Saturday, May 27, 2017

“The Between Times” - May 28, 2017

Acts 1:6-14

            You know how you have a scene from a movie in your head and you can see it clearly, but cannot figure out what movie it’s from?  That’s the spot I’m in on this one.  It was either in a Marx Brothers movie or it’s from the Three Stooges.  It takes place in New York in the days of black and white film.  A man visits a doctor, and at the end of the exam, the doctor tilts the patient’s head back and tells him to hold that position for fifteen minutes, then sees him to the door.  The next thing we see, the man is leaving the building and stops for a traffic light at the corner.  As he stands there with his neck craned back, people begin to look up to see what he’s watching, and the more people are looking up, the bigger the crowd that gathers.  You hear them murmuring, and some are pointing at something way up toward the top of the building, and they are just beginning to get agitated, with police joining them, as the light changes and the man walks away, unaware of much at all. 

It’s not a very pious thought, I confess, but that’s how I picture how the disciples must have looked after Jesus had ascended to heaven and left them looking up into the clouds.  If you saw somebody suddenly start to levitate and then fade away into who knows where, don’t you think you would stare?  Wouldn’t you, honestly, question whether you were going crazy, especially if the disappearance were followed by seeing and hearing someone who hadn’t been there before the other guy vanished?

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

In other words, “Expect more of this.”  That really clears things up.

            We call this event Jesus’ ascension.  We might as well call it the disciples’ confusion.  Part of me, wonders, too, if that isn’t part of the way that Jesus intentionally keeps his followers off-balance, maybe with a little sense of humor about it.

            As he was on his way, Jesus told the people he knew would be staring into heaven that their job was to pay attention to earth.  They were to wait for the Holy Spirit, which would give them new marching orders and send them off in every direction.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

Ever since then, Jesus’ followers have been left to live with these tensions.  We’re supposed to be practical, sensible people who also believe in miracles.  We’re left with one foot in heaven and one on the ground.

            The theologian Karl Barth referred to this state as “living between the times”.  We live on the cosmic scale and the scale of daily life, between eternity and time, with Jesus being our link to eternity.  God and his ways are unknowable, but we do know Jesus, who is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

“Jesus defines an historical occurrence and marks the point where the unknown world cuts the known world . . . as Christ Jesus is the plane which lies beyond our comprehension. The plane which is known to us, He intersects vertically, from above.”[1] 

I like the way that Barth pictures all of that in the shape of a cross.  Jesus has come into the world, he has done the work of redemption that nobody else could do.

But then we are left to see how God’s redemption of the world unfolds around us.  In some ways, it even depends on us.  It takes a whole lot of people willing to say,

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,”

to bring the kingdom.  We want to have Jesus do it all for us, but he won’t even answer the question “When?”

“‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’  He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.’” [Acts 1:6-7]

Again, it puts it back on us to live with the tension and excitement of the waiting, of the living in the between-times. 

We live in a time of imperfection, but look to a time of perfection.  We live in a time of sadness, but we see those who mourn being comforted.  We live in a time of poverty, sometimes of spirit and sometimes physical poverty – most often of both together – but we are moving toward a time when we see that they shall be satisfied and the kingdom of God itself will be theirs.  We live in the between-times.  That is inevitably awkward.  The prophet Isaiah [11:6] looked to a time when

“The lion and the lamb shall lay down together.”

Woody Allen adjusted that to: “The lion and the lamb shall lay down together, but the lamb shall not get much sleep.” 

            That’s where it becomes so very important that we bear witness, as Jesus told us, to the coming kingdom, because unless we are ready to do that then all that is left in this world is the vision of things as they are and not as they – I almost said, “might be” but should say “are becoming”.  Jesus has shown us the way that he is changing the world already and understands the position that puts us in.  Yet John tells us that as he prepared for his death he prayed for his followers, and said,

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” [John 17:14-15]

            The poet Malcolm Guite, who is also chaplain to Girton College in Cambridge, wrote about how knowing that Jesus watches over us from eternity gives us confidence to live the in-between life, and I’ll finish this morning with his words:

“We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.”[2]

[1] Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans 29, cited at
[2] Malcolm Guite, “A Sonnet for Ascension Day” at

Saturday, May 20, 2017

“Worshiping the Unknown” - May 21, 2017

Acts 17:22-31

John Wesley and Saul of Tarsus – St. Paul, as he has come to be known – were both great preachers.  We don’t know what Paul might have told his associates about preaching, but we do have some advice from Wesley:
“Always suit your subject to the state of your audience. Choose the plainest texts you can. Take care not to ramble, but keep to your text, and make out what you take in hand. Be sparing in spiritualizing or allegorizing. Let your whole deportment before the congregation be serious, weighty, and solemn. Take care of anything awkward or affected; either in your gesture, phrase, or pronunciation.”[1]
That part about paying attention to who is listening was something that Paul knew, too, because there’s a section of the book of Acts that shows him speaking to a tough crowd.

            Mind you, Paul had a way of stirring things up with his words that could make Donald Trump’s midnight tweets sound diplomatic.  In the earlier part of the chapter that today’s reading comes from, he preaches in a synagogue in Thessalonica and before the day is over there’s a mob scene and he has to skip town, and the man who has been hosting him (in fact, the whole hospitality committee) have to post bail for themselves. [17:1-9]  Something similar happened in the next town and they sent him on as quickly as they could to Athens. [17:10-15]  That’s where we pick things up.
In Athens, Paul finds himself in a situation unlike any other that we see in Acts or in his letters.  Most places he went, he at least began by preaching in one of the Jewish synagogues or talking to Gentile converts to Judaism.  Let me quote the Bible’s description of what he did in Thessalonica that set the stage for the riots.

“Paul went in as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.’” [Acts 17:2-3]
In Athens he did a little of that [17:17] but mostly he found himself in the public square, talking with people – some of them professional philosophers – who had absolutely no knowledge of the Jewish scriptures and no desire to know. 

“Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’  Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’” [Acts 17:18]
He found himself in a situation where he was going to try to share Christ with people who were thoroughly educated in the Greek classics but would not have had much connection to concepts like “sin”, “salvation”, “atonement”, “grace”, or so forth.  Some of them even seem to have thought that when he spoke about “Jesus and the resurrection,” [17:18] he was talking about two divine beings, one named Jesus and the other named Resurrection – in Greek that’s “Anastasia”.

            More and more, that’s the situation that you and I find ourselves.  Biblical literacy is pretty slim these days.  Religious knowledge of any kind is weak.  Stephen Prothero, who teaches at Boston University, tested his students at the start of one semester to see what they did or didn’t know.  Here’s what he found:

“National surveys have shown that most Americans cannot name five of the Ten Commandments; my students averaged four.  They were equally unfamiliar with what may be the most important piece of oratory in Western civilization; only one in six knew that ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ is a quote from the Sermon on the Mount.
My class also fared poorly on the exercise that required them to match Bible heroes with Bible stories.  In their creative retellings, the most basic elements of the most influential Bible narratives were shuffled and reshuffled like so many cards at a poker table.  Noah led the Exodus of the Israelites out of Babylon, Moses was the recipient of the dove’s olive branch, Abraham was blinded on the road to Damascus, and Jesus was nearly as likely to be born in Jerusalem or Nazareth as Bethlehem.”[2]
That was ten years ago.  It has probably gotten worse.  In case you’re feeling smug, I’ve copied his test and the answer key and left copies in the narthex.

            What Paul did in that setting was look around to see what the Athenians did know and care about, and to begin with that.  In his proclamation as recorded in Acts, he quotes Greek philosophers and playwrights before he moves on to talk about Jesus (which is where he was headed, of course).  He even points to an odd element of their own religion, this altar to an unknown god, set up (some speculate), to hedge their bets and make sure that no god would be left out and take offense at being snubbed.

            In some way, it’s very much like what God did when he came to us in Jesus – an idea that the Greeks of Paul’s day would have found incomprehensible.  To them, human flesh was something to be transcended.  There was the divine and there was the physical and maybe a god would disguise himself to look human but actually to become human would be an ungodlike step backward.  Paul was talking about how God left heaven behind to live among us.  In the way he spoke, he was taking the Word of God and clothing it in terms that matched the hearers’ ability to understand.

“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” [Acts 17:23]
In other words, don’t be afraid to be creative, as God is creative.  Use what is at hand to express the good news of Jesus, and don’t be afraid of saying, “This example only goes part way.”

            Take baseball, for instance.  We know that God loves the game because the Bible’s opening words are, “In the Big Inning.”  And it’s okay to admit that you would not want to draft Jesus for your lineup.  On the one hand, sharing God’s nature, he would always know what pitch was coming next, but, having chosen to share our human nature, every at-bat would be a sacrifice.  Yes, those are theologically suspect one-liners, but they do get you thinking, don’t they?

            Remember that it’s our place – and I mean all of us, not just the clergy – to toss out those seeds on all kinds of soil and in all kinds of weather.  It’s up to the Holy Spirit to make them grow.  Paul’s brief time in Athens is sometimes seen as a failure.  We have letters of his to churches in Corinth and Thessalonica and Philippi and Ephesus and Galatia, but not even a postcard back to Athens.  The record tells us that most of the philosophical crowd ended up being politely dismissive. 

“When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” [Acts 17:32]
That’s kind of like, “I’ll get back to you on that.” 

“At that point Paul left them.  But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” [Acts 17:34]
That was more believers than were in Athens when he arrived, more people who knew whom they were really worshiping when they spoke of the One who

“is not far from each one of us.  For ‘in him we live and move and have our being’”.  [Acts 17:28]

[1] from The Large Minutes, quoted at
[2] Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t (New York: HarperCollins, 2007) 28-29.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

“Like Newborn Infants” - May 14, 2017

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.” [I Peter 2:2]

            A newborn infant is vulnerable.  A baby that cannot communicate cannot ask for help when anything goes wrong, except by crying.  She cannot defend herself in case of trouble or run away if there is danger.  A baby is totally dependent on a caregiver for food, for changing, for warmth, for everything.  Infants are also biologically vulnerable.  Here’s a quick science lesson.

“The small intestine of a developing child responds to nutritional needs by increasing the absorption of specific nutrients. For example, calcium transport in newborns and infants is about five times the rate in adults. If lead exposure occurs, the lead will compete with the calcium for transport at this high rate. Thus, children's absorption of ingested lead may be five times higher than that of adults. …
The gastric pH of infants is higher for the first 12 months of life and does not drop to adult levels until 3 years of age… . A high gastric pH leads to excess bacterial colonization
The younger the child, the higher the respiratory rate and the higher the weight-adjusted dose of an air pollutant. For example, newborns take an average 45 breaths per minute versus 31 breaths per minute for infants 6 months old, 24 breaths per minute for 2-year old toddlers, and 12-14 breaths per minute for adults. …”[1]
Fortunately for any child, one of the things that is shared by her or his mother in the early days is a degree of immunity.  There are antibodies in a nursing mother’s milk that

“protect against infection by working inside the baby’s gastrointestinal tract, …[which] penetrate and protect the mucous membranes in the baby’s mouth, airway, throat, and intestines.  …This protection is invaluable to a newborn, and is absolutely necessary in developing countries where access to clean water is problematic.”[2]
It’s not a permanent protection, but it buys time for a growing child to develop immunity to the sorts of bacteria that are specific to the child’s particular environment.  Eventually, something is going to get through.  We all get sick; that’s part of life.  But when this particular act of mothering has done its job, the infant or toddler (no longer a newborn) has acquired one of the many attributes that make survival and growth possible.

            I Peter [2:2] compares us to newborns who have need of what it calls “the pure, spiritual milk,” that works on our souls in some sense the way that a mother’s milk works to sustain a newborn, “so that by it you may grow into salvation”.  A large part of this is the awareness that “the Lord is good.”  Now, that sounds like a very basic awareness, and it is, just as the first food a child receives in this world is, and must be, very basic.  In the same way, though, it is very sustaining.

            There are many, many people who go through life without that awareness.  Either they think of God as rigid and authoritarian or as distant and uncaring.  A god like that is not one that will give any attention to human beings.  Either we fail to live up to the standards, and thus are damaged goods at best, or simply by virtue of being so infinitely far beneath him, we get no notice.  In King Lear, the last tragedy that Shakespeare ever wrote, King Lear loses his kingdom and his eyesight becomes homeless, tossed out by two of his daughters.  With only two friends left, he stumbles around outdoors in the middle of a storm where there is not even a tree for shelter, and one of those two remarks,

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.”[3]

That is exactly the outlook, and it leads to despair.  That’s like looking at a new baby and thinking, “Poor kid.  Once he walks, he’s going to hit his head on a table.  He’ll probably break a few bones growing up.  He’s going to get his heart broken at least once by the time he’s twenty, then maybe end up going into the wrong profession and be miserable every day for the next forty years.  I hope he finds a happy marriage, although if he outlives his wife, his heart will break worse than he ever knew it could.  Then again, if he dies early, her heart will break.  Maybe he’ll live long enough to develop arthritis or (heaven help him!) some kind of dementia.” 

            Don’t be silly.  There’s some grace in nature itself that steers us in a totally different direction.  When you look at a newborn, you may still get all choked up, but in a good way.  What you think, and what you say, is, “Look at those tiny hands, will you?”  (And you stick your pinky out for him to grab.)  “What a grip!  This kid is going to be a great short stop someday!  Awww… Look at that smile!  I wonder what he’s thinking about.  You’ve had quite a day already, haven’t you, kiddo?”  In Puerto Rico, it’s traditionally considered bad manners, if not inhuman, to see a baby and not to touch him or her gently, usually with the words, “Ay!  Bendito!”  (“Oh!  Blessed one!”)

            There is a close and intimate connection between knowing God, knowing that God is good, and knowing that God’s care is there for us in our moments of weakness and defenselessness, whether as children or as adults – because there are certainly times when an adult is every bit as vulnerable as a child, though to different troubles.  Just to be sure, if you haven’t heard it already, I’m telling you now: God loves you – yes, you – so much that he would put himself in the position of a helpless baby or even a helpless criminal condemned to death, all to protect and help you.  You are not an accident.  You are a necessary part of the whole universe – small, as we all are, but in no way insignificant.  That message is a vital antibody for spiritual survival and health.

“Know that the Lord is God.
            It is he that made us, and we are his;
            we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”
“Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
            and his courts with praise.
            Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord our God is good;
            his steadfast love endures forever,
            and his faithfulness to all generations.” [Psalm 100:3-5]

            God is in the business of nurturing life, of bringing growth, of taking what is overlooked or despised or undervalued, and turning all of that into something great.    
“Once you were not a people,
   but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
   but now you have received mercy.”
[I Peter 2:10]

Goodness and mercy – just think how far they can take you.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
            all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
            forever.” [Psalm 23:6]

Monday, May 8, 2017

“Breaking Bread Together” - May 7, 2017

Acts 2:42-47

            There was a church I served where someone had married a man from Nigeria and they were in the midst of moving him over here when 9/11 made it difficult.  There was suddenly an unexpected obstacle because, although he was a Christian, his last name was Abdul.  It took many months to prove that his name did not automatically make him a terrorist and to take him off the no-fly list.  When he finally arrived, people were eager to meet him and so he and his American wife were invited to dinner a lot.

            I remember the first time I had them over.  It was short notice, right after he arrived, and so I made what I had on hand.  I put the food on the table, we said grace, and then I watched him try to figure out what to do with spaghetti.  I thought it might be sort of an icebreaker.  After a minute, we showed him, but he was quiet through most of the rest of the meal and I thought, “Oh, no.  I’ve made him uncomfortable.  I hope he likes ice cream.”

            Later that month, after the couple had been to dinner with several other church families, and more than one person had commented quietly that they felt like they had offended him somehow, but they weren’t sure what they might have done, I figured that it wasn’t just me.  A pattern emerged, where everything was fine and dandy until they sat down to eat, and then he clammed up and became distant.

            I decided to ask him about it, which felt kind of awkward, but I had a sense that there might be a problem, like homesickness on a major scale, or that it was going to be a long-term problem for him to find food that he could eat.  I don’t remember how we finally figured it out, but it came down to table manners.  In Nigeria, when someone has made a meal for you, it’s considered rude not to pay close attention to the gift.  So if you’re talking while you’re eating, or not looking down at the plate, that means you are kind of brushing off this wonderful thing that somebody has done for you.  He wasn’t ignoring his hosts; he was trying to show them respect.

I explained that, for us, sharing food is also an important expression of being together, which is why when we have anything serious to discuss, we usually do it over a meal.  One person talks while the other chews, and then one person chews while the other talks.  I had never really thought about it until then.  The way we eat together, even beyond formal occasions where everything is staged, says something about what we think of each other.

You know people are friends when you see them at the movies and one holds out a bag of popcorn.  There’s no, “Would you like some popcorn?  I should warn you that it has greasy butter all over it.  Oh, and I hope you’ve washed your hands recently before you take any.”  Nope.  It’s just stick-your-hand-in-the-bag and keep walking.

You know that someone wants to be more than friends when a heart-shaped box of chocolates is involved.  A teacher gets an apple.  Someone sick gets a quart of chicken soup.  For graduation from the police academy, it’s a dozen donuts.

We have our formal rituals and informal rituals that emphasize our commonality, so many of which center on table fellowship.  Who you eat with and how you do it signals who you are willing to be friends with.  As Will Willimon comments,

“Interestingly, the earliest charge against Jesus was not, ‘this man is a heretic and social revolutionary.’  Rather, Jesus’ critics looked at his behavior and cried that he was a ‘glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Luke 7:34).  Jesus refused to accept the social and religious barriers which people erect around the table.  He broke with convention and feasted with everyone.”[1]
Jesus’ followers have tried to follow through on his attitude of welcome.  The book of Acts describe the early church engaging in a formal sharing of food with prayer that sounds very much like what we would call communion.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” [Acts 2:42]

We also read about the sort of informal community meals and the welcoming of one another around the supper table that has its echo in the lunch that everyone’s invited to after the second service today.

“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” [Acts 2:46-47]
It goes together.  Jesus welcomes and feeds us, so we welcome and feed one another.  When we do that, the circle grows wider. 

“And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” [Acts 2:47]

            Just how wide that goes sometimes depends on how we negotiate the difficulties that we meet when we sit down and really share our lives along with our food.  On the menu today is pulled pork.  A huge chunk of the book of Acts, along with sections of Paul’s letters, are all about whether it is okay to eat non-kosher food or to sit at the table while someone else eats it.  I quoted Will Willimon earlier.  He is the one who taught me that you don’t shoot a possum, you trap one and fatten it on table scraps for about a week before you eat it.  And from Demola Abdul I learned that fried bats are a treat for children, but adults only eat them on rare occasions.

            Jesus didn’t have to deal with that.  What he did do, and taught his followers to do also, was to meet one another honestly on the basic level of shared humanity where we all need the same things: love, forgiveness, acceptance, and sometimes someone to share a meal with.  What he showed us is that when God’s love is on the menu, there’s always plenty to go around.

I always like the story of Zaccheus, the tax collector who wanted to see Jesus and climbed up in a tree to get a good look.  There he is, up there on a branch, and Jesus stops in the middle of the crowd to tell him to get down, because he’s inviting himself to dinner. [Luke 19:5]  Or how about the time when he saved the day at a wedding feast in Cana where they were just about to run out of – ahem! – refreshments? [John 2]  Or what about the vision of eternal joy that comes in the book of Revelation, where God throws a great feast like a wedding reception and invites all of his people with the words,

“Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” [Revelation 19:9]

When we share what we have here and now, “with glad and generous hearts,” [Acts 2:46] it’s like the hors d’oeuvres for that banquet in heaven.

[1] Will Willimon, With Glad and Generous Hearts (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1986), 135.