Sunday, May 26, 2013

"Look at Us"

Scripture: Acts 3:1-16 (NRSV)
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.”

Sermon: “Look at us”
Let us pray together:
Patient teacher,
we give you thanks for the leadership of the early church,
for its messages that still speak to us.
We ask that your Spirit move among us today, help us to look at you differently,
so that we too may stand up and leap for joy in praise to you. Amen.

Peter and John are going to the temple. The brief glimpses we have had of the Book of Acts in the last two weeks as we spoke of the Ascension and Pentecost, showed us a people of prayer and worship. So we aren't surprised to see Peter and John going to the temple, but I have to admit that I can't help but be a little surprised when I read what happens next. For as I read this miracle of healing, the words of the story kept echoing with other stories I've read about Peter and John in the Gospels.

Maybe you, too, remember what happened with the disciples after the Transfiguration, when this very same Peter and John, along with James, followed Jesus up a mountain and saw him with Moses and Elijah and heard a voice come down from heaven naming Jesus as Chosen. Such a powerful mystical experience that surely filled them with certitude of who Jesus was, but it was followed up by this experience from the ninth chapter of Luke:
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.2

Faithless and perverse. These are the harsh words that Jesus uses in his frustration with his disciples, men he has spent day after day with, talking, teaching, sharing in visions. And yet, their imaginations remained too small, their faith too shaky, and they cannot save the little boy. “I begged your disciples to cast it out,” the father says, “but they could not.” Faithless and perverse. These are the words that echo through my head as Peter and John look intently at the man asking them for alms at the temple that day.

When I meet John and Peter again on the road to the temple after Pentecost, I still see those men, who when reflecting the light they saw in Jesus up on that mountaintop could not heal a boy in need. The author of Acts does not make that connection for us, instead pointing to a chapter earlier, to Peter's sermon on that Pentecost Sunday. But my brain makes that connection for me. And those words, faithless and perverse, echo in my head. How did we get from those disciples to these great healers?

Many of you may have noticed this before, but each of the Gospel writers characterize the disciples in different ways. We sometimes conflate the four gospels together, but there are distinct differences in the ways they are written. And even though the Gospel of Luke, written by the same author as the Acts of the Apostles, paints the disciples in a more positive light, my perception of the disciples is always colored by Mark's depiction of the disciples as this clueless bunch of guys who hang around Jesus and give him headaches. I read Luke's story of the disciples' inability to heal even though they have seen the Glory of God, and I shake my head at the disciples, saying it is too bad they just don't get it.

Except I'm the one who just doesn't get it, and I suspect maybe that most of us just don't get it. I like the story in the Gospel of Luke because it lets me stay a bit smug and self-righteous. It lets me say: well the disciples saw the glory of God and still couldn't heal somebody, and here I am two thousand years from sitting at the feet of Jesus and soaking him up--- how can I be expected to perform those kind of miracles? It lets me off the hook, or so I tell myself.

That's why I am frustrated, frankly, by these confident men strolling up to the temple who look intently at this man at the gate of the temple asking them for alms. I search for the transformation, how these two men can go from bumbling disciples to calm, confident healers with bold words. I do not have to search far, as I'm sure some of you could see easily from the beginning. The difference here is the power of the Holy Spirit. The difference is that Jesus has equipped them in spite of their inadequacies and calls them to spread the gospel.

Now that being said, the Holy Spirit is very difficult for most of us to understand, the kind of black sheep of the Trinity. Father and Son we may not understand, but we know those relationships. Very few of us can say that we've felt a rush like the wind and felt flames like fire inspiring us to do God's will. So sometimes when we talk of the Spirit it is another cop-out for us. Another way we let ourselves off the hook, to say that we cannot expect miraculous transformation because the Spirit doesn't work like that anymore, not in our reasonable day and age. We can go back to living comfortably, just telling ourselves that the early church's mission and calling was so different than ours. We can go back to being the disciples before the arrival of the Spirit, praying and worshiping, maybe even standing around being clueless, in our isolated little worlds without having to look intently to what is going on around us and do something to change it.

I know that may sound a little harsh, for surely nothing is wrong with praying and worshiping, but I spoke to a friend this week who is going to a church who told her they didn't want her to preach on Acts because the focus on sharing and reaching out to one another through the power of the Spirit was more communist than the Gospel.3 They told her that her job was just taking care of the people in the church. But while the community and context of the Book of Acts are much different from the ones we live in today, the message of love and life is the same, and so that Acts community has a lot to say to us still today. The Spirit continues to work in our church, maybe not in the same way as in the early church, but the Spirit is always empowering us to look into the eyes of our neighbors and offer them this message of life that Peter and John offered to the man at the gate of the temple.

This man, we read, has not been able to walk since he was born. Every day he comes to the temple to beg. In the ancient Roman world, people believed that your outer characteristics were tied to your moral character; their moms never told them not to judge a book by its cover. Still today there is a lot of stigma around disability, but at the time of the early church, this man would have been seen not as unfortunate, but as “morally weak, corrupt, or even evil.” Yet Peter and John look intently into this man and welcome him into the church. They did not seek to build a church of their friends or family, a church of rich folks, a church of folks who dress nice and aren't too loud--- the Holy Spirit moved them beyond their worship and prayers to reach out to this man asking for alms at the gate of the temple.4

When Peter and John heal this man, they are again leading us on a transformative journey. They show how the Holy Spirit empowers us to transform one another, both by welcoming those the rest of the world turns their noses up at, and by offering love and life to those they welcome. The Holy Spirit had transformed them from clueless disciples to bold healers. The Holy Spirit would transform this man physically and spiritually, causing him to leap for joy praising God.

Peter and John looked intently at the man asking them for alms and said, “Look at us.” And now Peter and John look intently at me, look intently at you, and they say, “Look at us.” Look at the ways we have let the Spirit transform us to preach the gospel of our Risen Lord. Look at how far we have come, from those disciples who said that they could not heal a boy in so much need to apostles overflowing with confidence in the life-giving power of God. Look at this man who came to us for a few bucks and yet remains with us to dance in praise of God.

So look at us, Peter and John say, and let the Spirit transform you too.

2Luke 9:37-43, NRSV.
3Julia Singleton.
4See Mikeal C. Parsons, “The Character of the Lame Man in Acts 3-4,” The Journal of Biblical Literature 124.2 (2005): 312. “...Luke invokes the categories of physiognomy and cultural biases against the disabled only to overturn them. The lame man (along with the bent woman, Zacchaeus, and the Ethiopian eunuch) would have been viewed by Luke s auditors as morally weak, corrupt, or even evil, yet Luke claims that the eschatological community is comprised of such as these, a community in which "God shows no partiality" (Acts 10:34). If the lame mans body language in standing with the bold apostles fulfills physiognomic conventions, his actions of leaping and praising defy them. In other words, the literary character(ization) of the lame man is unfolded in the story of the transformation of the lame mans (moral) character. And this without uttering an audible word in the story. In a curious (and perhaps unintended) way, Ambrose was right, 'the movement of the body is a sort of voice of the soul.'”

Sunday, May 5, 2013

God Is Our Light

This is the sermon I preached on the Sunday I baptized two children at Deer Creek United Methodist Church. It was difficult because Revelation is not my favorite book of the bible. And, of course, right after I preached, I heard an awesome talk by Barbara Brown Taylor about how we ought to embrace darkness. Oh well. I still liked exploring sacramentality using Revelation. Heck, writing this sermon made me even more open to infant baptism! It also made me feel a bit more positive towards the book, especially because I came out of my class on Revelation feeling much differently (see here).

Scripture: Revelation 21:10,22-22:5
And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God...

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.

Sermon: God is Our Light
Let us pray:
Patient Teacher, we give thanks for this beautiful morning.
We give you thanks for the poetry of your Word,
but you know how difficult it can be to understand.
We ask for your wisdom this morning,
that it may illuminate your teaching so our eyes may be open
to your guiding presence all around us. Amen.

I am very intrigued by metaphors linking God and light. I have written a few sermons talking about caving and Christ, fascinated by the hope that is a pinprick of light in the overwhelming darkness of closed off caves. When I read John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, describing his vision of a heavenly city as full of light, I read that as full of hope. And I am also intrigued by metaphors linking God and water, particularly when Aaron and I are flying over the Bay, watching the light glitter off the water. When I read Revelation chapter 22 verse 1, I can see that river of the water of life, bright as crystal because I've seen the Bay lit up at sunset.

Such interest in these metaphors, though, is less an interest in the poetry and beauty of these images and more a function of my own hopes and fears. Since I was a child, I have been afraid of the the dark, and to a lesser extent, afraid of water. Both are very primal fears tied to my fear of being alone (I am not afraid of the dark if I am with another person), fear of the unknown (what could be lurking in the water just below the surface?), and a fear of a lack of control. Basic fears, really, but fears that paralyze so many of us. And yet, in the New Jerusalem, in John's vision of the heavenly city, those basic fears are gone. John tells us twice that God is the light of the city. We need no lamp, not even the sun or moon: God is our light. And the water that flows through the city is the water of life, flowing directly from God. We have nothing to fear.

Fear is a very powerful motivator in our world. Wars, terror, and just meanness come out of fear. We don't know much about the exact date when Revelation was written, but we do know that John of Patmos and other early Christians had much to fear, as many were martyred, their deaths made into entertainment, and many more ostracized from their families and communities for finding truth in the story of Jesus. But we don't need to study history to understand fear. We see it in our own time. We fear potential attacks, so we attack first, only to find out later that our intelligence wasn't so good. Too many Congressmembers fear losing lobbying money or losing the next election that they will not stand up for what is right. People stop homeless shelters and soup kitchens from being built because they fear they will be built in their backyards. Some of us fear plan crashes, so we refuse to get on airplanes and won't visit loved ones living far away. Some of us fear losing our jobs so much that we work until we make ourselves sick. So many things to fear, to keep us from living fully, rightly.

John knew fear. He knew the way it paralyzes us from living in freedom and love. Looking toward John's vision of the Heavenly City, we see that God does not want us to live this way. God wants us to live fully in the light of love, God wants love to flow over us, bright as crystal.

Now, sometimes when we read Revelation, we talk about how God can make us new here and now. I am talking about how God shows us that we need to let love reign in our lives here and now. But John was not talking about here and now. He was talking about end times, about an entirely new creation. In our individualistic ways of worship we sometimes miss that. John is not talking about “on Earth as it is in Heaven” that Jesus talked about. Jesus tried to help us bring a bit of heaven to earth, teaching us to love and care for one another. John's vision does not counter Jesus' teachings, but it is focused on a future event. It is to give us hope for the future, not to be an instruction on how to create heaven here on earth.

Yet I think that we can still read Revelation's images alongside Jesus' teachings and piece together how we can live today, to read Revelation and catch the vision of the New Jerusalem. Often, we read pieces of Revelation as a congregation during the Easter season as a continuation of our story of hope and victory. So though John is not writing about the water of life I will use today to baptize Zachary and Caleb, the river flowing bright as crystal in the New Jerusalem is connected to the water shimmering in our baptismal font. The candles Jeffrey lights before the service to symbolize Christ's presence in this place are connected to the light in the heavenly city that streams from the Lamb of God.

For today in baptism, in communion, in the simple act of lighting a candle, we are pointing to a fullness of life that we might not always be able to see in the midst of our fear, in the midst of our grief. We are pointing to a fullness of life, a life free from fear and sin, a life free to love. 
I read this story this week from a book by Bernard Martin.1 He writes that one day a pastor was called from a children's party at the Sunday school to visit a young woman. This woman had collapsed into an acute depression following the death of her husband in an auto accident. She had withdrawn from everyone and shut herself in her bedroom with the blinds pulled. She wouldn't speak to her children because she said they reminded her of her dead husband. As the pastor put on his coat to leave the party, the children, unaware of the sadness he was about to enter into, showered him with confetti. He smiled at them but shook off the confetti as he walked out the door.

When he arrived at the woman's house, he entered her darkened room and told her who he was, but there was no response. He could faintly see her pitiful form lying motionless on the bed. He tried to carry on a conversation with her, but she was unresponsive. He reached out to touch her hand, but it lay lifeless in his. So he just sat with her in the dark silence for a time.

Sometimes we just need someone to sit and hold our hand in the darkness of fear and grief. But sometimes, we need to break out of it, to be reminded that God is our light. The pastor, before leaving, decided he would read scripture and pray with the woman briefly. He knew she needed prayer. So he fumbled for the bedside lamp. The woman blinked and stared at him blankly in the yellow glow of the lamp and did not respond. So the pastor took out his bible from his jacket pocket and opened it, only to have confetti fall from it all over the bed.

Here was a woman in grief, a woman who shut herself in darkness because she could not imagine joy or peace or light without her husband. The pastor knew this and was mortified that now confetti was sprinkled on the side of her bed, but he couldn't help himself. He began to laugh. The absurdity of the situation, the contrast, his nervousness gave way to laughter.

And that did it. First a smile appeared on the woman's face, and then she broke into quiet laughter. They prayed together and she left the darkness of fear and grief to return to the light.

Scholar Frederick Buechner reminds us:
We can't see light itself. We can see only what light lights up, like the little circle of night where the candle flickers--a sheen of mahogany, a wineglass, a face leaning toward us out of the shadows, [the shimmer of confetti sprinkled over a bed in a dark room].
When Jesus says that he is the Light of the World (John 8:12), maybe something like that is part of what he is saying. He himself is beyond our seeing, but in the darkness where we stand, we see, thanks to him...2

So when we read John's vision of a New Jerusalem, we are reminded that as Jesus will be our light in this eternal city, so he is our light today as well. He is beside us, should we choose to open our eyes and turn from the darkness in our lives to focus on the light. 
1See Bernard Martin, If God Does Not Die,