Weekly Preaching: May 29, 2022

May 29th, 2019
The full set of texts in the lectionary presents an array of options. May 31 marks the “visitation,” when Mary arrived to see Elizabeth, both pregnant with hugely important people. The tenderness of their time together is moving, lovely, and theologically provocative. For me, it’s a classic text that doesn’t have a “takeaway” or a “go thou and do likewise.” The preacher can just marvel, gawk, stare in awe at this moment when two women are simply with one another. I'll mention this visitation when I preach this Sunday on Acts 16 (see below), as it involves singing (which Mary and Elizabeth did!) in fearful circumstances.
It brings to mind Henri Nouwen’s moving “A Spirituality of Waiting.”  It’s been excerpted or printed partially various places, but I’d advocate listening: you can download an mp3 here. Nouwen’s voice and inflection are stunning; he draws you into the experience, exploring how we hate to wait, what underlies that anxiety, and how Mary and Elizabeth waited — but did so together. He highlights the distinction between waiting for and waiting on, noting how we might wait on God while we wait for God.
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The day before, May 30, is the Ascension, with Acts 1:1-11 as our text, and then Acts 1:12-26, which is hardly a break from 1-11, for Easter 7! I preached on this three years ago, if you'd like to watch. Skeptics hoot over the idea of Jesus defying gravity (Wicked, anyone? or John Mayer, anyone else?) and floating up into heaven. The art is all hokey, of course. Own it. What better time to say to the skeptic, the intellectuals, the doubters, that yes, there's room in church for you, too.
The ancient view of a three-storied universe becomes no real problem at all if we recall that Jesus was raised with a “spiritual body” (as we will be, too) — a body, but a transformed kind of body that appears and disappears. Oswald Chambers (My Utmost for His Highest, March 28) asks if we are loyal, first to my intellect and only then to Jesus? “Faith is not intelligent understanding, faith is a deliberate commitment to a Person.” How can we entertain solid science questions with candor, grace, and flat out interest, and yet stay committed to whatever is at the heart of the story of the Ascension which shows up in our creed every week?
I'll never forget a sermon I heard early in my ministry from a hardscrabble, not-very-pious preacher who tackled the Ascension story with loads of quibbles and questions, but then said "All I can figure is that this story gets Jesus back home where he belongs, with his Father in heaven." Not bad.
What commitments does this Person ask of us and inspire in us in Acts 1:1-14? There are at least three, and John expands on those. Jesus exits, leaving the disciples alone. Think Lord of the Rings: Gandalf is with the hobbits for a while on their adventure, but then he leaves them on their own for some time. They face horrific difficulties, requiring courage and hope; they need one another; they have to stick together. Gandalf shows up again at the climax, but then bids them farewell once more.  The plot mirrors the Bible’s: Jesus heals, dazzles, teaches, suffers, is raised — and then he leaves. He trusts them, the little, unlikely ones. And he trusts us, we unlikely ones. Instead of dominating them, or creating codependency, he entrusts his future to them. We are Jesus here, now.
In the words attributed to St. Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ is to look out on a hurting world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.  My first book, Yours are the Hands of Christ, spent a hundred pages explicating this.
This takes us to the wonderfully suggestive phrase in verse 1: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” That is, Luke’s Gospel is what Jesus began; Acts is Luke’s narrative of how his people continued what he began. So, whatever Jesus did, we do the same kinds of things. WWJD? We can only answer this by becoming open-minded students of Luke (and Acts helps us). This means it’s never about mere niceness, or judgmental attitudes, but sharing property, touching untouchables, and more. Does the church today — does my church today — continue what Jesus began, and what the first disciples continued?
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The lectionary also supplies us with Acts 16:16-34. I'll preach on this; I'm pondering a structure in which I'll begin at the end: at midnight, with singing in jail. Then backtracking: how did they get there? The slave girl's liberation. And then back to Lydia and the fact that God had called them to come there, then asking the congregation what challenges God's call entails, and how joy and peace come.
How humorous when Paul encounters a possessed woman, evidently traipsing around after him, and he gets annoyed! For centuries, people had travelled to Delphi (a stunningly picturesque place) to consult the Oracle there. It was a temple where the priest would lead you to speak with the Pythia, the "pythoness," a woman who would breathe subterranean hallucinogenic fumes and utter (allegedly) the words of Apollo. A famous case: Croesus, king of Lydia (fitting for Acts 16!) asked the oracle if he should cross the Halys and attack Cyrus's army. The response, "You will destroy a great empire," excited him. Then he asked if he would rule long. Her reply, "Your foe is but a mule." He crossed the river and was thrashed by Cyrus. Yes, he did destroy an empire — his own. And Croesus didn't parse that a mule is a mongrel, and so was Cyrus (his mother a Mede, his father a Persian). Delphi was so profitable that they set up branch establishments in cities around the empire, including Philippi.
Once this enslaved pythoness was healed, the reaction of the citizens in Phillipi — a “little Italy” of relocated Roman veterans — tells us about early Christianity and raises a question about our purpose today as Christians: “These men are disturbing our city… They are advocating customs that are not lawful.” Light years from us blessing America and the status quo... Paul clearly didn’t get the memo about keeping politics and religion separate, so they are imprisoned in what must have been a cold, hard, dark stone cavern with zero amenities.
Instead of whining, they sing. In The Children, David Halberstam tells about the night in 1961 in a Jackson, Mississippi jail. A young civil rights protester with a stunning voice began to sing. The cells grew quiet, enthralled by James Bevel’s solo. The white prison guard demanded quiet, but Bevel sang on. The guard arrived at the door and asked for the radio: “No radios allowed in here — you n-----s ought to know that.” Bevel replied, “You ain’t getting the radio — not this one.” And then he continued singing “The Lord is my Shepherd.” The guard, uncertain if he felt anger or faith, walked away.
Ponder the Philippian church. Meeting in the home of relatively wealthy Lydia, we have her, a slave girl, and a middling government official, the jailer and his wife and children. The Jesus movement fashions churches that cross social boundaries, resulting in a unity in Jesus that the world thinks impossible.
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Our Gospel reading, John 17:20-26, shares Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers. Clearly, Jesus continues to pray for that same unity. We talk unity quite well, but typically we mean “I want unity — my unity. Come be like me.” But real unity is about Christ, and real unity requires sacrifice. And repentance. And forgiveness.
A few geniuses have written recently about Christian unity. Consider Ephraim Radner, in his aptly titled book, Brutal Unity: “When the greatest decision that human beings ever made was to be made, what did Jesus say? How did he contribute? When the truth was debated, did he speak his mind? They led him to Pilate’s bar, and he never said a mumblin’ word; not a word, not a word, not a word… Jesus leaves behind his conscience as he moves toward those who would take it from him. So that his truth becomes a way into a life for others.” 
Or Gerhard Lohfink: “Unanimity within a community assembly only happens when those assembled finally cease looking at themselves. As long as the only have themselves in mind they will constantly discover new things that the other has not yet understood, finding new offenses and injuries, new problems not yet resolved. The miracle of unanimity is only possible when the assembly turns away from itself and its own interests and asks about God’s interests.”
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