Sermon for Pentecost 2C

Galatians 1:1-12

Along with 1 Corinthians, Galatians is my favorite letter of Paul’s. I remember taking a New Testament class in college, and getting a professor who just loved Paul. Now, having grown up in Lutheran churches and having heard portions of Paul’s letters read in church, I thought Paul was pretty boring. But, this particular professor started out with Galatians and, taking us through it, showed how Paul was really angry when he wrote this letter. And suddenly, the Apostle Paul became a real human being to me. I think up until that point I had thought that the apostles were simply people who were extra special and who never did anything wrong. But, through this particular professor, I discovered that Paul was a human being just like me, and someone who could feel anger, along with other emotions. And so, I have a special spot in my heart for Galatians. Starting today, the lectionary takes us through Paul’s letter to the Galatians for several weeks, and so I’m going to preach on Galatians for those weeks, except for next week when I will be at Synod Assembly. This letter has been important for Christians throughout the centuries, including Martin Luther, who had a high regard for what Paul said here. And I think God still has vitally important things to say to the 21st century church through this letter, including our congregation, and so that is why I have chosen to preach through Galatians with you.

So I would like to start out today with an image from theologian N.T. Wright. In his commentary on Galatians, Wright gives us this story: Imagine that you are living in apartheid South Africa. You decide that you want to make a building where black people and white people can come and where they are treated equally. You begin working with the people, who buy into the concept and are really excited about this. You all get the foundation of the building done. Then, however, you are called away to another town. While you are in this other place, you hear word through the grapevine that more people who work for the same organization you do have come in and continued work on the building that you started. Only, the people who have continued the work have made two entrances: one for black people only, and one for white people only. They say that it is the only way the people can feel secure under the government, and at least they are still all together in one building. What would your reaction be? If you’re like me, you’d be pretty upset.

Well, this is what is happening in the letter to the Galatians. Paul has gone into this area, which is located in present-day Turkey, and has preached the Gospel to the Gentiles, that is, non-Jewish people. The gospel message that he proclaims is that the Galatians don’t need to do anything to become Christian, only to believe in the Lord Jesus. The Galatians accept the Gospel readily, and Paul moves on to the next town. Paul then receives word that more Christian missionaries have come in who have some kind of Jewish background, and say that Paul’s message was right, but that the Galatians still need to do one more thing: they need to become Jewish first before they can become Christian. Remember that in the first century church, this was still a disputed question that hadn’t been settled yet: whether Gentiles needed to become Jewish and follow Jewish laws and customs before they could follow Jesus, or if following Jesus was enough. And for men to become Jewish first meant they had to become circumcised. Well, when Paul hears how the Galatians are listening to these new missionaries and the males among them are allowing themselves to be circumcised, he is absolutely furious, and he writes the letter that we have in our Holy Scriptures today.

In the first chapter of Galatians that we heard today, we see how angry Paul is. In all of his other letters that we have in Scripture, Paul gives thanks for the community to whom he is writing. Not so in this case. He is so anxious to make his point, and so upset over what is going on with the Galatians, that he skips over giving thanks for them and goes right to the heart of the matter. He received the gospel message directly from Jesus Christ, and not from any human authority, and therefore, what he preached to the Galatians is correct. These other folks claiming that they really have the more correct message are only adding on unnecessary human traditions and making these traditions a requirement, he says. And then, to support what he is saying, Paul, in the rest of chapter 1, gives an account of his personal history: how God called him, and how he heard the message directly from God, and how only after a few years did he go up to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the church there. And, when he did go up, they did not correct his message, but only glorified God because they saw that Paul, who had once persecuted the church, was now proclaiming the faith he had once tried to destroy.

So, today I’d like for us to ask ourselves if we are putting any unnecessary requirements out there for people to become part of our congregation.  At first glance, I think most of us would say that we don’t. Hope Lutheran is one of the most welcoming places I’ve seen, and I know that I don’t require people to attend new member classes before they join, and if someone requests baptism, I haven’t said “no” yet. But there still may be some unconscious barriers that we put up, and I’d like to illustrate that with a story. My paternal grandfather died in 2004, in Tennessee. The pastor at his church gave him a wonderful funeral, and the congregation gave us a huge meal and reception after my grandfather’s burial. What I remember was this: my father very lovingly and jokingly saying, “What—no Jell-O salad? What kind of Lutherans are you?”

On Wednesday night, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA Elizabeth Eaton hosted her third panel discussion on racism via webcast. If you haven’t taken the time to watch this or her other webcasts, I encourage you to do so. They are very thoughtful and thought-provoking discussions about how, even while we say, “We’re not racists. We’re nice people,” we can unconsciously make assumptions about people based on their race or ethnicity. In Wednesday’s webcast, Bishop Eaton said that she was talking with a group of Lutherans and asked them, “What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Lutheran’?” Well, out came all the usual jokes: Scandinavian or German, lutefisk, lefse, hot dishes, Jell-O, and so on. And then one person chimed in and said, “Hey, I’m Lutheran, and I don’t fit any of those descriptions.” And sometimes I think, unconsciously, those are some of the barriers we might be putting up for people who may otherwise want to be part of us. We may look at them oddly if they don’t fit the Lutheran cultural stereotype, and expect them to become like us before they are truly Lutheran. And that’s not okay: being Lutheran should be about our theology, and what our theology can offer people, not about our nationality or our culture.

Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take pride in our heritage. On the contrary: there are good things that have resulted from all of those stereotypical Lutheran things. What I am saying, though, is that there is more than one cultural way to be Lutheran. We as Lutherans claim that it is by God’s grace, and God’s grace alone, that we are loved, forgiven, and adopted as God’s children. We don’t have to do anything: even our belief in Jesus is a gift given to us by the Holy Spirit. All of this comes straight from our Holy Scriptures, and this is what it means to be Lutheran. This is what we should be telling people that being Lutheran is all about, not the usual Scandinavian and Jell-O jokes.

It’s hard to know how to start crossing racial boundaries when the fact is, that there isn’t a whole lot of racial diversity here in Powell. But there is some of that diversity, and we need to begin opening our eyes to see it. For one thing, there is a Hispanic population in town. Someone told me this week that they thought the Hispanics go to the Roman Catholic Church. And so I told the person this story: When I was doing chaplaincy at the University of Virginia Medical Center, there was one night when I was on call. And it was one of those nights where my pager was beeping left and right, plus I had a new chaplain-in-training shadowing me. One of the calls that night was to come to the neonatal intensive care unit. When my trainee and I got there, we found that the woman who wanted to speak to a chaplain spoke Spanish, and we did not. So, I made the assumption: Oh, she’s Hispanic, she must be Roman Catholic. The Catholic chaplain on call speaks Spanish. Let’s call him and see if he will come. So, I called him and he came. When he got there and started speaking to the woman, we found out that, even though she was Hispanic, she was not Roman Catholic. And, she wanted to have her baby baptized. I felt so awful for making that assumption! The priest said that since the woman wasn’t Roman Catholic, either I or the person shadowing me could do the baptism. I told him that since we had called him out in the middle of the night, he should do the baptism if the woman was okay with that. He asked her, and she was okay. But that episode reminded me to not make assumptions about what a particular group of people is or is not.

All of that is to remind us that we are called to speak to our neighbors here in Powell, whether they are white, black, Hispanic, Scandinavian, or something else entirely. We are called to not make assumptions about what or how they believe, but we are instead called to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ to them in a loving and winsome way. We are called to witness to the difference that Jesus has made in our lives, and to invite them to come to worship with us and to experience the love of Jesus for themselves. We are called to say to everyone that there are no cultural barriers to becoming Lutheran or even Christian, for we are all loved by God and we are all his children. And, sometimes, we may be called by God to get angry, like Paul does, when barriers are placed in the way of hearing the gospel and living it out. When that happens, then we are called to advocate for those people who have barriers put in their way, and to do our utmost to break those barriers down.

So, this is what I would like to suggest as an assignment for us this week. Find ways to look for those people in Powell who are different from you. Find ways to strike up friendships with these people. Listen to them about what they are experiencing in life. Find ways to pray with them and for them. Invite them to come to worship here at Hope and experience the love of Jesus the way you have. Share with them the good news that, in Christ, there are no more cultural barriers between people, for we are all brothers and sisters and children of God. Amen.

 

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2016

Proverbs 8:1-4; 22-31

Wisdom seems to be in very short supply in Yellowstone National Park these days. It started several weeks ago with a video that went viral of a woman actually petting a buffalo near the boardwalk at Old Faithful. I shook my head at that, but that wasn’t too far out of the normal range of tourist stupidity; after all, last year we were treated to tourists taking selfies with buffalo. But, what really astounded me were two events that came through the media in the last couple of weeks. First was the news that tourists, seeing a baby bison that appeared to them to be suffering from the cold, actually picked the animal up, put it in their SUV, and brought it to park rangers demanding that this baby be taken care of. Now, I may be a child of the suburbs from back East, but my parents taught me to have a healthy respect for nature and its ways, and I have learned that, first of all, what we see in nature is not always how it appears, but second, that life in nature can be short, hard, and cruel. When I saw this news about the people who took the baby bison, I was simply astounded that there were people in this world who hadn’t learned this lesson. How could anyone not know this, I wondered. The second piece of stupidity from Yellowstone that reached our ears was that a group of young men had actually walked off of the boardwalk and onto the Grand Prismatic Spring. Not only could they have been hurt, but this act showed a complete lack of respect for both the fragility of the spring and other people’s ability to enjoy the spring. With all of this simmering in the background of my thoughts, when I looked at the opening of Proverbs 8, “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” I thought, “Wisdom needs to shout a lot louder, because there is a decided lack of wisdom around here lately.”

Our passage from Proverbs today describes wisdom as the first thing that God created. When we English-speakers hear the word, “wisdom,” we think of it as an abstract concept, and so it is hard for us to picture wisdom as a person, as the poet in Proverbs describes it here. Furthermore, when we are used to picturing God with male images: that of the Father and the Son, with the Holy Spirit as a kind of neutral or sometimes masculine image or maybe sometimes feminine, to hear a description of wisdom as feminine may also take us by surprise. But that’s how the poet describes it. Furthermore, an alternate translation of the phrase “master worker” for wisdom in verse 29 is “little child”. So, I’d like for us to picture Lady Wisdom as a little girl, running around and inspecting each thing that God creates, and giggling as she runs from new thing to new thing. I think that might actually be what our poet is getting at.

What an interesting image that is! When we think of God creating the world with wisdom, usually we think of a serious Creator painting the cosmos with grand brush strokes. But how does it affect our picture of God if we imagine God’s wisdom giggling and delighting in each thing that God creates? If we imagine Lady Wisdom as a little girl, running to see a dandelion and saying, “Oh, look at that! Food for the bees, pretty to look at, and when it seeds out, I can blow it and watch it fly in the wind!” And then she runs to see a horse, and says, “Oh, look at the pretty horse! And people will be able to ride on them and move faster than they would on their legs! Isn’t that neat?” And so on and so on. For me, if I picture wisdom in this fashion, I see my Creator as a God who loves each thing on this earth that God has created, and delights in the unique gifts that each thing has—God even delights in me and the gifts that God has given me! What a wondrous and marvelous image this is!

And so, with this image of wisdom in front of us, what does wisdom look like for us today? Noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “Wisdom is not a moral code, but a force that is creative and willing creation to its true fulfillment.” That creative force that wills creation to its true fulfillment is the picture of that little girl running around and giggling as she inspects each thing that God has created. So, going back to my opening illustrations of the foolishness on public display in Yellowstone, wisdom would look like this: It is a bad thing for me to try and pet a bison. Not because it’s against the rules—that’s a moral code—and not because I might get hurt, but rather, because it would disturb the bison for me to pet it. Petting the bison would not be wanting what is best for that bison. Or, in the next case: It is a bad thing for me to put a bison calf in my car. Not because it is against the rules, or because I might be hurt, but because I am separating the calf from its mother and from its herd, and the calf will not be able to fulfill the purpose which God gave it. (And yes, the calf did have to be put down because it was rejected by its herd after attempts to reunite it. I believe God wept when that happened.) And finally, in the third case: It is a bad thing for me to walk on the Grand Prismatic Spring. Not because it is against the rules and not because I might be hurt. But rather, because I might damage the spring and prevent it from fulfilling the purpose which God gave it.

So, in other words, wisdom can be described as love for the other, and as an appreciation of how God has made each part of the creation to be in relationship with one another. And when we make wise decisions, these decisions are characterized as wise not because they have fulfilled a moral code, but because they have been made with consideration of how what we do will affect each person and each created life on this planet. And I believe that the lack of wisdom which seems to be so prevalent in today’s society is because we have lost that sense of how we are connected to one another, not just to other human beings, but the sense of how we are connected to each non-human life on this planet as well. And I think that our sinfulness, in large part, originates with a desire to make connections with other human beings and with the creation, which is good in and of itself, but then thinking of how others can fulfill our needs rather than how we can help fulfill the needs of the person or animal or plant that we try to make that connection with.

But God, in God’s love for us, saw that we needed someone to show us how to make those connections without hurting one another. And so, God the Father, in his wisdom, sent his only-begotten Son, Jesus, to this earth to make those connections with us, to teach us, to love us, and finally, to empty himself out and die for us on the cross. With that emptying out and dying for us, we became connected to Jesus, and we now have a glimpse of Lady Wisdom: the way for us to forge connections with one another is to help one another to find their fulfillment in the purpose for which God created them. And sometimes, that may require us to sacrifice what we want to help the needs of another part of creation. This is not an easy thing, and sometimes, even when we strain for a glimpse of wisdom, we will miss it. We will make mistakes and we will cause hurt to one another. But the other beautiful part of God’s wisdom through Jesus Christ is that we have forgiveness for those times that we miss the mark and we make unwise decisions. In that forgiveness, we can seek to restore broken relationships and to once again make wise connections with one another.

Today is the Sunday of the Holy Trinity, that day when we contemplate the mysterious nature of the God we worship: Three persons in one God, and one God in three persons. This is a doctrine that I have taught in confirmation now for several years, and each time, the confirmation kids don’t get it. I have to reassure them that I don’t get it either, and most of us adult Christians really don’t get it, either.  Every time someone tries to define the Trinity, they go wrong somewhere and get accused of heresy. So it’s best not to define it. But one thing I think I can safely say is that, somehow, God is in a relationship with Godself, and so if we believe that God created us in God’s image, then that image must include the idea that we were not meant to live in isolation.

We all long for connection. And sometimes we find pictures of that longing in some really odd places. As a closing to this sermon today, I’d like to play for you a clip from the season finale of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. For those of you who don’t watch this show, this season has been about the team of agents trying to defeat the villainous Inhuman named Hive, who sways other Inhumans to his will and has plans for world domination. In this ending, an Inhuman named Lincoln sacrifices himself to take the plane with the bomb and Hive on it up into outer space to explode. I’d like you to pay attention to the two of them as they talk about connections, love, and sacrifice, and see this as an image of what God does for us. (Note: We began watching around the 2:25 mark, but this whole clip can work for the point I’m making. ~TLE)

 

In the end, perhaps the Trinity is not about doctrine as much as it is about sacrificially loving connections made in wisdom. Amen.

 

 

Sermon for Pentecost 2016

Acts 2:1-21

We Lutherans don’t talk about the Holy Spirit very often. We speak of the Spirit on Pentecost, and we might speak of the Spirit on Holy Trinity Sunday, which is coming next week, when we try to describe the mystery of the triune God. We speak of the Holy Spirit when we talk about baptism—whether it’s the baptism of Jesus or the baptism of one of our own, and we speak of the Holy Spirit when we confirm the baptismal vows that have been made on behalf of our children, as we are going to do today. All in all, though, that doesn’t add up to a lot of times during the church year that we speak about the Holy Spirit. And I think that, for us, the Holy Spirit makes us uncomfortable. As I was proofreading our PowerPoint slides today to make sure the words of the hymns got typed out correctly, I noticed how emotion-filled many of these lyrics about the Holy Spirit are. And as a generalization, we Lutherans are not good with expressing our emotions in public. If we find that we are being swept along with what a pastor is preaching, and we may feel an urge from the Holy Spirit to stand up and shout things like, “Amen!” or “Preach it, sister!” or something along those lines, an even stronger repressing feeling comes over us that says, “No, that’s not how you behave in church!” It’s not just a Norwegian/Scandinavian thing—my German mother has imprinted on me over the years what is and is not proper behavior in church on Sunday mornings, and that’s a difficult thing to overcome. The Holy Spirit often has a huge cultural wall to overcome in us to get us to reconsider deeply held ideas.

Another thing about the Holy Spirit that makes us uncomfortable is that the Holy Spirit never shows up on our schedule. I can’t count the number of times when I’ve been ready to start writing a sermon on Thursday, and I get no word from the Holy Spirit until Friday night. To be fair, that might be more of my problem than the Spirit’s, but that’s a story for another time. Sometimes a change of scenery will work—there have been times when the Holy Spirit shows up when I’m sitting in a coffee shop or walking the dog—and then there have been other times when the Spirit shows up in the place where I least expect it to, and when I don’t have a pen to write down the inspiration that the Spirit has given me, and so I desperately try to get whatever it is stuck in my head so that I can remember to get it down on paper later. The Holy Spirit just doesn’t show up when it is convenient or safe for us, and so perhaps we don’t talk about the Spirit often because, in our highly scheduled lives, we just don’t want to think about dealing with the disruption that the Spirit could cause.

In the story from Acts that we hear today—and every year on Pentecost—we see the Holy Spirit causing disruption in the lives of the disciples. We who are church 2000 years after the events described today hear the word “Pentecost” and automatically think, “Oh, the coming of the Holy Spirit!” But it’s important to remember that this is not what Pentecost originally was. Pentecost was a Jewish festival that is described in Exodus 23, and it was another name for the agricultural festival celebrating the harvest of the first fruits of the field. This festival, along with Passover earlier in the spring and the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, that is, the final harvest of the crops, was one of three times in the year where all Jewish men were commanded to go to the temple and appear before the Lord. This is important for us to understand as we hear today’s story from Acts, so that we understand why all of these Jewish people from different nationalities were in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples.

So, let’s pick up that idea of Pentecost as the festival of first fruits. There’s an idea that’s widespread in the church that Pentecost is the birthday of the church, and I don’t think that’s a very good way to look at this day. The idea of a birthday is a very static idea; it’s a day that the person whose birthday it is can’t even remember, after all, and simply takes his/her parents’ word that this was the day when he/she made an appearance into the world. But, if we look at Pentecost as a day of first fruits, then we can remember the story of the Holy Spirit coming upon those first disciples of Jesus, and know that those disciples, and even the 3000 that were baptized that day, were only the first of many more to come. Over the 2000 years since then, many more people have come to know the love God has for them through Jesus Christ; have known the Holy Spirit walking beside them, encouraging them and comforting them and advocating for them in all that life brings to them. And we ourselves, 2000+ years later, know that we are part of that history, and that many more in the future may look back at us as a kind of first fruits of whatever the Lord is going to bring through them. When we look at Pentecost in this way, we know that not only was the Holy Spirit active on that day long ago, but that the Holy Spirit continues to be active within us today and will continue to be active long after we are gone from this earth.

And when the Holy Spirit is active, the Spirit disrupts our lives, causes us to behave in ways that our upbringing would suggest might not be proper, and causes us to dream dreams, see visions, and speak of those dreams and visions to the world. It is the Holy Spirit that causes us to disrupt our society by speaking and working for God’s vision of peace and justice for the world that God has created; to advocate for those who are suffering injustice because of our sinfulness and cause our culture to question its assumptions. It is the Holy Spirit who, when we are in despair and when we are suffering loss, reminds us to look at the suffering of Jesus on the cross and tells us that Jesus is with us in our suffering and weeping along with us. It is also the Holy Spirit who gives us hope and who reminds us that Jesus will come again one day, and there will be no more mourning or weeping or crying or pain, for God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Is it any wonder, then, that words describing ecstatic emotions are associated with the Holy Spirit? When I think of this vision that the Spirit points us towards, tears of joy well up in my eyes. To think that, 2000+ years later, the Holy Spirit still gives us the privilege of proclaiming to others the good news of God’s love for us through Jesus Christ, to give others the vision that God has for God’s creation, is simply awe-inspiring. And that it all started with the gift of giving the first disciples the ability to speak one another’s languages shows that the Holy Spirit wants this for all peoples. What we see on that first Pentecost is not a wiping out of differences between peoples. Those first disciples did not suddenly stop being Galileans, and the peoples that they spoke to did not suddenly stop being Parthians, or Medes, or Elamites, and so on. God does not want everyone to be the same. God loves the diversity that he has created, and wants us to love it, too. And so, the Holy Spirit gifted those first disciples to speak one another’s languages, to cross those boundaries, and bring that diversity together as one, unified in love for one another.

Today, Nathan will be affirming the vows that his parents made on his behalf when he was baptized, and he will be confirmed in the Christian faith. Many people understand confirmation to be a sort of graduation from the church, and after two years of instruction, it’s an understandable assumption. But it’s wrong. Confirmation is not graduation. Confirmation marks a faith that the Holy Spirit has been at work in this young man and will continue to be at work in him as he continues through his life. Confirmation places new responsibilities on Nathan as he journeys through this life with the Holy Spirit by his side. He will vow to continue living with God’s faithful people, here at Hope and wherever else life may take him. He will vow to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through both word and deed, working to break down the boundaries between peoples and learning to speak and act so that those who do not know Christ will want to know Christ. He, too, will be first fruits of the Holy Spirit working through this congregation, and he will listen for the call of the Holy Spirit as he uses the gifts which God has given to serve others in this life.

It seems like a tall order, doesn’t it, Nathan? There will be times when you won’t want to do all of this, and there will be times when you want to do this and you will fail. But, here’s the good news: you’re not in this alone. The Holy Spirit will always be with you, urging you to look to Christ for forgiveness for the times that you fail. And God will be with you in the people around you. Look for God in their faces, and receive encouragement and love from them. And, when you wander away and then hear the Holy Spirit calling you to return, know that you will always have your family in Christ to welcome you back.

With such great good news as this, is it any wonder that our words to describe the work of the Holy Spirit are emotional and ecstatic? Today I pray that the Holy Spirit would overcome our German and Scandinavian heritage and that we would let the emotions that the Spirit brings sweep over us. Let us sing and praise God with loud voices! Let us say, “Amen! Hallelujah!” when the Spirit moves us! Let us dream those dreams and see those visions, and not be afraid to speak them to one another and to the world! Let the Holy Spirit move in us mightily, so that we might be a force for God’s work here in Powell and wherever else the Spirit leads! Amen.

Sermon for Easter 7C

Acts 16:16-34

A week ago last Friday, I encountered my next-door neighbor, who told me not to go in back of the apartments after dark. When I asked why, he pointed out a blue tarp in the trees, that I probably had seen and walked by without thinking about it any number of times. Apparently, that blue tarp that I hadn’t questioned was not normally there, and when my next-door neighbor investigated, he found supplies that indicated that someone had been living there. He contacted our landlord, who came out and cleaned it up, and who contacted the sheriff, and the sheriff has been periodically driving back there to see if the person has returned to the area. Neither I nor my neighbors have encountered the person who was living back there, and so my landlord thinks that the “raid” has scared whoever it was off. But I am torn. On the one hand, as a single female, even with people living next door to me, I felt very afraid and insecure when I found out there was a homeless person living out there, and I am grateful that the sheriff has been coming by periodically to make sure the apartment complex is secure. On the other hand, though, whoever this person was, he or she must have had no place to live, and I wonder if perhaps I could have brought this person some food, or a blanket, or perhaps have referred him or her to some agency in the area. And I’m upset that, because homelessness doesn’t look like we think it does here in Wyoming, this problem is invisible and so many people think that, since it’s an invisible problem, we don’t need a homeless shelter either here or in Cody because all of them must be up in Billings. As Christians, we need to do better.

Now you’re probably wondering what this story has to do with our Bible stories today. Well, there’s an “invisible” person in today’s Acts text, too, just like our “invisible” homeless people here in the Bighorn Basin. And that person is the slave girl who had the spirit of divination that caused her to cry out after Paul and Silas, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” It really bothers me that Luke doesn’t tell us what happened to her. Usually in the healing stories in Acts, there is rejoicing and awe at the power of Jesus working through the disciples to bring healing. But here there is none of that. This poor girl follows Paul and Silas around, crying out after them, and Paul has finally had enough. He turns around and commands the spirit to come out of the girl, which it does. And then . . . nothing. No record of what happens to the girl. Was she thankful to be freed from the spirit? Did she join Lydia’s young house church?

What I think is more likely, inferring from what Luke does tell us, is that the girl’s owners, once they have discovered that their slave is useless and will no longer bring them any money, most likely beat her and sold her to someone else. And so, Luke is asking us, what does it mean to be free and what does it mean to be enslaved? The girl has been freed from the spirit that is possessing her, but she is not free from the system of slavery in place in the Roman Empire. Would she have been better off with the spirit of divination, enslaved, but with an income and a roof over her head? Or would she be better off as Paul and Silas left her, free of the spirit of divination, but now with no income and an uncertain future? And don’t Paul and Silas bear some responsibility for her, since Paul is the one who has caused this to happen?

Uncomfortable and difficult questions, to be sure. But, we’re not done with the discomfort and the difficulty presented in this story. The presenting problem that the owners of the slave girl have is that their source of income is now dried up. But they know that complaining about that to the authorities will not get Paul and Silas punished. So, they make up charges that will get the two men thrown into prison. “These men are disturbing the city”—the Romans absolutely hated anyone who disturbed the peace, and that alone would get the attention of the authorities. “They are Jews”—in other words, they are outsiders and not worthy of the privileges that Romans have. “They are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe”: they are not only outsiders, but they’re doing things that are “un-Roman”. This sounds somewhat familiar to some of the anti-immigrant political rhetoric that’s going on these days. The authorities in Philippi fall prey to the rhetoric of the owners of the slave girl, don’t even stop to listen to Paul and Silas’s side of the story, beat them, and throw them into prison.

But Paul and Silas are no ordinary prisoners. For, even though they are captives in body, they are free in spirit. They sing hymns and praise God, so that even in prison, they are witnessing to the power of God. When the earthquake comes and shatters all of the chains, they choose to remain captive in order to set the jailer free. In Roman society, when a person failed spectacularly at his or her job, the honorable thing to do was to commit suicide. The jailer was bound by that cultural custom, and when he thought the prisoners had escaped, he was prepared to do that honorable thing. But where his culture said, “You must die,” God, through Paul, said, “No! We are all here! You must live!” Is it any wonder that the jailer asked what he needed to do to be saved?

But, here’s another question: what did the jailer mean when he asked that question? When most of us Christians think of being saved, we think about how we inherit eternal life. But when Luke uses that term, he’s not talking about eternal life. He’s talking about salvation in the here and now. Any number of stories in Luke and Acts talk about “Today, salvation has come.” And so I think the jailer was asking what he must do in order to save his life in the here and now. And when Paul and Silas told him to, “Believe on the Lord Jesus,” I’m pretty sure they were also not referring to eternal life. We don’t know what exactly they told the jailer when they spoke the word of the Lord to him, but I’m willing to bet that it was mostly about living a faithful life here on earth and not so much about the hereafter.

How are we then to relate this story to our lives in 21st century North America? Well, we don’t talk much about what is called systemic sin, or cultural sin. It’s the sin that enables us as individuals to say, “I’m not racist,” and yet to not acknowledge that, within both our governmental system and cultural society, we elevate those we consider insiders and assume the worst about those we consider outsiders. For example, just as the magistrates in Philippi threw Paul and Silas into prison simply because those around them claimed that they were outsiders who were disturbing the peace with their strange and unlawful ways, we assume that people with Hispanic family names are automatically illegal immigrants and call the authorities on them. Or we assume that people who are Arabic or who are Muslim are automatically terrorists, and we refuse to get on a plane with them. Or, we assume that someone who is homeless and sets up camp in our backyard is automatically a criminal and, instead of reaching out to help the person, we clear out their supplies and call the cops on them.

But when we believe on the Lord Jesus and we know that we are saved, we realize that we are called to act differently. When our culture and our society says, “All people who are Hispanic are illegal immigrants and are out to destroy America with their ways,” Jesus says, “These are people whom I love and whom I have died for. Do not be afraid. Treat the foreigner and the stranger in your land as you would treat your own.” When our culture and our society says, “Don’t trust anyone who is Arabic or Muslim, because they might kill you,” Jesus says, “These are people whom I love and whom I have died for. Most of them just want to live their lives in peace as you do. Get to know them, you might actually learn something about me in your conversation with them.” And when our local community says, “Oh, we don’t have homeless here. They all go up to Billings,” Jesus makes an invisible homeless person in the community suddenly visible in a big way and says, “Guess what? You do have them here too. And it’s shameful that you, as my children, are ignoring another one of my children and shoving him off elsewhere. You can do better.”

The good news is that even out of our mistakes, God can bring good. At the risk of committing heresy, I think Paul and Silas made a huge mistake with that unknown slave girl with the spirit of divination. I think Paul reacted out of annoyance instead of love when he cast the spirit out of her, and I think that he failed to take responsibility for his actions. I wonder if Paul ever had contact with the girl again, or if she disappeared and if he was haunted by her. Nevertheless, God brought good out of that mistake, and he enabled the Philippian jailer and his household to be saved through Paul. And I believe that God can bring good out of our mistakes today. I am haunted by that unknown homeless person that set up camp in my backyard. I pray that God can spread my story throughout the community so that, with the efforts of many of us, the community can rise up and acknowledge that there are homeless people in the Bighorn Basin, people who Jesus loves and who Jesus has died for, and do something constructive like building a shelter for them. With so many of us who identify as Christian in this area, we need to put our money where our mouth is and be a real witness to others by facing this issue.

The lectionary today doesn’t give us the end of the story. The story of Paul and Silas in Philippi continues on like this: the magistrates realize that Paul and Silas have really done nothing they’ve been accused of doing, and they are free to go. But then comes the big reveal: Paul and Silas tell the authorities that they are, in fact, Roman citizens—something the authorities never thought to ask—and they demand that the officials come down to the jail and let them out so that all of Philippi can see. And the magistrates do, with profound apologies, but they ask Paul and Silas to please leave Philippi for the sake of peace. When we begin to publicly discuss the homeless issue in the Bighorn Basin, we may be asked to be quiet and to go away. But God has called us to continue speaking and witnessing to his love in a public way, and with God’s help, we can do this. So, let’s not be afraid to do what God is calling us to do. God is with us, and we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Amen.

 

Sermon for Easter 6C

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

The book of Revelation is probably the most misinterpreted book in all of Scripture. A book that was meant to bring hope to a population of early Christians who were undergoing severe persecution has been turned into a book of death and of destruction, a book that people have taken literally when it was never meant to be taken literally, and a book that has been turned into a series of popular novels that has scared people when it was never meant to be that way. When I was up in Livingston, Montana, at the end of March, I wandered into a bookstore where I saw a used set of LaHaye and Jenkins’ Left Behind novels based on the literal interpretation of Revelation under the category “horror”. And I laughed, because usually you find these books in the religion section, and finally, one bookstore owner placed them where they belong. Yes, there is a lot of death and destruction in the book of Revelation. But interspersed among these horrific visions are the beautiful visions of what will one day happen, after all of that death and destruction. If you’ve been paying attention to the readings in worship the last several weeks, then you will have noticed that we have been reading some of these beautiful visions that Revelation describes.

Today the book of Revelation brings us a beautiful vision of the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. If you remember your creation stories from Genesis, after Adam and Eve ate from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were forbidden to eat from the tree of life so that they would not live forever with this knowledge. But now, in this creation that God has made new, the tree of life has reappeared. This is what happens because of Jesus’ resurrection: we can look forward to a new creation, where the leaves of the tree of life will heal us from all of our sinful desires: there will be no more war or pain or disease or death, but we will all be made new. And this tree will produce a variety of different kinds of fruit, of which we will be able to eat and to live forever. This was the original intention of God when he created us, that there would be no death, and with the resurrection of Jesus, we now have this hope that it will one day be true.

But there is more than the tree of life pictured in this passage from Revelation. We also have the picture of a city with its gates open constantly, and the people will bring into the city the glory of the nations. Revelation also tells us that nothing unclean will enter the city, which means that, as part of this new creation, God has made everything and everyone clean through the death and the resurrection of his Son. If you were here last week, we heard a story from Acts where the wall between Jewish believers and Gentile believers began to be torn down. This week, we see the picture of what that finally will look like: gates always open, nothing unclean but everything made sacred, and no walls between people. No more rich or poor, no more black or white or Native American or Hispanic, but all people coming into the new Jerusalem. This is a picture of what Jesus’ resurrection will one day bring about, and this is what Jesus’ resurrection enables us to hope for.

Notice, though, that this is not a picture of heaven that John sees. If we go back to the beginning of Revelation 21, where this particular vision begins, we see John write, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them. . . .’” This is not a picture of us floating from cloud to cloud in white robes playing harps. This is a concrete, bodily, new creation. This is a resurrection from the dead, where we will have physical bodies. This is the promise that Jesus brings: a new creation, a new earth, with a beautiful city and a tree of life that we can touch and of whose fruit we can eat. This is the hope that we have.

So, what does all of this mean for us today? Well, just as Revelation was meant to give hope to the people of 1st century Asia Minor, Revelation is meant to give us that hope today. When we despair over the state of politics and public dialogue in our country today, we think of that vision of a new creation and remember that life will not always be the way it is today, but that Jesus promises us something new. When we mourn the loss of a loved one to cancer, to suicide, or to an accidental death, we can be comforted with the hope that we will see our loved one again one day when Jesus makes all things new. On those days when we ourselves suffer from aches, pains, depression, and diseases, we can be comforted by the promise that one day, all of this hardship will be no more.

Even though this hope comforts us, however, that does not mean that we as Christians sit around and do nothing while we wait for Jesus to come again and create the earth anew. Since we, too, are part of that hope, we want everyone else to know that hope we have in Jesus Christ. And so, while we are not responsible for bringing in the new creation—only God can do that, after all—the Holy Spirit can use our faith in that new creation to help the world see what glimpses of that new kingdom will look like.

When we literally plant trees, we are planting hope. Trees take a long time to grow, and trees require lots of water. My family and I moved quite frequently growing up, and somehow we always seemed to move right after my mother planted a tree. She would always be disappointed that she wouldn’t be around to see how that tree grew, to enjoy its shade, to watch the birds and the squirrels that would nest in its branches. When we, too, plant a tree, we know that we might not be around to see how it grows up and how it might provide food and shelter, but we hope that it will grow and thrive and contribute to the life of this world which God has given us.

So, how do we symbolically plant trees in the hope that what we plant will take root, grow, and thrive? We make quilts to give warmth and shelter to people who might not otherwise have them. We give food to people who might otherwise go without. We teach our children about the hope that we have in Jesus during Sunday school, confirmation class, and in worship, so that they might continue having this hope after we are gone. We bless animals that give people companionship, showing the world that God loves and values all of creation, not just human beings. We visit people who are sick and who are lonely, showing them that God remembers them and loves them. We advocate for just treatment for all people, regardless of income level or race, because we know that when the new creation comes, we will see all people there—even people that we never expected to be there. We tear down walls and open gates instead of building up walls and shutting gates. And we plant real trees and care for the world which God has given us, knowing that something of this old world will carry over into the new, even when it will be refreshed and made new in a way that we don’t understand.

Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “If I knew the world were going to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” Whether or not Luther truly said this, this statement is a statement of hope. It’s a crazy and beautiful kind of hope, a hope that even though the world as we know it might end tomorrow, that tree, that beautiful, essential part of God’s good creation that God loves, will still be there. It’s a hope that something of the creation as we know it will continue, and that tree will be essential to the survival of the creation. In that spirit of hope, the Lutheran World Federation decided that, instead of yet another bronze plaque or stone monument in honor of next year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation, they would plant 500 trees in a garden in Wittenberg, Germany, and they would invite Lutheran communities from all around the world to sponsor a tree there. When I was in Wittenberg in February and March, I had the honor of ceremonially planting a tree on behalf of the Montana Synod. The trees planted in this garden give us hope and remind us that, one day, the tree of life will be available to us once again, that the home of God will be with us, and there will be no more mourning and crying and pain, for God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. So let us continue planting trees, tearing down walls, and opening gates, because we know the vision and the hope that is in front of us, and we want to let the whole world in on that hope, too. Amen.