Saturday, May 28, 2016

Drawing lines

Luke 7:1-10
What is a miracle? At its most basic definition we could say a miracle is something that we cannot understand. For some of us, the sun raising every morning is a miracle. For others who really understand the way the earth rotates may not see it so much as a miracle, but perhaps more of an inevitability. For some bringing home their child is a miracle they long for, and for others bringing home their child is a burden they are afraid to bear.
So much of what we see and experience like running clean water, ipads, instant rice would be miraculous in other settings, but to us its everyday stuff.
Today’s passage is about a miracle, a healing, but what has stood out to me in the study of this passage is the viewpoints expressed surrounding the miracle.
A leader in the Roman army sends word to Jesus asking for the healing of a servant in his household. This doesn’t really seem like much to us, but in Jesus’ day this would have been unusual to say the least. This man for all intents and purposes was the enemy, the occupying force in the Hebrew land. He was a member of the military, not a higher up, but a middle manager who was directly responsible for troops and responsible to his own leader. Nothing on the surface about this man should have granted him access to Jesus or any Jewish Religious leader. On the surface.
When we stop on the surface we struggle to see the true value in some people. When we look only at the outside we deny the possibility of something more, something greater than first glances and quick judgement.
I watched a man run out of Target the other day chasing a woman with her small child. He was in workout wear, not the best kept, but not unclean. He was yelling “Wait, stop” My first thought was not the most generous to the man. I was looking around to see what would happen and I grabbed my phone to prepare to call the police if things took a turn for the worse. The woman seemed hesitant, but turned back to look at him. As he approached her she pulled her child closer and reached for her keys. And that’s when she realized they were not in her pocket, they were in this young man’s hands. She had left them at the checkout in her rush to gather her purchases and her child. He was returning them to her, doing a good deed. And she, and I had at first glance judged that he was someone with less than good intentions.
The centurion in the scriptures was probably expecting a less than stellar response from Jesus, so he sends some people to vouch for him. He, it turns out, has been a supporter of the Jewish people, even going so far as to help with the building or financing of the synagogues.  He wants to put his best foot forward and knows that as someone who had been helpful to the community others will be willing to help him.
But as time draws closer something happens. He sends a delegation to Jesus telling them not to come to his home. He says that he is not worthy of Jesus’ presence and that he knows if Jesus will but speak the words, his servant will be healed.
This raises a lot of red flags for me. Why would he not want Jesus to visit his house? Was he afraid others might see Jesus and word would get back to his commanding officers? Was he afraid of the backlash of having a prominent Jewish teacher in his home? Was the servant who was sick his housekeeper and so his place was a wreck and he was ashamed for Jesus to see it in such disrepair? Why would he suddenly descide that the trip wasn’t worth Jesus’ time?
I’ll admit I’ve let this portion of the scripture bother me too much this week. But in some of my researched I learned something that I had not considered before. Perhaps, just perhaps he was showing grace to Jesus by telling him not to come. If Jesus had entered a gentiles house, the house of the infidel, the enemy, he would have been seen as unclean. There would have been religious and social consequences for this action. This centurion, who had helped build the synagogue would have known some of the purity codes the Jewish people followed. Could he perhaps have wanted to save Jesus the issues surrounding entering his house?
Jesus does not seem to question his motives. In fact, Jesus praises this enemy of Israel saying “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” There is something about this exchange that shows Jesus a faith he has not yet encountered. This man, outside in every since of the word, somehow has a faith that surpasses all of Israel.
Here we find Jesus praising this faith and then healing the servant. The two never meet, never shake hands. Jesus doesn’t touch the servant or give any extra instructions. He is amazed, heals and moves on.
And I’ll admit, this is what troubles me the most about this passage. There is no admonishment to go and sin no more. There are no instructions to sell all you have and follow me. There are no words of calling that come from Jesus’ mouth. Jesus is amazed at this outsiders faith, holds it up to be praised and goes on his way.
I’m not really sure what to do with that. Does this mean that there are those that are not followers of Jesus but might still have the faith that amazes even God? Does God use people from outside the known boundaries to share the gospel? Why would Jesus heal a servant in that household, the household of the oppressors? Was it because the servant was Jewish? And there really are so many more questions that fill my thoughts. And honestly, I have no answers. And that’s okay. Sometimes part of our faith is in the not knowing, in the questioning, in the stretching of our minds and hearts.
The church I learned faith from stretched that faith by participating in Habitat for Humanity frequently. It became one of the go-to churches for the local Habitat leaders as far as seeking volunteers, finances and other efforts. One such effort was a house that they built after 9/11 with the local Mosque and Synagogue called the House of Abraham. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church was the church who joined with these two other organizations in providing a home for a family in the area. The relationships that were formed during that time were a testament to real faith. They all asked God’s blessing upon this family and the dwelling being built, and while all three groups met with opposition from members of their own religions they did not pull out of the project, but instead insisted that God was there in that work.
God was there, present, working through these people of faith to give shelter to the homeless, cloth the naked and give food and water to a family in need. Where people had drawn lines, these religious groups boldly stepped across them.
We like to draw lines of in and out, us vs them but as a seminary professor, Dr. Priebe, has said “every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.”
I think there is a lot of truth to those words. God’s ways are not our ways. God does not have the same criteria, the same thoughts, the same ways as us, and boy am I thankful for that!
I think at its heart this is a story about grace. Grace shared, by both the centurion and by Jesus. It’s about faith that moves mountains, even the mountains of social norms and expectations. And even with the questions it raises, its value to us as Christians today is tremendous.

May we strive to have the faith of the centurion, faith to step out of what we know and trust in the wildness and unpredictability of God. May we stop drawing lines and instead join Jesus on the outside!

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Freedom in Chains

Acts 16 sermon Easter 7 year C

Acts 16 Freedom in Chains

What does it look like to be free? We in America certainly have our own views about freedom. We tend to paint freedom with a brush that leads to financial success and a lack of trials or tribulations of any kind. Here in the south our image of freedom often includes the right to have firearms, to wear or carry a certain flag, to keep others from stepping into our space. We tend to have a limiting idea of freedom. “Your rights end where mine begin,” is not an uncommon phrase. Freedom is only freedom when it benefits us.

In today’s scripture lesson we begin with an instance of freedom. A girl who is doubly enslaved, by an earthly master and a spiritual oppressor stumbles upon Paul an Silas as they are teaching and preaching in the area. Instantly she recognizes them for what they are, truth speakers, those with the words of salvation, those with the knowledge to set people free.

She follows them around for days, scripture tells us and finally Paul has had enough. He is annoyed by her presence. He is annoyed by her words and proclamations and in this annoyance he casts out the demon inside of her. In one way she is set free. But what did this leave her captive too?

In his annoyance, Paul set her free, but seemed to pay no head to what might happen to her in this new found freedom. Just a few verses earlier Paul brings the good news to Lydia, a wealthy merchant woman and then stays at her house, uses it for a base of operations. But this girl, doesn’t get so much as a backwards glance.

In fact, I’m convinced she wouldn’t even have been a footnote in Christian history had she not been of value to someone else. Not emotional value, but financial value.

You see, people haven’t changed too much over the centuries. Mess with our money and we will come and get you! Paul had annoyed the wrong person with his action. He had taken the financial stability of someone else and the marketplace would not stand for that. This poor slave girls life has been dramatically changed, there are real possibilities for healing and restoration, and instead the money people get involved and we witness the marketplace at its worst.

They gather together against Paul and Silas. They were stripped and beaten with rods, then thrown into prison. Things look dark indeed. I find myself wondering if Silas had wished Paul had held his annoyance in a bit better. We don’t have a record of what they said to each other in that prison, with their hands and feet in stocks. But whatever it was encouraged them enough to begin singing songs. And not just any songs, but songs of praise!

Songs of praise in the midst of their imprisonment. Songs of praise with their backs bleeding, skin broken, hands and feet tied. Songs of praise in the midst of the dark. Songs that not only encouraged Paul and Silas, but had an affect on the other prisoners as well.

How do we know that? Because when the earth begins to shake, when the walls begin to crumble, when the shackles fall free, no one, not one prisoner leaves. They all stay put in the midst of calamity, even when they have every opportunity to be set free. Why?

Perhaps because Paul had learned his lesson. This time perhaps Paul thought about the consequences his actions would have on another. This time maybe Paul paused, looked past his own nose and realized that there was much more to be gained by staying.

In staying he saved the life of the jailer, literally. He also led the jailor and his family to Christ.  He showed the love of Christ by thinking of others first, by putting his own needs after those of another person. By living the life Jesus asks us, rather commands us to live. A life that does the unexpected, that loves in unusual and life changing ways.

Sometimes when I’ve heard this text talked about I hear the comments “Wow, that must have been some powerful singing.” And I think it was. It was powerful enough to change the hearts of the prisoners and Paul. Praise can do that, when it is genuine. Paul’s reaction of love leads to freedom for Silas, and leads to the beginning of another house church group in Philippi.

This passage leaves me wondering how I can love in a way that changes lives. How we can all love as Christ called us to love, in unexpected and amazing ways.

There is a well-known story that Tony Campolo shares about a speaking engagement he had in Honolulu, Hawaii. He had jet lag and found himself awake at 3 in the morning and craving food. He hunted down an all night greasy spoon, one with a counter, no booths, and sat down for a breakfast of day old donuts and stale coffee. While he was sitting there the doors opened and in walked 10 or so prostitutes. He tried to make himself invisible, but it was a very small space, and he’s not a small guy. The women began talking with one another and the woman on his right said to her friend “Tomorrow is my birthday.” Her friend replied “What do you want me to do about it? Buy you a cake or something.” “No,” the woman replied “I was just telling you, you don’t have to be mean to me. I’ve just never had a party or nothing before and I wanted someone to know it was my birthday tomorrow.”

When they left, Tony turned to the owner of the greasy spoon and asked “Do they come in here every night?” The man nodded. “Even the one sitting next to me?” The man said “Agnus, yeah, she comes every night.”

“Let’s throw Agnus a birthday party!” He planned it out with the man and the next night Tony arrived at 2:30 to decorate the place. When Agnus and her friends arrived, a crowd had gathered and they shouted “Happy birthday Agnus!” Agnus was floored. She had to be lead to a stool to sit down. They brought out the cake, and she was too overwhelmed to blow out the candles. The diner owner told her to cut the cake and Agnus said “I can’t. Do I have to?” Tony said “It’s your cake, do what you want with it.” “Id like to take it home and show it to my mother, I only live a couple of doors down. Let me show it too her and I’ll be right back.” And with that Agnus left.

Tony was left standing there with a diner full of prostitutes and the owner/operator of the greasy spoon. There was absolute silence and then Tony said “Let’s pray”

He prayed for Agnus, for her mother. He prayed that God would bring about new life in Agnus. He prayed that she would be healed from the things terrible men did to her, because at some point that’s how all of this had started out. Some man had hurt her at some early age and then left her to deal with the fallout, while society blamed her and not the man who did these things to her. As he ended the prayer the Owner of the greasy spoon said “What kind of Church do you preach at?”

In one of those rare moments where the perfect words come together at the right time, Tony said “I preach at the kind of church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”

The owner replied “No, no you don’t; cause I’d go to a church like that.”

Tony ends this story saying “Wouldn’t we all go to A CHURCH LIKE THAT? Well friends I’ve got news for you, that’s the kind of church Christ calls us to be, not some hybrid church/country club! We are called to be the kind of people that reach out with love and compassion wherever and whenever it is needed.

Friends we as Christians are too often known by what we stand against, what we hate, what we disapprove of. But that is not the command Jesus gave his disciples or us! They will know we are Christians, not by what we rally against. Not by who we exclude. No. They will know we are Christians by our love. By who we love, and how we love. May we love as Christ commands us to love. Our neighbor, our enemy, the foreigner or stranger, the widows and the orphans. Let us love one another since love comes from God.