Sunday, May 29, 2022

Living in Hope: A Posture of Christ

If, then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he existed in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    assuming human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
Therefore God exalted him even more highly
    and gave him the name
    that is above every other name,
so that at the name given to Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work on your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
--Philippians 4:1-13 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Like Pr. Elisa last week, I’ve struggled writing this sermon this week. In the midst of all that has happened this week, which we will get to, it’s been one tiny little phrase in the center of this text that has troubled me much. It’s this phrase in verse 7. A reference to Christ emptying himself, specifically “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

If you were here last week and you heard Pr. Elisa’s sermon, one of the theological terms she talked about, one that I’ve mentioned before, too, is the term imago Dei. It’s a theological understanding, based on the creation account in Genesis, that we believe that each person, every human being, is created in the image of God. 

So, what - and this what I struggled with - what does it mean then when we lay this idea beside verse 7 in today’s text where, being born in human likeness meant - at least for Christ - becoming enslaved. What happened to the part about human likeness imaged from the face of God?

So that, among other things, has been my struggle this week. And, by default, it’s yours today, too. Whether you like it or not!

To try to understand this, we need to step back from this small part to look at the whole. These verses are the oldest expression in all of Christian scripture of who Christ is. We teach about this piece of poetry as another proof text of our understanding of the incarnation - of Christ moving from a place of equality with God to that of the human condition. Emptying himself to suffering and death, then to resurrection and restoration. It’s the heart of the Gospel - the heart of the Easter story for us who, on this seventh Easter Sunday, are now returning full circle back to that first Easter Sunday. It’s the heart of who we understand this Christ to be. 

But that’s really only part of the story of these verses. We know the social and political context of the Roman Empire at the time this letter was written. Those who ran the Roman Empire put up stone monuments to celebrate its power. These images reflect Roman emperors holding female figures by the hair, women with anguished faces and twisted bodies. They were not just simple statues celebrating emperors who were considered “sons of God,” but statues that celebrated the empire’s power over the people - men and women alike - that it had enslaved. 

This hymn in verses six to eleven is a rejection of this kind of power. It celebrates Christ as one who is in the form of God and equal to God. And, if we look at verse 6, which reads that Christ did not “regard equality with God as something to be exploited” - the Greek word for exploited is much harsher than our English translation. It means rape and robbery. In other words, this divine power that Christ held did not include the right to dominate. Or to subdue people. And, in fact, this Christ hymn argues that Jesus took on the form of a slave - of one raped and robbed and exploited. And that he was executed on the cross as a criminal - enslaved by empire. 

Domination. Conquest. Exploitation. All of these are contrary to divine power. The death and resurrection of Jesus rejects our human displays of power and violence by taking on the form of those who were the recipients of such power and violence. To show us a different way than violence, fear and death. A way of humility. Of self-giving. Of being open to the cries of those who are enslaved.

Which brings me to this week. 

It began on Sunday. Even as we carried the previous week’s events of Buffalo and Laguna Woods and, here in Louisville, the incident with the Christian Academy...even as we carried these events into the week, on Sunday we learned of decades of the abuse, particularly of women, in the Southern Baptist Convention. Decades during which their abusers were preserved and protected. And the voices of these women silenced. And, in the silencing, abused over and over and over again. Perhaps there is a reason God appears to be dismantling the Church (capital C) as we know it.

Then, Tuesday came. And with it, another mass shooting, the 214th mass shooting of the year here in the US. There have been 2 more since then. This, as you well know, was another shooting in an elementary school: 19 children and 2 teachers, each of whom we named today as we began worship. 

Do we hear their cries? Do we hear the cries of the voiceless in our world? The people who are enslaved by human displays of power and violence at any cost? Do we hear their cries? When will we begin to listen? And to act? 

This hymn, perhaps written by Paul, is not a theological statement, but an ethical statement of how we, who have been saved by Christ, are called to act on behalf of those who have been enslaved by the human condition - the desire for power and domination at all costs. To hear their cries. To listen to their voices. To reject the simple binaries of good and bad, or who’s right or who’s wrong. To experience and take on the posture of Christ. And then, to act. To become in practice what we already are in Christ. 

To act is what Paul means at the end of today’s text, when he speaks of the need for us to work on our own salvation with fear and trembling, to continue the work already begun in us by God. And, then, "to will and to work for God’s good pleasure" in a posture of Christ.

Because, if we are all in truth created in the image of God then every child gunned down in Texas is my child. And your child. Every person of color killed is my sister or brother. And your sister or brother. And every grieving family is my family. And your family. Because we are all connected, one to the other, created by God, part of the human family that God created in God’s image. And God’s good pleasure is that we act on behalf of our family. Our human family.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he existed in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    assuming human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
Therefore God exalted him even more highly
    and gave him the name
    that is above every other name,
so that at the name given to Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Preached May 29, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville, and New Goshen Presbyterian, Prospect.
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Readings: Philippians 2:1-13, Luke 6:43-45


Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Living in Hope: Meeting People Where They Are

Our story today opens with Paul in Athens. 

Paul never expected to end up in Athens. After his imprisonment with Silas last week, the two of them left Philippi and made their way to Thessalonica. There, too, Paul and Silas and now Timothy got into trouble and were quickly whisked away to Beroea, where again, they got into trouble. For his own protection, Paul was escorted to Athens, where he waited for Silas and Timothy to join him. It is at this point, as Paul is waiting in Athens, that our story opens.

While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, “What an amateur! What’s he trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. “What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean.” (They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)

Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, “We’ll hear from you about this again.” At that, Paul left the council. Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others. --Acts 17:16-34 (CEB)

We get most hung up in this story, I think, on the idols. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps, it’s because that, for most of us from a very young age, that first commandment is impressed into us - You shall have no other gods. It’s the first of those ten commandments first given by God to Moses to guide and shape Israel and then, in different way, the followers of Jesus. 

To follow an idol is, for most of us, a sin, right? But, I think that when we focus most on the idols, we miss an important aspect to this story - we miss the story of Paul and Paul’s response. After all, the truth is that we are continuously idolaters ourselves, if we truly want to admit it. Think about all the things that keep you from church on Sunday morning, those things that draw you away from worshiping God. Those idols. And it becomes clear that, perhaps, we are quite like those ancient Athenians. 

But the topic of idolatry. The topic of sin. The topic of violating the first commandment isn’t my focus this morning. Instead, my focus is on Paul.

I want you to think back a couple of weeks to the story of where we first met Paul and heard the story of his conversion. If you recall, Paul was on his way to Damascus. To do what? Yep. Not just take names, but to take prisoners - Jesus followers - back to Jerusalem. This is Paul the zealot. The one who, at least in his circle, was doing the right thing by ridding Judaism of these “sinners.” Hunting them down and, in doing so, ridding his religious community of these rabble-rousers, these people who are challenging the status quo in his belief system and that of his fellow Pharisees - religious leaders steeped in the Torah - in God’s teachings. (In some ways, this feels a little too close to the horrific events of yesterday in Buffalo.) 

But something drastic has changed him, hasn’t it? It's while on the hunt that he runs smack-dab into Jesus. Soon, he is preaching a different message. A message that, in many places, runs him right up against the religious establishment. Against believers and religious leaders who, like the Paul we first met, are trying to protect their status quo. Their traditions. Their belief systems. 

And, then, he comes to Athens. This place known as the intellectual and cultural center of the known world. Think Socrates. Plato. Pythagoras. Aristotle. It was here, in Athens, that new ideas were formed. New philosophies developed. Think Harvard. Or Stanford. 

Paul, shaped and formed by the Torah and all of the ritual and levitical regulations of the Hebrew scriptures, is rightly disturbed by the idols that he sees all around him. But, most stunning about what Paul does with his anger and his distress at the idols is not to turn away or to react in fear toward the Athenians, but to move toward them. To move in closer. Even, as the gospel demands, to the point of touching and holding them. With no regard for ritual purity. Or faithfulness to God’s covenantal laws. This man, who once agreed with the stoning of Stephen, now stands surrounded by idols that make him furious, but he must now yield to the Spirit. Who calls him to a new word. A new way of being.

What do you say to those who are radically different from you? Those who are radically outside you and your own belief system? What do you say to those whose way of life, or belief system, or whose religions or rituals, or even race, you have been taught to loathe?

The old Paul might have spewed words of hate at them. Might have distanced himself from them so as not to become ritually pure. But, the new Paul. The transformed Paul. The Paul who has met Jesus moves in. Closer. To the synagogue. Then to the marketplace, which is not just a place to buy stuff, but a marketplace of ideas, that is so Athens. 

The new Paul meets them where they are. Speaks to them in words given him by the Holy Spirit. Words that seek to connect with them. Not to condemn them. Or to destroy them. But to reach them. To share with them what has changed him. That there is a single God who has created all things, from whom all people - Jew and Gentile alike - descend. Who wants every…single…person to know of God’s love for them. Embodied in Jesus Christ, resurrected from the dead.

It’s this business of the resurrection that proves to be a sticking point for some. But, even so, there are a few whose minds remain open to this new thing this previously unknown God has done. This new thing that God continues to do. And yet, even for those whose minds are not changed by Paul’s message, they walk away not feeling as though their own belief system has been condemned, or characterized as worthless.

Yesterday, we witnessed another mass shooting. And although we don’t have all of the information yet, it is becoming clear that this attack was racially motivated. An attack that might be something similar to what the old Paul might carry out. An attack that stems from fear. Fear of the other. Fear of change. Fear of difference.

How does this story - this narrative of Paul’s transformation as much as that of the Athenians - inform our response as people of God? How does it inform our mission here?

Perhaps it's a model for us of how we share our own experiences of Jesus. Not a model like that of Christians in times past - and some today - who as they burn with cultural and political (and racial) superiority, engage in mission by literally burning down idols to bring in Bibles and bullets. To enforce their perceived way of being Christ in the world. A way that, in truth, is anti-Christ. 

Because the Christ we know, like the new Paul we just heard about, operates from a model that moves in closer to those who are different, to meet them where they are. As they are. With no animosity. No condemnation. Or, in often overlooked words of John 3.17, no judgment. Only a desire to see the world be whole. To bring life.

It’s the model of a transformed Paul. It’s the model of a resurrected and transforming Jesus, who, through us, continues to seek out all people, loved by God, to move closer to them. To meet them where they are. 

May it be our model as well. Amen.

Preached May 15, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville, and New Goshen Presbyterian, Prospect.
Easter 5
Readings: Acts 17:16-34, John 1:16-18

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Good News Spreads: That Church

Our story today is about Paul. Or Saul, depending what language you are speaking. Saul didn’t change his name to Paul after his conversation. Saul is simply the Hebrew version of Paul, which is Greek. It’s like the difference between John, which is English, and Johannes, which is the German form of John. And vice versa. 

Now that we’ve got that straight, we can move forward with our story. We’re making a bit a leap forward from last Sunday’s text about Thomas and about his experience with Jesus. Saul appears in the New Testament after Jesus has ascended. And after the Holy Spirit - promised by Jesus - has been poured out onto the believers at Pentecost. 

This Jewish community of Jesus followers is growing by leaps and bounds. If you remember that Pentecost story, something three or four thousand were baptized in one day. The early disciples are speaking truth to their religious leaders - the Jewish religious leaders - about Jesus. This truth-speaking is not without consequence. Just before today’s story, is the story of the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of these Jesus followers, these people who called themselves “The Way.” At the edges of the scene of Stephen’s martyrdom is where we first meet Saul, where we read at the beginning of Acts 8, rather ominously, “Saul was in full agreement with Stephen’s murder.”

Stephen’s death was the beginning of vicious harassment of the people of The Way. They quickly left Jerusalem and scattered through the surrounding regions to get away from the violence. Soon after, we again read these words in the early verses of Acts 8: “Saul began to wreak havoc against the church. Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison.”

Saul. Devout. Faithful. Was a zealot. What he was doing was, in his mind, the right thing to do. It’s at this point that our story opens today, which we will read in three scenes.

Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest, seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”

Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.”

Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything. --Acts 9:1-9 (CEB)

Paul was desperate to stop these people who were undermining his religious tradition. So desperate in fact that he went to high priest to get letters for the synagogues in Damascus about 200 miles away. These letters introduce him to the synagogue leaders and authorize him, on behalf of the high priest, to capture and take Jesus believers - men and women - back to prison in Jerusalem. Paul was acting under the authority of the religious leaders. 

But along the way to Damascus, something completely unexpected happened to him. Like the Thomas narrative last week, the theme of believing without seeing is picked up in today’s story. But, in Saul’s conversion it is the story of believing by not seeing. Like Thomas last week, Saul has his own unique experience with Jesus. An experience that completely disrupts his life. An experience that makes him vulnerable - a vulnerability that he can’t run away from, or try to deny, or try to reason away. Saul has an experience in which he meets Jesus and is forever changed. 

Do you notice what Jesus says to him is this brief interchange on the road? Jesus’ first words to Saul are “Why are you persecuting me?” Why are you persecuting me? Jesus asks him. Saul isn’t persecuting Jesus. Or so we think. But, whenever we persecute any follower of Jesus, any member of the body of Christ, we - like Saul - are persecuting Jesus himself. 

Saul’s friends lead him to a house in Damascus, where he waits in his blindness for three days. For his own resurrection.

Our story continues. Scene 2.

In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

He answered, “Yes, Lord.”

The Lord instructed him, “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.”

Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.”

The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” --Acts 9:10-16 (CEB)

Like Paul, Jesus comes to Ananias in a vision. Ananias was, as our text tells us, a faithful disciple living in Damascus. God directs him to go to Saul, staying in a house on Straight Street (no pun intended). And just as most faithful disciples - or prophets - respond to God’s call, his first question to Jesus, is “Are you crazy?” You want me to go to this man - this persecutor of my fellow believers, my friends, those whom I love - so that I can lay hands on him and heal him of his blindness. Yeah. No.

It’s interesting isn’t it. That just as this is a story of Saul’s conversion, it is just as much a story of the conversion of Ananias. He has his own blind spot, not only with Saul, but also with regard to the power of God to transform. He knows Saul as an enemy of God’s saints. He knows Saul as having free reign to bind those who invoke the name of Jesus. And, not so surprising to us, probably much like we would respond, he doesn’t want to go anywhere near him.

But God has plans for Saul. For this agent - this vessel - that God intends to use to spread the good news of abundant life in Jesus. Ananias will be called to serve Saul, so that he, in turn, can serve those whom he persecuted. Gentiles. Then, kings. And the people of Israel. God will, in time, reveal to Saul how much he must suffer for the sake of God’s name - suffering that Paul lists later in his letter to the church in Corinth. Beatings. A shipwreck. Imprisonment. And on and on. Not that God desires this suffering, but that God knows the fearful human response that comes from living according to the Way of Jesus Christ, this way of peace, of truth, of life. The human response is a violent response that comes out of fear. Fear of being vulnerable. Of being open to a new Way. Open to Jesus. Where death leads to life. Oppression, freedom. Hatred, love.

We continue with Scene 3, our closing scene.

Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. After eating, he regained his strength. --Acts 9:17-19a (CEB)

What a powerful response by Ananias! He lets go of the fear. Of the hurt. Of the possibility of his own death. And goes to Saul. Lays his hands on him. Calls him, “Brother.” Then baptizes him, by which Saul is cleansed and purified, reborn and brought to new life through the Holy Spirit. And welcomed into the community - into the body of Christ. With a snack to boot!

This story of Saul’s conversion. This is the story of mutual conversion - Saul and Ananias. Is a story of disruption. About the way that God works in our world, where God breaks into our lives in surprising ways. Upsetting our understanding of things or to challenge our belief system. Working through unexpected people. And changing us to be a people - a church - of hospitality and welcome. It is a story about how God calls us - the Church - to be. A place of truth, where we recognize the complexity in one another, where we have pasts that may not always be so pretty. Yet, where we are called to embrace each other in all of our differences. Where we move away from division, and violence, and fear, and retribution, to a place of invitation. Of openness. Of acceptance. And, where we, like Thomas, like Saul, and like Ananias, experience Jesus. Here. Now.

May we be that Church. Amen.

Preached May 1, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
Easter 3
Readings: Acts 9:1-19a, Matthew 6:24