Saturday, June 14, 2014

"The Circus" - June 15, 2014

Text: Acts 2:43-36; 5:12-16 (really the whole book of Acts, but that would make for a pretty long reading!)

When I was growing up, there was a routine, a certain rhythm to the year.  There were the usual holidays, of course, and there were birthday celebrations.  The rhythm of the various seasons went well beyond that.  In the winter, we played basketball and if we had a good snow, there would be snowball fights and sledding.  In spring we would spade the garden and get ready to plant vegetables – and we would look forward to the end of school.  In the summer we played lots of baseball and rode bikes.  A couple of us kids would pick wild blackberries which we then sold to the neighbors.  Dad was always off work the first two weeks in August, and we would go on vacation, more often than not to grandma's house. In the fall, there was the start of school – always after Labor Day, the way God intended – and we played football.  We raked leaves and after we raked them, we burned them.  We would go to the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival, which was a lot bigger deal than it sounds.   And in late fall, the Shrine Circus came to town.

The Shrine Circus was very big.  For 81 years, it has been held the day after Thanksgiving.  It’s an Evansville institution and growing up, nearly everybody went to the Shrine Circus.  But not quite everybody.  For example, our family never went.  Many years later, we took Zoe when were in town for Thanksgiving one year, but I’m not sure if I ever went as a kid.  The reason we never went to the Shrine Circus was that we had the Whirlpool Christmas Party.

In the early 1970s, Whirlpool employed 10,000 people in Evansville, including my dad, who made refrigerators.  With that many employees, an office party is out of the question, and a company picnic is kind of problematic.  So, what do you do?  What they did was that every year, in early December, they held the Whirlpool Christmas Party.  Now, with that many employees, the majority at that time probably in their 30’s and 40’s, there may have been 15 or 18 thousand children of Whirlpool employees living at home, and the Whirlpool Christmas Party was designed with kids in mind.  What it was, was a circus.  It was held at Roberts Stadium, a basketball arena about the size of Hilton, and I'm sure there were multiple sessions to choose from.  They would have a great circus, and what I especially remember was that each kid got a few tickets that you could take to the concession stand and get a free ice cream or popcorn or cotton candy.  It was exotic, it was fun, and it was free.  Truth be told, my parents are not the biggest circus fans, but the price was right and we went every year.

I have been thinking about the circus this week because our Music Camp put on a musical on Friday night with a “circus” theme, “Step Right Up.”  Many of you were here for the performance.  Our performers starred as various acts in the circus – Mighty Muscle Men, Balancing Beauties, jugglers, clowns, tumblers, and more.

This was our 15th Music Camp.  During Music Camp week, I am involved in most of the activities that take place during the day but I can often slip away during the choir time and get a little of my other work done.  (I know, you probably thought ministers only worked on Sunday mornings.)

Well, this year we had an extra-energetic group of campers and it was pretty much all hands on deck all week, and along with several of you here this morning, I have been completely immersed in the circus this week.  Circus games, circus decorations, circus crafts, and of course the circus musical.

So in keeping with the theme, I thought I may as well just preach on the circus this week.  To be honest, after thinking on it a bit, I kind of dared myself to preach on the circus.  What?  Preach on the circus?  This sounds like a classic example of a sermon idea, and not even a very good one, looking for a scripture to go with it.  How could you have an even vaguely Biblical sermon about the circus?

But then I started thinking – what have we been looking at the past few weeks?  Does anybody remember what book of the Bible I have been preached from the last three Sundays?
Of course.  Acts.  The perfect circus book.  Have you ever wondered why it is called “Acts of the Apostles?”  It sounds a little strange.  It could be called something else; Clarence Jordan’s translation calls it “Happenings.”  Usage-wise, “Actions of the Apostles” or “Adventures of the Apostles” or “Outreach Efforts of the Apostles” or “Early History of the Apostles” or “The Apostles in Action” are to me all more of the way we actually talk.  But no, it’s Acts.  Acts of the Apostles.  Clearly, this is a book for the circus.

And then, if you read through the book of Acts, it is just chalk-full of, well, amazing acts.  Acts that are more than a little reminiscent of the circus.

Like the circus, it is exotic.  Oh, the places they go!  Malta, Cyprus, Athens, Turkey, Crete, Rome.  It is a regular traveling show.  People remembered when the apostles came to town the way people used to talk about the circus coming to town.
And then, like the lion tamer or the high-wire act, the acts of the apostles are dangerous.  There is danger lurking on just about every page.  And our heroes do not always escape danger.

The apostles are arrested, beaten, flogged, imprisoned.  Stephen is stoned.  And this threat of violence and arrest and imprisonment and even death hovers over the early church.  Being a Christian was a dangerous business.    

It was dangerous, and yet like the circus, like a Harry Houdini act, there are daring and amazing escapes.  A few weeks ago, we looked at Paul and Silas escaping from Thessalonica when the mob came after them.  There was another time, shortly after his conversion, when Paul’s enemies are guarding the city gates of Damascus day and night so that they can do him in, but to foil them he is lowered in a basket from the walls of the city and manages to escape.  In another act, Peter is in prison, bound with chains, sleeping between two soldiers in the cell, with more guards on the other side of the door.  But an angel shows up, taps Peter on the side to wake him up, shines a light, and says follow me.  So Peter does, and he escapes from prison, the last iron gate opening of its own accord.  There are escape acts; I’m telling you, it’s like the circus.

And there is more.  The book of Acts is chock-full of amazing feats.  There are acts of healing.  One of our scriptures this morning is from Acts chapter 5.  We read that many signs and wonders were done by the apostles, and because of this great numbers of people believed.  The apostles were healing people through the power of God, and people believed so strongly in the ability of these followers of Jesus to heal them that they would bring the sick out into the street on cots, just hoping for Peter’s shadow might fall on them, and they were healed.  Now that is the kind of act that will get attention.

In Acts chapter 19 we read of another miraculous act of healing.  When handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched Paul’s skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them.

There are amazing acts of healing, and there are amazing acts of generosity.  Life was very difficult; poverty and hunger were widespread in the Roman Empire.  Many Christians came from lower social classes and were in great need.   To meet this need, many shared freely of what they had; some even sold their possession and contributed the money so that everyone might have enough.  A man named Joseph was especially generous and caring; he sold a field that he owned and gave all of the proceeds to care for others.  The apostles gave him the name Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement,” and after Paul’s conversion, Barnabas kind of took Paul under his wing.

Then we find in one of readings for today, in Acts chapter 2, that many signs and wonders were being done by the apostles, and out of a tremendous sense of community and compassion and generosity, the believers lived in community, sharing their goods with one another, and providing for others as they had need.  There were amazing acts of generosity and compassion.

There were amazing acts of breaking down walls of separation.  On one occasion, Peter is hungry and in his hunger he has this vision of all kinds of foods that are unclean.  God asks him to eat and he says, “No, I can’t, this is unclean,” and God says, “What I have made clean, you must not call unclean.”  And Peter realizes that this isn’t just about food, it is about people, and that he must not consider Gentiles as unclean but rather accept them fully into the church.  It is difficult for him and it was difficult for many in the early church, but the church came to accept Gentiles on an equal basis.

There are amazing acts of inclusion and broadening the boundaries of the church and its leadership.  A woman, Lydia, is the first European convert.  Women like Dorcas and Priscilla and Damaris are included among the leaders of the church, and we read of Philip’s four daughters who were prophets.  Ho-hum, you might think.  Well, it was anything but ho-hum in that day, it was absolutely amazing.  For some reason, there are Christians yet today who still don’t notice or try to explain away those passages.

And then, it is not only men and women, it is not only Jews and Gentiles; people from all over the world are included and welcomed and become a part of the church.  Last week we read a long list of nationalities who were present and who became part of the church on the Day of Pentecost – people from Mesopotamia and Egypt and Libya and Rome and Arabia – from all over the place.  It is crazy and chaotic and it is wonderful – just like a circus.

And you know, with all of our differences in the church, with all of our imperfections, with all that can and occasionally does go wrong, it helps to have a sense of humor about it all.  And so if the church is like a circus, well, we really do need the clowns.

Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, and the rest of the Book of Acts is essentially about all of the amazing feats that the Spirit, through followers of Jesus, is able to pull off.  Against all odds, the church grows, and the amazing acts just keep coming, even in our day.  We do not have to dig very deep to recall occasions when God was at work in our lives in amazing ways.  The greatest acts are not those of Paul or Peter or Barnabas or Stephen or Lydia; what we read about in scripture is the amazing acts of God.

Anna Carter Florence is a preaching professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia.  I had a chance to hear her speak recently, and she spoke on the topic, “A Parable Universe.”  Not a parallel universe, but a parable universe.  Her point was that Jesus was constantly comparing the kingdom of God to things he observed every day, things like fields and mustard seeds and bread and houses and wedding celebrations.  Jesus spoke mostly in parables, in comparisons.  Since the only way we can really talk about God is through metaphor, by saying “God is like…”, we need to be on the lookout for life experiences that may help us describe what God is like, or are helpful ways of thinking about the kingdom.  This past year she assigned her students the task of bringing a parable of the kingdom based on their own experience to each class session.  That’s a lot of parables.

I think that is a great way to encourage imagination and creativity in young preachers, and I think it is a really good practice for all of us, whether we are preachers or not. 

So, here goes: The kingdom of God is like a three-ring circus, where incredible things are always happening...  Or better yet: The kingdom of God is like the Whirlpool Christmas Party, where everyone shares their amazing gifts, there is something for everyone to enjoy, and everyone gets in free.  Plus, there is free ice cream for everybody.

That actually may be a pretty good picture of God’s kingdom.  You don’t have to pay an admission charge, and there will be amazing feats of strength, courage, faith, and healing.  I’ve seen it, and you have too.

Or how about this: the Kingdom of God is like a Campers talent show, where a young camper freezes when she gets in front of everybody to sing, and then another camper spontaneously joins her, encourages her, and sings along with her, and together they get through the act.

Or, the Kingdom is like that same Talent Show where every performer does their best, and regardless of their skill level, everyone gets a standing ovation.

Or this: the Kingdom of God is like a Music Camp in which counselors are wiped out after a challenging first day with a rambunctious bunch of kids, but they stick with it, continue to love the kids, and before it is all over make great connections with the campers.

Or this: the Kingdom of God is like an older adult who has difficulty getting out but nevertheless comes to church every week because they love the Lord and the community is so important to them.

Or since today is Father’s Day, how about this one, which Jesus told and maybe you have seen or even experienced yourself: the Kingdom of God is like a father who never ever gives up on a wayward child and welcomes them home with a great celebration.

All of these are amazing acts.  The kingdom, it turns out, really is a lot like a circus, filled with incredible feats. 

So, how about it?  You don’t have to run away to do it, but would you like to join the circus?  Amen.

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