument and the discord and the refusal to try something new? Or will we be like the early church and open ourselves up to all the beauty and diversity and newness that’s coming? Amen.

[1] Dr. Seuss. The Sneetches and Other Short Stories. (New York: Random House), 1953.

[2] Acts 14:26-28.

[3] Acts 15:1.

[4] Mary Annette Pember. “Death by Civilization: Thousands of Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools created to strip them of their culture. My mother was one of them” from The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/03/traumatic-legacy-indian-boarding-schools/584293/. Posted Mar. 8, 2019, accessed May 2, 2021.

[5] https://www.pcusa.org/news/2020/9/24/stated-clerk-issues-call-action-behalf-indigenous-/.

[6] Acts 15:7-11.

[7] Acts 15:12.

[8] Acts 15:16b-17a (quoting Amos 9:11-12).

[9] “Easter 5 – Sunday 14 May 2017: Bible notes – What Is The Nature Of The Church?” from Spill the Beans: Worship and Learning Resources for All Ages, iss. 22. © 2017 by Spill the Beans Resource Team, http://spillbeans.org.uk.

[10] Phyllis Tickle. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books), 2008.

[11] Ibid, 19.