Friday, May 20, 2016

“Life Together: Consolation” - May 22, 2016

Text: 2 Corinthians 1:1-11

Since last fall, we have been on a journey through the Bible.  We began in Genesis, with creation, and continued with stories of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Esau, Moses and the Ten Commandments, Ruth and Naomi.  We read about the prophets Elijah and Hosea and we read from the Psalms.  We came to Advent and considered the hope and anticipation of the coming Messiah and then celebrated the birth of Jesus.

After Christmas we followed the story of Jesus through the gospel of Mark – his life and teachings, his parables, his miracles, calling and sending the disciples, growing conflict and finally his arrest and crucifixion, and then we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday. 

Since Easter, we have been in the book of Acts, the story of the growth of the church and the spread of the gospel though the Mediterranean world, and 1 Corinthians, a letter Paul wrote to one of the early churches in an important city in the Roman world.

The Narrative Lectionary, which we have followed this year, is designed around the way that church actually works, so it starts in the fall, on the Sunday after Labor Day, and runs through Pentecost, around the beginning of summer.  The thinking is that a lot of folks, ministers included, are in and out over the summer and that things are generally a bit looser, so there is not a prescribed plan for the summer months.

But we will be continuing the sweep through the scriptures with a couple of sermon series this summer.  This will get interrupted, of course, by vacation, services at the park, and so forth, but the plan is - at least when I am preaching – to do a sermon series from 2 Corinthians and then a series from the Book of Revelation.  Which only seems right: when it is almost time for school to start, it can feel like the end of the world, so Revelation in late summer seems appropriate.
 
On this day that we highlight Christian Education, it needs to be said that a lot of Christian Education takes place in worship, and the hope is that the way we have structured our readings and sermons through this year has helped us all develop a bit more understanding of the Bible as we see the scriptures as a continuing and unfolding story, and as we spend concentrated time in one gospel as well as pay attention to parts of the Bible that may be less familiar.

At any rate, that has been the game plan for the scriptures we have read in worship this year – that’s the big picture, and here we are today, with our reading from the first chapter of Second Corinthians (or Two Corinthians as some like to call it).

There was a time when a lot of people were regular letter writers.  When I was a kid, my mom and my grandma wrote each other about every week or so.  There didn’t have to be a lot going on; my grandma would just write a few lines about the goings-on of the day. 

Today, letter writing is pretty well a lost art.  Sending an email or just texting some emojis is not the same.  I can remember when long distance phone calls were expensive and money was tight, so you wrote letters.  Cheaper long distance seriously cut into letter writing, and then more recently, email and Facebook and skype and the like have pretty well finished off what was left of the letter writing community. 

But smartphones and ipads and computers and even the basic telephone are very recent in the big picture of things.  For nearly all of history, if you wanted to communicate with someone from a distance, you wrote a letter.  Several books of the New Testaments are actually letters – correspondence with churches and individuals.

In our Bible, the book is called 2 Corinthians.  But this is actually something like the 4th letter, at least, that Paul has written to the church at Corinth.  1 Corinthians includes a reference to an earlier letter.  And 2 Corinthians chapter 2, as well as chapter 7:8 include references to an earlier letter that is clearly not 1 Corinthians.  I mention this as a way of saying that this is a congregation that Paul knows very well and he has kept in touch with the church in Corinth, even while he has been away.  This letter was written while Paul was in Ephesus. 

He begins with a greeting – Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus along with our brother Timothy, to the church in Corinth, including those in Achaia (the surrounding area).  Grace and Peace to you.

Then he goes into a blessing.  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all consolation…”  Amy-Jill Levine points out that the reference to God as the “Father of Mercies” is a very familiar part of the Jewish liturgy.  It is something people expect to hear, almost boilerplate language.  But the part about the God of Consolation was not.  This was different.  And if you want to know how important Paul’s description of God as the God of Consolation is, we can maybe quantify it.  “The God of all consolation who consoles us in our affliction, that we may be able to console those who are in affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God…”  And it goes on and on.  It’s almost the Department of Redundancy Department.  I counted the words console or consolation 10 times in 4 verses.

I might have used a few different words if I had been writing this, just for style – lift, comfort, commiserate, empathize – but I’m not sure we can compare first century Greek and 21st century American writing styles.  But I do know that in any language, when you repeat a word so many times, you get emphasis.  If you are reading this section and find the word consolation over and over, you get the message.  The theme here is consolation.

Now consolation is not necessarily a highly valued idea for us – we might speak of something as being “small consolation,” but I don’t remember hearing of anything being “large consolation.”  The winner on Jeopardy! goes home with $37,420 while the other contestants get a consolation prize – the home version of the Jeopardy! game.  Compared to the first place contestant’s winnings, that really is small consolation.

But the word that Paul uses here is actually a powerful word that means something like strength, encouragement, comfort.  When you have suffered affliction, when you have endured suffering, consolation is no small thing.  Encouragement and strength and comfort are not small things.

There was a 60 Minutes segment last Sunday night about a very promising treatment for glioblastoma, an especially virulent form of brain cancer.  The bold treatment at Duke University involves using the polio virus to attack the tumor.  It sounds crazy at first, but the polio virus has been re-engineered so that it can’t replicate in normal cells – it won’t paralyze a person.  But in cancer cells it does replicate, and it leaves behind a toxin that kills the cancer cells.

In 2011, Stephanie Lipscomb was a nursing student suffering from headaches.  A doctor told her she had a glioblastoma tumor the size of a tennis ball.  She had 98% of the tumor removed, as much radiation as a person can have in a lifetime, and chemotherapy.  But before long, the cancer was back.  There was no treatment for recurrent glioblastoma.  It is a hard thing to be 20 years old and told that you have but months to live.  

The only option was one that had never been tried – on anyone - but she felt like there was nothing to lose.  So Stephanie was the very first person to receive the experimental treatment.  She received the treatment in May, and by July the tumor looked bigger.  The doctor wanted to stop the treatment, but Stephanie said no, she wanted to continue.  As it turned out, the tumor was actually shrinking.  The MRI only looked worse because the presence of the polio virus had caused her immune system to wake up and go to war.  What they saw on the MRI was inflammation from her immune system fighting the tumor.  

Stephanie is now cancer-free.  No one could have imagined that outcome.  Nobody expects a cure in a Phase 1 study.  All you are trying to do is find the right dose and if a patient lives longer or has a better quality of life, that’s gravy.  This kind of a result in a patient with this kind of cancer was completely unheard of.

Scott Pelley did the interview with Stephanie.  She has completed her studies and is now working as a nurse.  Pelley asked how this experience had made her a better nurse.   She said that she can talk to her patients and tell them, “Look, I’ve been in the hospital; I’ve been sick like this.”  As she shares her experience, she said she can just see the hope in her patients’ eyes.

Vice-President Joe Biden is focusing a lot of effort on the fight against cancer.  He visited Duke to learn firsthand about this novel and very promising treatment that could potentially work against a whole range of cancers.  As part of his visit he had the chance to meet Stephanie.  She told him that she was the first person to get the polio treatment.  He took her hand and told her that his son had died of the very same cancer.  She said that she could feel the mourning for his son, but she could also see the love and the hope he had for cancer patients and how much it meant for him to see someone like her surviving and thriving and living their life.

Pelley asked Stephanie where she wanted to take her nursing career.  She said that she wanted to do pediatric oncology – to work with kids with cancer.  She said, “I was 20 when I was diagnosed.  I wasn’t completely an adult.  And I absolutely love kids.  With this unique experience of surviving Stage IV cancer in my brain, if I don’t do this, then it’s kinda like a waste.  A waste of being cancer-free.”  From helping kids with cancer to bringing consolation to the vice-president, this young woman has used her experience to offer comfort and encouragement.

Paul speaks of mutual encouragement within the church.  Christ’s sufferings on our behalf bring us consolation.  Because Paul had suffered affliction, he was able to bring consolation to other who were suffering.  Because God had brought them through hardship and suffering, there was hope for others. 

And Paul is very honest here; he says that there was a point when “we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.”  That is pretty low, friends, but many of us have been there.  Yet through the grace of God and through the consolation that we may offer to one another, we can still cling to hope even in the toughest of times.

Stephanie Lipscomb said that to not use her experience as a Stage IV brain cancer survivor would be “a waste of being cancer-free.”  We may not have that kind of dramatic experience, but we can all use the experiences we have had, our sufferings and our afflictions, as Paul puts it, to bring consolation and encouragement to others.

It may be as simple as sharing with a younger student how you survived Physical Chemistry or Anatomy and Physiology or English Literature.  It may be as simple as commiserating with someone over car repairs or water in their basement or a bad knee, or letting the overbusy working parent know that you have been there and offer to lend a hand, or lend an ear. 

There is a reason groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have sponsors.  You are paired with someone who has been there, who has gone through what you are going through.

Some of us have lost parents.  Some of us have lost children.  Some of us have lost spouses.  Some of us have been through divorce.  Some of us have had our parents divorce.  Some of us have lost jobs.  Some of us have faced serious illness.  Some of us have tried to do the right thing, tried to do the Christ-like thing and we only seem to get grief for it.  Some of us have been the object of bullying.  Some of us have had struggles in life for all kinds of reasons.

Through all of this, God has been there.  God has seen us through, even through those times when we were “so utterly crushed that we despaired of life itself,” as Paul puts it.  And out of the consolation we have received, even the consolation that can seem slow in coming, we are able to offer consolation – to offer strength and encouragement and hope to others.  To do otherwise, as that young cancer survivor said, would be a waste of our pain and struggles.

It’s not simply that we can bring comfort to those going through the same struggles we have experienced.  By God’s grace, all of our suffering, all of our pain, can change us, and we can become more caring, more empathetic, more sensitive to the hurt that is around us, whether we have had the same experience or not.

Jeff is a friend of mine from seminary days.  He was in a terrible automobile accident several weeks ago.  He had fractures and injuries in various parts of his body, and it could have been a lot worse.  After a few weeks in the hospital and a rehab center he was able to go home.  He was out in the driveway when an 11 year old neighbor girl came over.  She said that she and her family were worried about him after hearing about his wreck and she said how happy she was that he was still alive.  She also told Jeff that her family had been praying for him.

I don’t have to tell you that this young neighbor brought a whole lot of comfort and encouragement.  And that is what the church is called to do.  This letter of Paul offers us ways to live out our lives together as a community of faith.  One of those keys to Christian community is consolation – offering strength and encouragement and comfort to one another.  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in our affliction so that we may be able to console others.”  Amen.

Friday, May 13, 2016

“The Pentecost Conspiracy” - May 15, 2016

Text: Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 12:4-13

We’re going to start off with a little vocabulary work this morning.  I know, the semester is over at ISU and most of you don’t really want to think about things like word etymology anyway, but it’s like eating spinach, it’s good for you.  The word “conspire” means “to breathe together.”  Did you know that?  Take a deep breath, everybody.  Now breathe out.  Congratulations: you’ve just launched a conspiracy!

In the word “conspiracy,” you can hear the word “spirit” as well.  To conspire is to be filled with the same spirit, enlivened by the same breath.  When we gather for worship, the Holy Spirit moves among us, blows around us and in us and through us like the wind, knitting us together as the people of God, through the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, through the breath we breathe.

Jesus’ followers were kind of moping around, wondering what they were going to do next.  Jesus had left them and said that he would send the Holy Spirit and they would be filled with power, but they had seen no sign of anything unusual or dramatic, and they certainly were not feeling powerful.  And then suddenly, it happened.  There was a mighty wind – a powerful gust of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, it was more than a gust; it was more like – well, a “Cyclone.”  It was so powerful that sparks were flying and flames were aloft above each one of them.  And Jesus’ band of followers breathed deeply together, breathed in God’s own breath, God’s Spirit, and things were never the same. 

Pentecost was wild and wonderful and chaotic and powerful.  The Day of Pentecost is thought of as the birthday of the Church.  It is through the Spirit that we conspire together to be the Church.  The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost and the Holy Spirit comes to us today, bringing gifts that enable us to truly be the Body of Christ.

Look at what happened at Pentecost.  Through the spirit, shy and scared people became bold and gutsy.  Prior to this time, there is nothing to make us think that the disciples can actually do it.  Based on their track record, we have no good reason to think that this enterprise is going anywhere without Jesus.   But the next thing you know, these same people who had been dull and backward and reticent and fearful are boldly preaching the gospel and healing the sick and caring for the downtrodden.  On the Day of Pentecost the church, this little group of followers, goes from 120 to 3000 in one day.

The Spirit is still in the business of giving boldness and courage to fearful people.  Garrison Keillor is retiring from Prairie Home Companion, with his last show in a little over a month.  For 40 years, he has advertised Powdermilk Biscuits – they “give shy persons the strength to do what needs to be done.”  I think he may have stolen that tag line from the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit gives shy persons the strength to do what needs to be done.

The Spirit is at work bringing people together.  The inclusiveness and the diversity of the church at its beginning was striking.  Did you hear the list of people who were together there in Jerusalem?   People were there from “every nation under heaven,” the text says.  Parthians, Medes, Elamites – even the Cretans.  Because the list of places and nations sounds odd and archaic, we can lose sight of what a motley collection this was.  I mean, how many of us really know the difference between Phrygia and Pamphylia?

We might get a better sense of things if we paraphrased the text in this way:

Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Iowans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  Germans, Indonesians, Liberians, Russians, Chinese, residents of France and Morocco and Iran and Uzbekistan, Ecuadorians and Italians, Laotians and Norwegians and Somalis, Mexicans and Ghanaians and Brazilians - and even Canadians!
They all breathed the same Spirit.  They all heard the same message.  And together, they all became the church.  Pentecost was seen as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh…. Your sons and daughters will prophesy.  The young will see visions and the old will dream dreams.”  Old, young, men, women.  Everyone is included.

We don’t always do so well today.  The sad truth is that the church can at times be among the worst offenders when it comes to leaving people out.    But whenever the Spirit is at work, the church becomes more inclusive, more open, offers a broader welcome, and the grace and love we share becomes more expansive.

The Spirit leads us from confusion to clarity.  At Pentecost, all people were able to hear and understand in their own language.  It wasn’t simply that the disciples spoke in various languages; it was that everyone could understand.  The disciples were speaking in tongues, but the point of it all was understanding – the crowd was “hearing in tongues,” if you will.

Years ago a conscientious homeowner wrote to a manufacturer of cast iron pipes, telling them that he had found that by pouring pure hydrochloric acid down the drain, he immediately opened the grease-clogged pipes.  He asked if there was any way in which the acid might be harmful to the pipes.

The plumbing manufacturer wrote back to him.  “Thank you for your letter.  The consequence of such acid upon ferrous-constructed materials is certain to be deleterious.  We therefore strongly urge you to terminate such activity for the welfare of your plumbing.”

He read their letter and responded, thanking them and saying that he was relieved that he was doing the right thing in using the acid.

Another letter came from the manufacturer: “We fear that there may have been some miscommunication in our correspondence.  Acid, of that density, applied to cast iron pipe, is certain to have pernicious results.  Therefore, please desist from your prevailing practices.”

The homeowner read the letter, then wrote back, thanking the company again for their reassurance.  Finally, an exasperated manufacturer sent a telegram: “Don’t use acid.  It rusts the hell out of the pipes!”

The only way we can really understand is to hear in our own language.  This may be a bigger issue than we realize.  Frederick Buechner wrote,

If the language that clothes Christianity is not dead, it is at least, for many, dying; and what is really surprising, I suppose, is that it has lasted as long as it has...There are (religious) words that through centuries of handling and mishandling have tended to become empty banalities that just the mention of them is apt to turn people’s minds off like a switch.
I’m not just talking about theological terms - monotheism, providence, grace, the Beatitudes.  Increasingly, people are not familiar with Biblical stories, so when we mention the fiery furnace or the burning bush or say someone is as old as Methuselah or has the patience of Job, we may get blank stares.  And then when you consider words like Baptist, which for many conjures up images that we would just as soon not have associated with our church, the difficulty of communication becomes clear.

There are a growing number of people who have not grown up in the church, and for them, merely repeating religious jargon is not going to get it.  If they are going to hear, we are going to have to speak in a language they understand.  The Spirit leads us to communicate so that people may really hear, and the Spirit can take our efforts, as meager as they may be, and allow others to hear the truth of the gospel.

There have been times when I have preached a sermon that seemed to me a real clunker, and afterwards people will share how much the message spoke to them.  That is the Spirit.  And there are those times when you have tried to communicate with another person and just couldn’t say the right words – but somehow you were understood nevertheless.  That’s the Spirit.

And then, the spirit leads us from weakness to power.  The disciples had been with Jesus for three years.  They had received on the job training.  But they had not proven themselves to be particularly outstanding students.  Before he left them, Jesus told his followers to wait until the Spirit came.  And when it did, the power of God changed everything.  Bumbling followers of Jesus were suddenly filled with fire, and despite a lack of education or credentials or demonstrated skill or intelligence, they absolutely changed the world.  All because they had simply inhaled on the Day of Pentecost. 

Isaac Asimov, the scientist and author, once told a story about a Rabbi Feldman who was having trouble with his congregation.  It seemed they could not agree on anything.  The president of the congregation said, “Rabbi, this cannot be allowed to continue.  There must be a conference, and we must settle all areas of dispute once and for all.”  The rabbi agreed.

At the appointed time, the rabbi, the president, and ten elders met in the conference room of the synagogue, sitting about a magnificent mahogany table.  One by one the issues were dealt with and it became more and more apparent that the rabbi was a lonely voice in the wilderness.  The president of the synagogue said, “Come, Rabbi, enough of this.  Let us vote and allow the majority to rule.”  He passed out the slips of paper and each man made his mark.  The slips were collected and the president said, “You may examine them, Rabbi.  It is eleven to one against you.  We have the majority.”

Whereupon the rabbi rose to his feet.  “So,” he said, “you now think because of the vote that you are right and I am wrong.  Well, that is not so.  I stand here” -- and he raised his arms impressively-- “and call upon the Holy One of Israel to give us a sign that I am right and you are wrong.”

And as he said this, there came a crack of thunder and a brilliant flash of lightning that struck the mahogany table and cracked it in two.  The room was filled with smoke and fumes, and the president and the elders were hurled to the floor.  Through the carnage, the rabbi remained standing, untouched, a grim smile on his face.  Slowly, the president lifted himself above what was left of the table.  His hair was singed, his glasses were hanging from one ear, his clothing was in disarray.  Finally he said, “All right then, eleven to two.  But we still have the majority.”

Sometimes we can be pretty thick-skulled about it, but regardless of what we may believe, real power belongs to God.  At Pentecost, the Spirit brought power to the church, and when we are open to the Spirit, when we breathe in the Spirit, we are a church tuned in to the power of God.

And then, the Spirit gifts us for ministry.  Our first reading this morning was from 1 Corinthians chapter 12.  It tells us,

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
What if we had a church full of expressive and outgoing talkers, but nobody was a good listener?  What if we had lots of students but nobody could teach?  What if we had lots of thinkers but no doers?  What if we had plenty of willing workers but no organizers?  Where would we be without folks with empathetic hearts?  What would we do without people with musical gifts?  Where would we be without members who have wisdom and discernment?  Where would we without folks who have deep faith, who have a spiritual sensitivity, who are a healing and caring presence?  Where would we be without people who have gifts of hospitality and welcome and community-building?  Where would we be without people who have all kinds of practical skills?

The Spirit blesses us with a variety of gifts that we are to use for the common good - for the building up of the church and for the betterment of our world.

One more thing about the Spirit: we don’t control it.  Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “There is some very fine teaching available on the Holy Spirit and I hope none of you is satisfied with it.”  What she was getting at is the fact that we don’t have God in a box, we don’t control where and how God may be at work.  Do you know the Celtic Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit?  It is a wild goose.  A wild goose that cannot be controlled or managed or tamed, whose movements and logic cannot be predicted.  I once visited a church that had a giant wild goose hanging above the sanctuary, a symbol of the Spirit at work among them.  I loved that.

The question for us this morning, perhaps, is not about what happened two thousand years ago.  The real question for us has to do with now.  Is the Spirit still at work, here, now, today?  We believe the answer is Yes.

We have experienced it in moments of inspiration when suddenly we understand.  We have experienced it when we have connected with another person in a way we didn’t expect and really heard one other.  We have experienced it in this place and with one another when a word spoken by someone else became a word from God for us.  We have experienced it in new beginnings, when our spirit unexpectedly lifts and we get something like a second wind.  We have experienced it when after an estrangement from someone close to us, it just hits us one day that now is the time, and we pick up the phone and dial the number, and as soon as they say “hello,” the rest is history - your heart opens and the words come out and a reunion is in the works.  It’s the Spirit.

In ways large and small, in our personal lives and in our life together, the Spirit is at work.  The Spirit leads us—from fear to boldness, from narrowness to inclusion, from confusion to clarity, from weakness to power, and the Spirit gifts us for ministry.

Every time we take a breath, it is God’s moment-by-moment gift to us.  We breathe in the Spirit and we can conspire together.  And it’s not just a Conspiracy Theory.  It is a full-blown, actual conspiracy.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

For this sermon I have drawn from Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon, “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit,” in Home By Another Way.

“United in Mind and Purpose” - April 17, 2016

Text: Acts 18:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

The comedian Emo Philips told a story a number of years ago:

I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!  Don’t do it!”  He said, “Why not? Nobody loves me.”

I said, “Well, God loves you.  Do you believe in God?”  He said, “Yes.”  I said, “I do, too.  ... What religion are you?”  He said, “I’m a Christian.” I said, “Me, too! ...Protestant; or Catholic?”  He said, “Protestant.”  I said, “Me, too! ...What denomination?”
 
He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! ...Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”  He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! ...Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! ...Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Baptist, Eastern Region?”
 
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! ...Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879; or Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?”
 
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912.”  So I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
It’s a great joke.  I’m not sure how they rate such things, but a few years ago, it was named the greatest religious joke of all time.  It’s great because it captures the sad truth of religious division.  We have seen it and experienced it, and there is enough truth in the story to make it a great joke.

In some ways, the Church seems hopelessly divided.  There are Presbyterians and Roman Catholics and Methodists and Lutherans and Baptists and Pentecostals and Quakers.   But not just that – there is a dizzying variety within many of those denominational families.  American Baptist, Southern Baptist, National Baptist, General Baptist, Conservative Baptists, Primitive Baptists, on and on.

It all reminds me of another story.  A man has been shipwrecked on a deserted island, and after many years, he was finally discovered and rescued.  When they found him, they discovered three buildings on the island.  So they asked, “What’s this building?”  “That’s my house,” he said.  “Oh, that's good,” they said, “and what's this second structure?”

“Well,” the man replied, “that's my church. That's where I go on Sunday mornings.” 

“Excellent,” they said.  “That’s wonderful.  And what’s this third building on the island?”  “Oh,” the man said, “that’s where I used to go to church.”

The divisions present in Christianity have got to be terribly confusing to people.  If you had no background in the Christian faith at all and decided to just go to church some Sunday, how would you decide where to go, and what would all of these labels mean?

Because such labels can be off-putting, a lot of churches are dropping the denominational name as part of the name of the church.  A lot of new churches sound more like subdivisions, with crest, ridge, creek, brook, or some such geographical feature in the church name, or they will chose a name like The Hill or The Grove (not to be confused with the chain of student apartments).

Others go for a one word designation with a cutting-edge feel, like Revolution Church, Catalyst Church, Thrive, Converge, Fusion Church.  But removing a denominational label out of the title doesn’t change the fact that the congregation affiliates with a particular tribe.  And it certainly doesn’t eliminate factionalism.

In rural South Carolina, you can drive by a church with the sign out front: Harmony Church.  About 300 yards down the road, there is another church building.  It’s road sign says, Greater Harmony Church.  Sounds like a serious church fight to me.

And so people long for the way it used to be.  They long for the days of the early church, when Christians came together to worship and there was deep fellowship and mutual caring and the church did not have all of the divisions of theology and ethnicity and economics and style that we have today. 

The only problem is – it was never like that.  An unknown second century scholar wrote an instructional work for Christians called the Didache.  The Didache gives a glimpse of the teachings and practice of the early church, but then you also find lines like this: “We do not insist on fasting on Mondays and Thursdays like those other hypocrites - we fast on Tuesdays and Fridays.”

It’s absurd.  Oh, there were obviously divisions.  And then we have our scripture for this morning.  In the first reading, we are again in the Book of Acts.  The apostle Paul is now on the scene.  He has had a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus.   Previously one who had persecuted the church, Paul has now become its leading evangelist and missionary.  He has found a more receptive audience among Gentiles more so than Jews, and has focused much of his mission in Greece and what is today Turkey.

In today’s scripture from Acts, we read about Paul in Corinth.  He works with Priscilla and Aquila, Greek-speaking Jews who have become believers, and his fellow workers Silas and Timothy, who arrive from Macedonia.  Paul works for a year and a half, establishing the church in Corinth.

Now, Corinth is an important city and a very diverse place.  It was a cosmopolitan kind of city.  There was a thriving trade in bronze and pottery and earthenware.  Folks from all over the Roman Empire could be found there, lots of sailors and travelers and traders, and they brought with them a variety of religious beliefs.  Archaeologists have found temples to various Greek and Roman and Egyptian gods in Corinth as well as a temple for the cult of the emperor.  Corinth was a place where you could find pretty much anything you wanted, and a lot of it wasn’t exactly good, wholesome family fare. 

In our reading from Acts, we have the beginnings of the church in Corinth, some of the first converts, including Crispus and his family – he was a temple official – and Paul has this vision in which God tells him that he will not come to harm in this place and that he should be bold in speaking the word.

That is our reading from Acts; our second reading comes a bit later chronologically.  Paul has by now left Corinth, and he writes a letter to the young church there.  Paul is pleading with the members of the church for unity.  He says, “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, brothers and sisters.” 

Chloe was a member of the church – she was perhaps a businesswoman, and some of her sales agents on the road had visited with Paul, who was now in Ephesus, and told him what was happening in the church in Corinth.  What he learned from Chloe’s people was that the church was divided.  

The church in Corinth had splintered.  When we read through Paul’s letter, it is clear that there are all kinds of problems, but here in this passage, right at the beginning of the letter, Paul addresses the divisions that had arisen as members lined up behind various leaders and personalities.  Some were saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or even “I belong to Christ.”

Paul and Apollos and Cephas (who was Peter) make some sense.  Different people in the church had different favorite leaders – maybe the person who had baptized them.  “I belong to Christ” doesn’t quite sound the same.  Maybe they heard others say that they were in Paul’s party, or Apollos’ group, and they said, “Well, I belong to Christ,” with more than a hint of superiority.

Paul says, look, you were all baptized into Christ.  You weren’t baptized in the name of Paul.  In fact, Paul says he was glad he had not baptized many of them – he had only baptized Crispus and Gaius.  And then he says, “Oh yeah, I also baptized Stephanus’ household, but I don’t think there was anybody else.”  His point was that he did not want people attaching themselves to him – he wanted to point people to Christ.  And then for the same reason he says, “I’m glad I am not a flowery or eloquent speaker – that makes it clear that what you have responded to is the power of the cross.  And for Paul “the cross” is shorthand for the power of the message about Jesus – his life and death and resurrection.

It is not that Cephas or Apollos or Paul himself were wrong.  Their teaching was good, but people were to follow not the teacher but the one to whom they pointed – which was Christ.

Paul in a way anticipates a question that arose in the church a few centuries later.  In a time of great persecution, there were pastors and bishops who renounced their faith.  The question for the church was whether the baptisms of those who had renounced the faith were valid.  If you were baptized by a priest who later renounced Christianity, did that baptism count?  The Church wisely decided that what nattered in baptism was God’s action and presence, not the goodness or morality or even faith of the one who did the baptism.  It was about Christ.  Here, Paul says, “You were not baptized in my name but in Jesus’ name.”

Paul’s argument is that despite our differences – despite that laundry list of things that might separate people in society – in the church we are to be united “in the same mind and the same purpose.”

That sounds hard.  “The same mind and the same purpose”?  We are all very different.  In fact, our church has kind of prided itself on freedom of thought and belief – we don’t all have to be in the same cookie-cutter mold.  So what does it mean to have “the same mind and purpose”?

Sometimes we can confuse unity with uniformity.  When we continue reading this book of 1 Corinthians, it is clear that the “same mind and purpose” doesn’t mean we are all just alike.  Paul takes about varieties of gifts and varieties of service and how our different gifts come together to form the Body of Christ.  By having the same mind and purpose, we are to unite around the earliest confession of faith that believers made at their baptism, which Paul saw as the basis for our oneness.  And that confession was simply, “Jesus is Lord.”

Our purpose is to follow Jesus.  To make Jesus Lord.  Now, in a culture where you were required to say “Caesar is Lord,” proclaiming Jesus as Lord was a countercultural and sometimes dangerous act, but it was simple, and there is a lot of room for diversity among those who could claim Jesus as Lord.

It is interesting that often, the divisions and factions within the church are not so much between different denominations, but within a particular fellowship.  We join together with other congregations in Good Neighbor and Ames Ecumenical Housing and AMOS, among other things.  We get along well with the Catholics and the Presbyterians and the Lutherans.  We have services together with the Disciples and the UCC.  We can feel a commonality and kinship with Christians who may come from different traditions than us. 

Sometimes, it can actually be more difficult when it comes to other Baptists.  And divisions are hardest, of course, when they are closest to us.  Divisions hurt the most within families.  Conflict in the church hurts the most in individual congregations, in places like the church in Corinth.  Congregations have split over the kind of music they sing or the questions of whether women can be pastors or even over the color of the carpet.

The divisions and factions we see in the church are in many ways a reflection of the divisions we see in society.  In an election year, many of these divisions are on full display.  Not just differences in politics; differences in race and ethnicity and sexuality and economic status and education and so much more.

We would hope that in the church, we would be better than that.  We would be above that.  But we don’t leave the rest of our lives behind when we come to church.  We are all different, and we see things differently.  It’s just the way things are.  The bigger question is, will our differences serve to separate us?  Or as Paul puts it, “Has Christ been divided?”

Paul’s concern is not simply in keeping the peace – it is more along the lines of keeping the faith, of truly being the Body of Christ.

A small group of people were talking about multicultural diversity in their congregation.  This small congregation in Miami included Haitians, African Americans, Caucasians, and Latinos. At the meeting, as the conversation went on, one of those present became more and more agitated. Finally, Beverly banged her hand on the table and explained why the discussion angered her. “We are not a social experiment!” she announced. “We are a church.” What mattered, she said, was that they were all God’s children.

I think that is what Paul is saying.  We belong to Christ, and we follow Christ’s way of the cross – which may look like foolishness to the world, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.  Amen.

"Beautiful Gate – Or Gated Community?" - April 10, 2016

Text: Acts 3:1-10

This week I stopped in at Hy-Vee to get some garlic and a loaf of bread – the basic necessities of life - and I was quickly back to the car.  As I drove out of the parking lot, there was a woman asking for money.  She had a sign – “Please help, homeless.”  But it wasn’t just this woman.  There was a man with her, presumably her husband or significant other, and a black lab.  And a shopping cart with various items.  I have noticed people there asking for money from time to time, but this was a couple, with a dog.
  
Well, I was in a hurry, I didn’t feel very good, I didn’t notice this woman until I was almost past her, she was on the wrong side of the car to just hand her something out the window, and there was traffic behind me, so I couldn’t just stop.  Now while this was all true, I really didn’t actually go through all of that thought mental process – I just noticed the woman as I was driving past and felt sorry for these people, somehow more sorry because they had a dog with them.

Living in Ames, we don’t come upon these scenes as often as we would living in a more urban area, but we have all had this experience. 

Our scripture this morning involves a man who is begging.  Every day people would set him by the gate to the temple so that he could ask for alms from those coming to the temple.  There were three daily prayer times: at 9, 12, and 3 o’clock.  Sacrifices were offered at 9 and 3.  So basically, by being there at 3:00 he was at the gate of the temple at the highest traffic time of the day. 

This man’s physical condition meant that he was not allowed to be a part of worship at the temple.  This gate was as far as he could go.  Peter and John came to the temple and saw this man, asking for help.  And what happens is very interesting.  Both Peter and John look at the man intently and say to him, “Look at us.”  It’s a little out of the ordinary, don’t you think?  It’s not the way we usually interact with someone asking us for something.

In fact, it is the opposite of the way we generally relate to such a person.  We have learned to avert eye contact.  We often try to keep it as impersonal as possible.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of people went through this gate every day, and you have to think that for the vast majority, he was just part of the scenery at the temple.  Oh, they might give him something every now and then as part of their religious duty, but to really engage him, to look him in the eye and relate to him as a person - that was something else.

Peter and John looked at the man, and the man looked at them, expecting a donation.  But Peter says to him, “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.”  Peter took him by the hand and lifted him up, and immediately the man felt his feet and ankles made strong.  He started walking and leaping in the air, and he entered the temple with Peter and John.  People recognized him as the guy who always begged for alms at the gate, and they were amazed.

It is interesting that this gate to the temple was called the Beautiful Gate.  It was the grand entrance to the court of women – called that not because it was only for women but because this was as far as women were permitted to enter.  This was the outer court of the temple.  The inner court, or court of Israel, could only be entered by men, and then there was the court of the priests, accessible only to priests.

The gate was called the Beautiful Gate.  For some, it was a symbol of welcome to the fellowship of the gathered community inside.  But for others, the Beautiful Gate took on an ugly function: to keep people out.   Those who were lame or blind or considered ceremonially unclean were not allowed in. 

The man had asked for alms – for some spare change to help out a person in need.  But he got far more than that.  He received healing and wholeness, and it is possible that the greatest gift he received was not the physical healing, but the restoration to community.  He entered the temple along with Peter and John.  He was able to worship with the community - he had never been able to do that before.  Rather than being seen as simple a beggar, simply a crippled man, he could be a part of the community of Israel.
A couple of months ago, the Chicago Tribune told the story of a man who walked into a Chipotle and ordered a burrito bowl.  The guy behind the counter was friendly, thin, covered in tattoos, with short black hair, and as he scooped food into the dish, he looked at the tall, middle-age white-haired customer. 


“I think we know each other,” he said.  The customer, who had been thinking the same thing, said, “Where did we meet?”  “Diversey and California,” said the counter guy.  “I was a panhandler.”  “Nic!” the customer cried. “How are you?”


Nic Romano looked different from the panhandler Mike Nowak had known - no more long, dirty hair, no more filthy, bulky clothes - but he was as polite as Nowak remembered, and they talked until it came time to pay.  Nowak reached for his wallet. The cashier waved him off.


“No,” said the cashier, as Romano flashed him a smile, “you’re good.”  Nowak walked away with a free burrito bowl, served by Nic Romano.  It was a better return on investment than Nowak had ever dreamed.


Sunday after Sunday, around 8 a.m., even in the fierce heat and bitter cold, Nowak had passed the panhandler on the way to host his gardening show on WCPT radio.  He usually gave the guy a couple of dollars before pulling onto the expressway.  They encountered each other so often that they eventually learned each other’s names and occasionally talked a little.   Nowak learned that Nic had an addiction, maybe more than one. He didn’t know specifics, but that was fine.


Nowak had a philosophy of giving to panhandlers.  His philosophy was: sometimes he gave, sometimes he didn’t.  Sometimes he kicked himself for giving; other times, reminding himself how hard it must be being out there, he kicked himself for walking or driving past.
To Nic, he always gave.  Then one Sunday, Nic wasn’t in his usual spot.  He never showed up again.  “I feared the worst,” Nowak says.


During the years Nic Romano worked the underpass at Diversey and California, he encountered people of all kinds. There were drivers who flicked cigarettes at him, cursed at him, tried to run him over.  One time, a driver, purposefully it seemed, ran over the bag that held all his belongings and dragged it onto the expressway.


But there were also the “regulars,” nice people, like Mike, who routinely stopped to talk or donate.  “For people to stop and get to know me,” Romano says, “it really did help me get through.”


Even the regulars didn’t know Romano’s full story.  He grew up in an affluent North Shore suburb where he began drinking and doing drugs as a high school sophomore.  His family tried to help, he says, but he was kicked out of high school.  He drifted south into the city, into parties, into bar fights, and though he eventually finished high school, by then he was not only doing drugs, he was hooked.


For a long time, Romano was a functional heroin addict. In 2005, after overdosing three times, he managed to get clean.  But a year and a half later, in a moment of distress, he told himself, “Oh, just this one time isn’t going to matter.”  But it wasn’t just that once.  He eventually lost his job, lost his apartment, and wound up on the streets.  He started panhandling.


Within the parameters of panhandling ethics, Romano tried to stay honest.  He says he never carried a sign claiming he was a veteran.  When he started renting a room, he stopped saying he was homeless.  He could be creative; for a while his sign said only: “Obama wants change. So do I.”


Begging sometimes embarrassed him.  People who knew him drove past — his high school girlfriend’s mom, his ex-bosses, former co-workers.  But his addiction was more powerful than embarrassment.


In late 2013, he was arrested for heroin possession and put on probation, but he defied orders to go to rehab.  He kept walking the median, begging, knowing that one day he’d be arrested for violating his probation.  A little over a year later, the cops arrived.  Nic went quietly, even gratefully. Seventeen years of heroin.  Half his life.  He was sick of it.
“God,” he remembers thinking, “put me wherever you know I can get help.  I’m at rock bottom.  I can’t do it anymore.”  Romano calls his four months in rehab at Cook County Jail a blessing.  He works two jobs now, one at Chipotle and another as a server at restaurant.  He sees an addiction counselor regularly.  And when he runs into people who helped him out while he was panhandling, people like Mike Nowak, he goes out of his way to say hello.


“I just have to say something,” he says.  “I like to be able to say thank you for your kindness, thank you for your blessings, I want you to know I’m better.”
Nowak has thought about panhandling a lot — to give or not to give — since he and Romano reconnected.  He was glad that his donations helped keep Nic going until he could get his life together and he said, “I would rather live in a world where people attempt to engage than put on blinders.”  


To me this story says that whether we are led to give or not to any given person, we need to be kind.  We need to see others as human beings, with a story.  (story in Chicago Tribune, February 25, 2016).


That is exactly where our scripture for today begins.  Peter and John see the man at the gate.  They really see him, they engage him.  And it leads to healing – not only of body, but of spirit.  He joins the community.
Now, healing stories like this are always problematic – this one perhaps even more than when Jesus heals people.  This is Peter.  Now it is Jesus’ followers doing the healing.  So, why can’t my pastor do that?  Why can’t our deacons go out and heal?

Healings - what we would think of as miraculous healings - do happen, yet today.  But for every person healed in that way, there are a whole bunch who are not.  Some of us here have prayed for healing for ourselves or others that did not come.  And so, what are we to make of this?  And how are we to offer healing?

Rolf Jacobson, a professor in St. Paul, had cancer as a teenager, which led to having both of his legs amputated.  He spent a lot of time in the hospital.  He said that a lot of people suffering from illness face a great deal of isolation.  When he was in the hospital, none of his best friends came to visit him.  It was just too hard for them.  One even told him, “I don’t like to see you that way.”

It is difficult to see people hurting.  We all know that.  But when we turn away from them, their pain can become even greater.  The man who was healed experienced physical healing, but just as important, he was restored to community.  He was again seen as a person.

So what can we do?  We may not be the conduit of God’s physical healing.  But like Peter and John, we can offer what we have.  For loved ones who are ill, we can be there.  We can pray.  We can tell them that we love them.  We can make sure they are included.  And for everyone we see in need, like Nic at that underpass in Chicago, we can be kind.  We can see people in need as people, as real live human beings.  We can care about them and we can advocate for them.

The man at the gate was just asking for a few bucks, just trying to get by.  He never dreamed that what he would get was healing and inclusion in the community.  That’s the way it is with God: sometimes we get a lot more than we could dream of or imagine.

Now, beyond the fact that this man was healed and beyond the fact that he became a part of the community, there is, at least for me, another question hanging in the air.  And it has to do with the whole temple structure and system.  Why was it that people with physical problems like this man could not enter the temple?  Why could women go into the outer court but no further?  Why was there such a big deal about being ceremonially clean or unclean?  Why did there need to be such an insider/outside divide?

The man would sit each day by the Beautiful Gate.  And maybe a question to ask is, is the church a gated community?  Is the gate a way to keep folks out, or is it an entrance through which to offer welcome?

Accessibility is not easy, especially with older buildings like ours.  We have a new elevator, which is great, but this is still not the easiest building to get into and get around in.  But maybe of even greater importance is what we might call social and spiritual accessibility.  It is not just whether a person can physically enter the building; the question is whether folks are truly welcome into the community.  Folks like this man – considered different, considered an outsider, a person on the margins.  Who are the people outside the gate today?

If we are trying to keep out those we see as unworthy, it’s a Gated Community.   But with an extravagant welcome for everyone, it is truly the church of Jesus Christ – and it really is a Beautiful Gate, a gate that leads to healing.  Amen.