Sunday, May 28, 2017

Not the Same Anymore: The Liminal Places

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. Acts 1:6-14 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.

Over these weeks of Easter, I’ve spent each Sunday preaching on our readings from the book of Acts--which we often call the second half of Luke’s Gospel. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the activity of the early church and, particularly, of God’s activity in the early church as narrated in Acts. It is activity that shows us just how intrusive God is. After the incarnated, crucified, and resurrected Jesus ascends to heaven, returning to sit at the right hand of God and to retain the same power and authority as the Father--it is after all of this has happened, that we have seen how, over and over, God continues to intrude into the world and to disrupt it by spreading the Good News.  

We have also seen how the people we’ve met in Acts have found themselves challenged by simply trying to keep pace with God. That sometimes--often--it is only in hindsight that the early Christians can even begin to make sense of the work God is doing. That only by looking backwards can they begin to see God at work building God’s kingdom on earth.

We saw, as we walked with the church, in its early days, that everything was held in common. No want, no need, no one considered an “other.” We also saw, as we continued that journey with the early church, that things began to fall apart. That, particularly, things seemed to come crumbling down with the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The first of many. 

We’ve travelled far with the early church. With our intrusive God. With the disruptive Gospel. But today, we are moving backwards in time. We are stepping back in time to the point before the ascension. Back to the days after Jesus’ resurrection.

As our Acts story begins today, Jesus has been with the disciples for forty days since he rose from the dead. In the verses that precede our text, we read ithat, after his suffering, Jesus presented himself alive to the disciples by many convincing proofs and appeared to them during that 40-day period, speaking to them about the coming kingdom of God and directing them to remain in Jerusalem until they would be showered with the Holy Spirit. 

It is here that our story today begins. And it just continues to amuse (and, yes, frustrate) me that, even after all the disciples have witnessed, after all of the things that Jesus has taught them, after everything they have been through, they still just don’t quite get it. After all of it, they still ask, “Is it now, Lord? Now will you restore the kingdom to Israel?” Still looking for that all-powerful Messiah to restore Israel and to restore their earthly power. They just don’t get it.

Jesus’ response is simply that it is not their place to know. That it is God, and not them, who is the one here with power and authority. That it is God who is the one who sets the times or periods of history, not them. Not as much as they would like to.

Then, shortly after saying this, Jesus is gone from them. Ascended up into heaven. Leaving them, seemingly, alone. And on their own.

This past week, I think most of you know that I was attending a conference in San Antonio, Texas. It was a Festival of Homiletics. (Homiletics is just a fancy word for preaching.) The festival consisted of five glorious days of preaching! (I can see how excited that makes all of you!) Five days spent with nearly 2,000 preachers from across the U.S. and Canada, listening to about 3 sermons and 2 lectures each day from some of the biggest and best preachers across the United States. For me, at least, it really was glorious. 

Yet, one of the oddest lectures I listened to was that presented by Jennifer Lord, who is a professor of preaching and liturgical studies at the Austin Presbyterian Seminary. The title of her lecture was “Way In and a Way Out: Preaching and Liminality in a Culture of Change.” Sound scintillating? Yeah, I didn’t think so either. But, since I was already in that particular venue and since it was hot outside and the other venue was about 10 blocks away, I decided to stay.

It was a pretty theoretical lecture. It felt a little over my head and, to be honest, I couldn’t really get the relevance of the topic she was presenting to preaching. So, after about 30 minutes of listening to her lecture on liminality and liminal places, I left. And I moved to the other venue to catch the second half of another, more dynamic, speaker.

Since then, though, the concept of liminality has popped up in several places--in readings and in a couple of programs I’ve watched over the past few days. In fact, it has kind of been in my face. Have you ever had something like that happen--when you dismiss a possibility and it just keeps coming back, again and again?

So, I decided to do a little more research on liminality. I found out that the concept of liminality was first developed in the early 20th century. It was first used in anthropology in the area of ritual studies. More recently, usage of the term has been expanded to include political and cultural places. 

Liminality, or liminal places, are those places in-between, places of transition. They are places in which those involved are standing at the threshold of something new. That place where there’s no going back, but you can’t go forward, at least not yet. Liminal places are those places where the old places begin to be dissolved and transformed into something new.

Many of us experience such liminal places in our lives. When something dramatic happens to in one’s life to change things, but the transition to a new place takes time. Such as the time in between the loss of a loved one and the new life that eventually comes forth. Or the time in between the diagnosis of a serious illness and the eventual result--either positive or negative--of such a diagnosis.

The disciples were in such a liminal place. Jesus had ascended and left them. But not before he directed them to remain in Jerusalem until his promise of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon them would be fulfilled. There was no going back. And, yet, there was no going forward. The women and men who had dedicated months and years of their lives were in transition, waiting for God’s next move. Waiting for God to intrude. And, as they waited together at this point of liminality, they devoted themselves to prayer.

I wonder if we would do the same. How often is it that we like to believe that we understand the grand pattern of history. That we are in control. That we know how God is at work in our world, how God is moving God’s kingdom forward. 

When we play this game, it is a dangerous one. It is nothing other than self-serving. There are no end of empires, theologies, churches or governments who claim that history is on their side. It is way too common in our own political discourse here in the United States, as we flip back and forth between the hope in some kind of messianic leader who will save our country or our panic from some kind of perceived armageddon. 

Claiming to know the pattern of history, to know how God is moving the world forward throughout history, doesn’t reflect faith in God, but faith in oneself and solely in one’s wholly inadequate knowledge of the pattern of history. 

In Jesus’ parting words, there are absolutely no hints about the course of history--whether for the disciples or for us. Yet, the disciples, in their liminal place, in their place of transition, knowing they can never return to where they were, yet, not yet fully knowing the way forward, are driven back to a familiar place, to simply pray, to be together, and to wait. To wait for their intrusive God to break in and to move forward. And, then to hold on as the Spirit would push them forward out of their liminal space into new experiences, into new places, into new lives.

We, too, here at Grace and Glory are in our own liminal place. Trying to figure out where we go next, to understand what God intends for us, or how God intends to take us there. Just what it is God has in store for Grace and Glory Lutheran Church. 

So, just like the early disciples, we wait and pray. We pray for the Holy Spirit and we wait for God to push us forward into those new places, into those new experiences, and into the new lives where we will never be the same anymore.

It will happen. Just as it happened for the disciples, it will happen for us. In God’s time. Not ours. And that is simply enough.

May God grant it in God’s time. Amen.

Preached May 28, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Not the Same Anymore: Stones of Life, Not Death

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.  Acts 7:55-60 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Does it feel shocking to you? A little jarring, perhaps? That, on this Mother’s Day, this day we hold up mothers and women and, particularly, we lift up the qualities of mothers, those maternal qualities that both women and men possess. Qualities such as caring for others, for nurturing and loving. Qualities that give life, instead of those that take away life.

So, does it feel shocking to you that, on this day when we celebrate those life-giving qualities, our reading from Acts should be that of the stoning and martyr’s death of Stephen?

I can’t speak for you. But, I know that when I opened the text to prepare this week’s sermon, this Mother’s Day sermon, all I could think was, “Oh, wow! How can I find care and nurture, love and life in this passage today? How can I preach a sermon of life in the midst of the violence and death of Stephen?” 

Was it only last week that we read the description of the early church--how the disciples held all things in common, how no one was in need, how they spent time daily in the temple, praying, and praising God, and how, daily, God added to their number? How did we move from such a place of wholeness and life, a place of salvation, to this place of violence and death?

Well, for me, the way in which to figure this out, to make sense of this is to move backwards from today’s text, into previous chapters. To go back and to see how it is we got here.

It didn’t take long that things began to fall apart for the early church. Even though many signs and wonders continued to happen, the disciples certainly weren’t making many friends among the Jewish leadership. We read in Chapter 4 that, as Peter and John were performing miracles and speaking to the people, proclaiming the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection, the religious leaders came to them, very annoyed at what they were saying to the people. 

They had Peter and John arrested and brought in front of the leadership to question them, they were amazed at their boldness and even more amazed at their message, given the nature of Peter and John as "uneducated and ordinary men." The leadership could find nothing to hold them on. So, they were forced to let them go, but not before they ordered Peter and John not to teach or speak in the name of Jesus.

It wasn’t only with the Jewish leadership that trouble began to happen. Within their own ranks, selfishness and greed began to appear, challenging the disciples’ tradition of holding everything in common.

Some of the Greek disciples began to complain against the Judean disciples, claiming that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of good. In response, the twelve disciples decided to appoint seven elders to take charge of distributing food. In this way, the twelve would then be able to more fully devote themselves to prayer and to preaching the Word. One of those seven appointed was Stephen.

The sixth chapter of Acts describes Stephen in this way: “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” Even when some of the Jews attempted to argue with him in the synagogue, we read that, “...they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.”

It was this group of Jews, these religious people, these people of faith, who then began to stir others up against Stephen. As the momentum built against him, he was confronted by them, arrested and brought before the Jewish leadership council. 

But, even then, Stephen, would not be stilled. Even in the midst of a parade of false witnesses lined up against him, our text reads that “all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”

And, then, he began to speak. Full of the Holy Spirit, Stephen began to challenge these religious leaders. To challenge their perception of God--that God’s dwelling place was not only the temple, as they believed. That God dwells not in houses made with human hands, but, as the prophet says, quoted in Acts 7, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me,” says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?” 

After the people heard this, they were enraged. And they dragged him outside the city. And it was there that they began to stone him. To kill Stephen with stones of death.

It is easy for us to sit back and to condemn these people, isn’t it? Who, of us sitting here, would ever do such a thing?

But, the people who kill Stephen, who stone him, are not local thugs. They are upstanding religious folks. Regular members of synagogues. Committed leaders, religious professionals, Priests. They are guardians of valued traditions. Their own traditions of faith. They are the faithful who have invested much of themselves into the religious ideas and systems that they believe are necessary, that are crucial, for making God known in the world.

They simply wanted to protect their understanding of God, an understanding that had become so important to them that it closed off their ability to be curious about that understanding. 

They presume to know exactly how God works. They refuse to make room for anything that a visionary, like Stephen, might say. And then, they lash out in violence because they are victims of the oldest sin in the Bible, the sin of idolatry. 

I wonder how much we are like them. How much we, too, like to contain God in our own little “God box.” Thinking that God can only be found within these walls, only within the church. That we are so focused on what is happening here, within the church, that we fail to see the other places where and the ways in which God is present. Or that we are so filled with our own arrogance that we fail to humbly gather with fellow seekers and to be open to both new and old ways of finding God.

You see, Stephen’s story isn’t about identifying and vilifying the bad guys. It’s about recognizing the reality that all of us are too prone to reject God’s messengers and to hold on tightly to what feels safe and secure, to what we already know, or think we know. To worship creation instead of the Creator. To imagine that God can be contained and, therefore, controlled and owned.

When we do this, when we seek to control God and to own God, we are no different than those who hung Jesus on the cross. Or those who cast stones of death upon Stephen.

The antidote for this, though, is not to avoid being religious. The antidote is to be open to encountering God. To be open to a God who breaks into our midst, who disrupts the status quo that we want to protect so dearly. It is to determine whether we hold onto our convictions so hard that we leave broken bodies in our wake. Or that snuff out life and vitality in other ways.  

The story of Stephen challenges us. It challenges us as the body of Christ, as it did Stephen, to take on Christ’s ministry, to take on his crucifixion and ministry of servanthood as our own. To be filled, like Stephen, with the Holy Spirit so that we might be the presence of Christ in our world. 

To be--as we read in 1st Peter--living stones. Followers that are being made into the image of the Creator, that are living stones being built around Christ, that chief cornerstone, and into God’s spiritual temple. To be a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession and who are called to speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called us from darkness to light, from death to salvation, to be stones of life and not stones of death. 

This is the story of Stephen. It is the story of a visionary, who saw the depth and breadth of God and of the life that God offers. Life offered not just to him or to us. But to all people. And, on this day that we celebrate and hold up those who give life, what else is there that could be more affirming?

Thanks be to God!


Preached May 14, 2017 at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Not the Same Anymore: What Salvation Looks Like

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.  Acts 2:42-47 (NRSV)

As I’ve lived in various places around the western U.S., I’ve often discovered that each place has a history, each area has its own unique history. I’ve lived now in Kentucky for three months. What I’ve discovered here is that this place, more than many of the other places I’ve lived, has a much richer and deeper history. 

Perhaps some of this is because of its physical location, bounded by the Appalachian Mountains on the east, which provided access for early settlers, who were seeking more land and adventure as they moved west from the original 13 colonies. Perhaps it’s because of the rich native American history, a history that precedes that of the early settlers and that includes tribes so familiar to any student of history--the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, and the Shawnee, to name just a few. Perhaps it’s because of the Ohio River, sometimes considered the western extension of the Mason-Dixon line--the border that separated slave states from free states. This river that was called the River Jordan by those traveling the Underground Railroad from slavery to The Promised Land.

And, then, there is the Kentucky Derby. Over these past couple of weeks, I am learning about the breadth and depth of this great race, this “Run for the Roses.” This “Fastest Two Minutes in Sports.” This first leg of the Triple Crown. This grandparent of horse races that has been run consecutively every year since 1875. 

So, in honor of the Derby this week and of the history of this amazing place, I started reading a book titled The Sport of Kings, written by C.E. Morgan, an author who is a graduate of Berea College and a native Kentuckian. It’s one of those huge Southern Gothic novels, like Gone With the Wind

It weaves together characters from three family lines, three lineages. One that includes the son of one of the oldest and wealthiest families in Kentucky. One that includes the great, great, great grandson of a runaway slave who gained freedom by crossing the Ohio River. And one that includes Hellsmouth, a thoroughbred racing horse that comes from a long line of winning thoroughbreds. And, although, this book on it’s surface is about horse racing, it is about much more than that. It is mostly about race.

Throughout the novel, the author’s premise is that our genes don’t control our destinies, but that what is more decisive is the sheer unstoppable momentum of history. She believes that we can and we must refuse to perpetuate the sins of our parents. But she is also a realist, recognizing how nearly impossible this is, how hard it is to unbind ourselves from our own histories. From histories that keep us apart from each other.

Why is it so hard to separate ourselves from our own histories? Why is it nearly impossible to break down the walls, the barriers, that so often keep people apart? It seems that more and more frequently we are so divided from each other. Whether it is because of race. Or class. Or political persuasion. Or gender. Or sexual identity. Or whatever it is, doesn’t it just feel as though we are so divided? That our own histories are wrapped around us, keeping us bound and isolated. Keeping us apart from each other.  

Perhaps that’s why, when we read our Acts text today, it seems so unrealistic. This idea of holding everything in common. It seems so fanciful. I mean, really. Could you see this happening in our world today? Could you?

Clearly in this early community, people were divided by class. Some had money and possessions. Others didn’t. And, yet, our text reads, “All who believed were together and had all things in common: they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

This, my friends, is exactly what happens when God breaks in. When God intrudes and disrupts with the Good News. With the promise that we talked about last Sunday. With the promise of salvation.

Because, this is what salvation looks like. It is a picture of life.  Of the abundant life that is promised to us in Christ’s words in our Gospel, “I came that they (that you and I) may have life, and have it abundantly.” 

What is in that picture of abundant life? 

In our world, abundant life is so often equated with wealth. With wealth and prosperity. With a big home in the suburbs and maybe a timeshare in Florida or a cabin somewhere up north. With a boat. With possessions. With stuff. With access to experience, like tickets to the Kentucky Derby.  This is what, to the world, abundance looks like. 

The world’s idea of abundance divides. The haves and the have nots. The rich and the poor. Those with housing, those without. Those with food, those who are hungry. Those with health care, those with none. 

This is not God’s picture of abundant life, of salvation. For God, abundant life is life that is lived out in the church, where the Word of God is made manifest. It isn’t about gaining prosperity or wealth. It is about people’s needs being met. It is about worship. About fellowship and belonging. About safety and security. About the breaking of bread. And prayers. And signs and miracles.

This is what salvation looks like. Life. Abundance. Unity. Commitment. Commonality. The same as that of the early church. Holding fast. And dedicating ourselves, like the early church, to the teachings of the apostles. To studying God’s Word, in Sunday school, in Bible study, here in worship, at home in our regular devotion. 

And to the breaking of bread. That ritual observance of the Lord’s Supper, the communal meal. The Eucharistic feast--an abundant feast portrayed so richly in our psalm today. Did you hear the language? A feast in which the psalmist’s cup overflows. A feast that happens even in the presence of the enemy. A feast for everyone. For every kid who has been picked on. For every person escorted to the door after being laid off. For every person every abandoned by a spouse. Or by a parent. For anyone ever shamed for being poor. For being undocumented. For every outcast from society. It is for you and for all people. A place of honor at God’s feast. No more separation. No more shame.

This is the model of the early church. This is the model for us today. And, interestingly, in the book I’m reading, it is ultimately the only model of how to slip the bonds of history: not by having no family at all, but by deciding that your family includes everyone. That the only lineage, the only family line that matters is the one that is common to us all. The line that has been created by God, broken by sin, yet redeemed by Christ and for which the Spirit seeks to work full restoration. 

This is God’s vision of abundant life. It is idealistic. It is fanciful. And, yet, it is for us. And it is for all people. It is God’s vision for what salvation looks like.

I hope and pray that it is our vision, too.


Preached May 7, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10