Easter People: The One Who Clothed Kings: A Monologue of Lydia

Easter People: The One Who Clothed Kings: A Monologue of Lydia

Into our circle of women, one day, walked three men. One was young, still a youth. One was old but sprightly—he had the look of those philosophers who sometimes stand in the middle of the city to give lectures; I learned later he was a doctor. And one was not young, but not old. A balding man, thin and small in stature—I was probably a bit taller that he was. And his coloring was all red—red hair, and a red face animated by eyes so dark they were nearly black. But they shined. All three of them carried an air of excitement.

Honestly? This felt like an intrusion. I wondered what time it was. I wondered whether I ought to get back to the shop. But then, a small voice somewhere near my heart spoke.

“Listen,” it said. “Listen.”

Easter People: The One Who Had a Change of Heart

Easter People: The One Who Had a Change of Heart

How many times in church have you heard something like this: The Hebrew Scriptures are Law; and the New Testament is Love? Or, The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is all about punishment, but Jesus is all about forgiveness?

I’ve heard those things, and I’ve heard them a lot. Heck, I’ve even preached some version of them. There are so many ways we Christians have been encouraged to think about Judaism as a religion that was profoundly flawed, and which Jesus came to fix. And while there is no doubt that Jesus critiqued the religious practices of his own community, that can be a sign of love and hope for the future…

Image: He Qi, Holy Spirit Coming.

Easter People: The One With a Loving Heart

Easter People: The One With a Loving Heart

The Hebrew Scriptures lift up three categories of people who deserve the particular care of the faith community: widows, orphans, and aliens—which is to say, immigrants. Widows, if they do not have adult children to help them, are incredibly vulnerable. They can’t go out and get work. They are entirely dependent on the kindness of those who have means. Underneath these strong commandments is the memory of when God’s people were vulnerable—when they were immigrants in Egypt, who were exploited and made slaves. That memory reminds them to care for the vulnerable.

Care for the widows—it could be your own mother, your own wife who is penniless.

Care for the orphans: it could be your own children who are hungry.

Care for the immigrants—your ancestors wandered in lands far from home, and you might well be in the same position yourself, someday…

Image: “The Raising of Tabitha: Sketch” by Guercino (1591-1666), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Easter People: The One Who Had an Upsetting Vision

In the reading from the Book of Acts this morning,

we have not one, but two conversion stories.

The first is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.

Saul encounters the last person he expected to meet on the road to Damascus:

the Risen Christ.

It is a powerful story of divine reorientation,

an abrupt encounter with a Light so brilliant that a man

is literally knocked off his feet, blinded, humbled, and turned so completely around

that he leaves even his name behind.

 

The second conversion story is less dramatic, almost to the point of being overlooked.

But we may learn more from it than from Paul’s story,

and for that reason, maybe it’s the more relevant of the two

as we consider the meaning of conversion in our faith journeys.

 

1

First, what do we mean by conversion, anyway?

It has to do with change or transformation, even rebirth.

A friend of mine once converted from listening to country and western music

to being a fan of opera.

A young baseball player might change from batting left-handed to right-handed.

A person might switch from one political party to another.

But mostly we think of conversion in religious terms,

converting from one religion to another.

Or, converting from no religion to a zealous commitment to religious faith...

like a person on death row meeting Jesus,

getting “born again,” and being transformed into a new person altogether.

If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creature.

I believe it.

But it is such a personal change, we can’t judge what it means from person to person.

 

I think about Boyd and Floyd,

the folk-singing twins I knew many years ago back in Virginia.

After I’d been out of touch with them for a couple of years,

I bumped into them outside the youth center where I volunteered as a counselor,

and I asked them how they were doing.

“We’re born again,” Boyd said. (Or, was it Floyd?)

“Yep. We follow the Lord now,” Floyd said. (Or, was it Boyd?)

 

I was curious what that meant for their music careers.

“Well, we’re going to sing only for the Lord now.

All our music will be for praising his name.”

I suppose that meant no more songs about romantic love,

the meaning of friendship, or just sailing on a silver lake.

I wondered then, and I still wonder now, what that means for other artists.

Does it mean that born again carpenters will only make pews now, and altars,

but no more beds or kitchen cabinets?

Or that a house painter must convert to painting only churches?

 

Then I realized I had no right to judge the way the twins had managed their conversion.

(or more to the point, how God was managing the twins).

Because conversion, new birth, spiritual transformation ... it’s an intensely personal thing,

certainly an intimate covenant between a person and the God who speaks to the heart,

and sometimes it’s quite a confusing thing to friends and families

who haven’t seen the vision or heard the voice

or otherwise met the Lord in such a dramatic way.

When someone we know undergoes what we call a “conversion experience”

sometimes we feel suspicious, sometimes puzzled, and maybe even jealous.

 

I wonder what Saul’s friends thought

when that Voice rumbled over the Damascus Road that day.

Saul was struck blind, and his friends were struck speechless!

I wish we knew more about what happened to his friends; but Luke focuses on Saul.

2

 

Saul is present at the martyrdom of Stephen.

Luke tells us that Saul approved of the stoning death of Stephen,

and that it was at Saul’s feet that witnesses laid their coats.

The most damaging words are in the third verse of Acts 8:

“But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house;

dragging off both men and women, he committed them to jail.”

Saul believes himself to be acting on behalf of the God of Israel

to rid the world of the followers of Jesus.

We can imagine the fire in his eyes as he enters a home, announces God’s judgment,

and physically ties up the occupants, hauling them off to jail.

 

When we come to the first verse of chapter 9,

Luke makes sure we have the picture:

Saul is still breathing threats and murder against disciples of Jesus.

He is the church’s number one enemy,

a man who thinks slaughter is the most effective way

to curb the growth of this sect of Jesus people.

Saul goes to the high priest for papers that would authorize a “seek and destroy” mission.

He recruits some strong armed helpers and sets out for Damascus,

eager to find anyone, even women, who belong to this group called “The Way.”

He’ll arrest them and drag them off to Jerusalem.

The only light in Saul is the zeal with which he rages against the church.

 

Until the God he thinks he is serving turns his world upside down and inside out...

as a sudden explosion of intense light surrounds the hunters,

and the sky, the road, every face is white with the blinding light of a thousand suns.

Knocked to the ground, unable to see anything, Saul hears a voice.

It calls him by name, “Saul, Saul.”

In days gone by, the voice had called,

“Abraham, Abraham,”

“Jacob, Jacob,”

“Moses, Moses.”

“Mary....”

But now, the voice says, Saul, Saul.

And then there is the question:

“Why do you persecute me?”

Do you hear the question Saul hears?

Not, “Why are you persecuting my people?”

but, “Why do you persecute me?”

You see, Jesus and his people are one now.

Inasmuch as you accuse them, berate them, push them around,

tie them up, and drag them away ...

you do it to Jesus.

 

Saul answers with a question of his own,

but he asks it as if he already knows the answer.

“Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus...get up...and go...”

Saul has new orders now, from the highest command,

and he has no alternative but to follow the orders he hears.

Eyes once filled with murderous zeal are dark now.

The man who breathed threats of slaughter has had the breath knocked out of him.

The man once so powerful and so feared is now helpless.

Once he gets to his feet, he doesn’t know which way to go,

and his speechless friends take him by the hand and lead him into Damascus.

He is entering the Kingdom of God as humble and dependent as a stumbling child.

 

He is as much as entombed for three days,

three days of darkness, hunger, and thirst.

Is he confused? Yes.

Is he converted? Not yet.

There is another conversion story that Luke must tell first.

 

3

 

We have no idea how Ananias first came to faith.

There is no record of how this man became a disciple,

or how this disciple got to be a leader in the Damascus church.

What Luke does tell us is that Ananias had a dream,

a vision that would upset his universe.

The Lord called him by name,

and he answered with the very familiar words,

“Here I am, Lord.”

And the Lord has familiar words for him.

“Get up and go...”

When the assignment is explained, Ananias balks.

Like other unwilling servants and prophets,

he resists the Lord’s call.

Imagine the absurdity of this scene.

Here is a disciple who is confronted by both vision and voice,

who recognizes that it is the Lord who is speaking,

and who has no trouble discerning the Lord’s will.

Yet, this disciple says, “Lord, you don’t know what you’re doing.

Let me tell you what I’ve heard about this man Saul.

He is bad news!

 

Now, don’t you agree that this is our kind of disciple?

If we had the power to grant sainthood, wouldn’t Ananias be a great candidate?

Like so many of us, he says,

“Lord, I hear what you’re saying, but you’re wrong.

I know what you’re asking, but I guess you don’t.”

So much of what Jesus taught is so impractical here in the “real world.”

So much of what Jesus expects of us is so impossible here in the real world.

Blessed are the meek? Are you kidding?

Love your enemies?  Feed all these people? Cast the nets here? Put away the sword?

The first will be last and the last first?

“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

And you will be blessed.”

No, I won’t. I’ll be embarrassed…and broke!

Lord, I hear what you’re saying, and I’m sure you’re right, because you are the Lord.

But, you don’t know what you’re asking.

Or, maybe you don’t know whom you’re asking.

You’ve got the wrong person here.

 

Yes, Ananias is our kind of disciple.

Reluctant. Afraid. Half-hearted. Maybe even whiny.

But with enough chutzpah to tell the Lord where it’s at.

 

And the Lord, having heard the wisdom of Ananias,

responds, saying, “Go...”

Just go.

Then, the Lord explains what Ananias apparently didn’t know.

And that is that the Lord is in charge, has a plan, and will work it out,

through Ananias, if he will just go and do as he is told.

Saul, it turns out, is the Lord’s vessel, the Lord’s instrument,

the Lord’s “way” of inviting Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel

to become followers of “The Way.”

 

Here is that more subtle conversion I was talking about.

No big flash of blinding light for Ananias.

Just a change of heart, a nod of acceptance, maybe just a deep breath, or a sigh.

The reluctant disciple is converted to a faithful servant with a key role to play.

And Luke says, “And Ananias went...”

And he did as he was told.

He laid eyes on the man who couldn’t see,

and laid his hands on Saul,

and called him “Brother.”

 

The enemy of the church is now a brother in the faith.

The man who breathed murderous threats is now filled with the Holy Breath of God.

The blind man (who has been metaphorically blind longer than a mere three days) now sees.

The persecutor of the baptized is now baptized himself.

He eats and regains his strength and for several days he is taught,

reoriented, born again.

An upsetting vision has set him right!

In the synagogue, he says the words that once deserved a death sentence:

Jesus is the Son of God!

That is now the creed of his new life.

 

4

 

So, there are the two conversion stories in this 9th chapter of Acts.

The subtle conversion of Ananias,

and the legendary Damascus Road conversion of Saul.

We don’t know anything more about Ananias after this.

But he played his crucial part in the drama of Saul’s conversion.

And in a way, I think of Ananias as the hero of this story,

even as he stands in the shadow of the story’s main character,

the archenemy of the church who became the author of much of its theology,

and the founder of many of its communities, the Apostle Paul.

 

For those of us born into the faith of the church,

I think it is the conversion of Ananias that speaks to our own need for rebirth.

Now and then, in flashes of insight or hearing old words that speak new meaning,

we experience a little resurrection of sorts, maybe just glimpse of new life,

or a fleeting reflection of the Kingdom of God.

We come to realize that God knows best!

 

Whether Saul’s vision or Ananias’

all encounters with God are God’s gifts,

not something we can engineer by wishing or yearning or praying.

Saul was knocked off his feet, suddenly and unexpectedly.

Ananias, I think, expected something, and opened himself to his assignment...eventually.

Either way, God approached in the light of the Risen Lord,

and that gift brought new life in Damascus and eventually throughout the world.

 

Every day, then, keep open to the possibility that

no matter how perfect or how flawed your life,

God may break into your day with some new, life-changing truth.

And that will be only the beginning of your new life.

 

In a little book of essays by William Barclay,

he speaks of what he calls the “threefold conversion.”

The first step is for people to be convinced of the wonder of Jesus Christ,

and to know that Jesus Christ can do for us

what we can never hope to do for ourselves.

 

“The second step in conversion is the conviction that this experience

brings both the privilege and the responsibility

of becoming a member of the fellowship of people who have had the same experience,

and who share the same belief.”          [Barclay, In the Hands of God, p. 39]

Thus we are converted from being alone in faith

to oneness in the Body of Christ, the Church.

 

The third conversion is to loving, caring action in the world.

As Barclay says,

“The Church must never be in any sense a little huddle of pious people,

shutting the doors against the world,

lost in prayer and praise, connoisseurs of preaching and liturgy,

busy mutually congratulating themselves on the excellence of their Christian experience.”

 

Our conversion, our new life,

is expressed through as a great love for others, as we have for Jesus Christ.

Our new life is not for ourselves alone,

but for all whose lives we can touch with the love of God in Christ.

And that is why, when we do see the vision or hear the voice

or simply understand in a new way that God is in the process

of transforming us as God did Saul,

or changing our minds as God did for Ananias,

... that is why God will then say to us,

“Get up, and go...”

There are sheep to be fed.

There is peace to be made...

love to be affirmed.

The world to be turned upside down, upset and set right.

Get up. Go.

Trust that God has a plan and will carry it out...through you!

Easter People: The One Who Doubted?

Easter People: The One Who Doubted?

Jesus, again, says, “Peace be with you.” He tells them that, now, they are the ones who are being sent, just as God has sent him. And he shares another reminder of his physical self with them—he breathes on them. He tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. And he tells them, in no uncertain terms, that they are to be about the business of forgiveness.

This is a remarkable moment. Think about who is with Jesus in this room. These are the remnant of Jesus-followers… the ones who ate with Jesus on the night before he died…the ones whose feet he washed. The ones who, instead of following Jesus to his trial and cross, ran away. Here is Simon Peter, the one who Jesus correctly predicted would deny even knowing him. And at least one person is missing who, by now, everyone knows was the one who betrayed Jesus for a bag full of silver.

And Jesus has just told them, their work, their mission in the world, from this moment on, is forgiveness. I imagine first on their list of people to forgive—for many of them—would be themselves.

Image: “Apostle Saint Thomas” by El Greco (1541-1614), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Easter People: The One Who Was Called By Name

Easter People: The One Who Was Called By Name

This is the feast of victory for our God! It is Easter Sunday, the most joyful day of our Christian year. It is the day when I say, “Alleluia, the Lord is risen!” And the people reply: “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!” It is a day of beautiful flowers, and glorious music, and hearts lifted high as we celebrate together.

It is a day when we hear again the marvelous story of Mary Magdalene going to find the tomb where they had placed Jesus, and all the wondrous things that happened after.

But we can’t skip from the cross to the empty tomb without remembering Saturday.

Photo: Stained glass window, Union Presbyterian Church, Endicott, NY. 1907- present day.

The Lord's Table: A Maundy Thursday Meditation by the Rev. Jeff Kellam

The Lord's Table: A Maundy Thursday Meditation by the Rev. Jeff Kellam

At the Church of the Resurrection in Amsterdam,

there is a wonderful setting for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

The Communion table looks much like what we would call a picnic table.

That is, it is a long flat table with benches on each side, and at each end of the table.

The table is set with a cloth, two candles, a pitcher and chalice, and plates for bread.

When it is time for the sacrament,

the people come forward, sit on the benches that surround the table,

and they serve one another the bread and the wine.

I don’t know what they call that method in Holland,

but here, we would call it “family style.”

Image: “The Lord’s Supper, Rock Presbyterian Church, used by permission of Wikimedia Commons.

Extravagant Love

Extravagant Love

Seriously, what do you offer in thanksgiving for life?

Do you simply say "Thank you?" (I feel confident that has already happened. Most likely, many times.)

Do you throw him a dinner party? Sounds like a good idea—and, yes, that happens to be the exact setting for our story today. It takes place in Bethany, in the home of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. There is a dinner there, in Jesus’ honor.

But what else? How to say “Thank you?”

Isn’t there some kind of grand gesture that would get this level of gratitude across?

A Prodigal Father

A Prodigal Father

This is a story about forgiveness, and grace.

It might also be a story about how hard it can be to forgive.

It might even be a story about the stories we tell ourselves, so that we feel justified in saying, no. I will not go in to the feast. Not for him. Not for her.

Image: James TIssot, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Brooklyn Museum, used Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Miraculous Abundance

Miraculous Abundance

This story is central to what it means to be a Jesus-follower. The disciples are doing good work. They can go out on their own. They can teach and heal and carry the good news where it is needed.

But they need to do this, too. They need to feed the hungry, and they need to show the people—show the world, in fact—that there is enough..

Image: MAFA Jesus, Cameroon, “Jesus Feeding the Multitude”

The Sanctuary and the Fig Tree

The Sanctuary and the Fig Tree

Sanctuary. A word that signifies a holy place, a place set aside for the worship of God. It also signifies that such a place provides, by mutual consent of the law and the people, protection from the dangers of a dangerous world.

This morning’s gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary begins with Jesus hearing the news of the violation of a sanctuary.

“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.”

Bread of Heaven

Bread of Heaven

Man hu? That’s Hebrew for “What is it?” Maybe.

I invite you to a time of imagining.

I invite you to close your eyes, if you like, and imagine with me.

God’s people were stumbling through the wilderness, half starved. See their thinning bodies, the patches where their hair is falling out. Imagine their rumbling, cramping stomachs and leg muscles. Remember true, deep hunger, the kind of hunger that could make you faint.

They wondered whether it might not be better to be living slaves than dead freed people.

The Passion of the Prophet

The Passion of the Prophet

Jesus calling Herod “fox” speaks volumes. Herod preys on his own people, crushes them, keeps them poor and struggling by exacting taxes from them that break them. In return, he gets to be, tetrarch, live in a palace, and, occasionally, uses his power to annihilate someone who threatens him, like a prophet. Like John. Maybe, like Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t seem scared. In fact, Jesus speaks and acts with determination. You might even say, determined passion.

Image: Photograher Michael Verun, "Mother Hen and her chicks exhibit a great social behavior which human mankind needs to learn from;” available courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday Meditation: The Cup of Salvation

Wednesday Meditation: The Cup of Salvation

Jesus, his mother, and his friends are all at the same wedding. Years ago I read a book that asked the rhetorical question, “When were you ever at a wedding with both your parents and your friends?” My first response to this: This happens all the time in a small town. My second response: This also happens in faith communities. But the writer insisted, It was your own wedding, wasn’t it? So this must have been Jesus’ wedding!  I think that writer was wrong. I also think that writer was right.

This is a vividly described story: I can almost see the colorful clothing and hear the celebratory music. If there were six stone jars there, for people to have ceremonially washed their hands prior to eating… this was a large wedding. Maybe the wedding of two big, wealthy families, able to provide a meal and a celebration, not only for their own kin, but for the entire village.

Image: Daniel Sarrabat (1666-1748), “Wedding at Cana,” Public Domain. Used Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey: A Celebration of Union Presbyterian Church's 200th Anniversary

A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey: A Celebration of Union Presbyterian Church's 200th Anniversary

This morning’s reading from Deuteronomy marks a momentous occurrence in the life of another faith community; in this case, it was the imminent entrance of God’s covenant people—who had journeyed for forty years in the wilderness along with Moses—into the land of promise. In fact, the original Israelites who had escaped from Egypt had died out. It was a new generation coming into the land of promise. All of Deuteronomy is a sermon, really—a farewell sermon by Moses, to the people who will, finally, after all those years, enter into that land without him, their founding pastor. They will begin their new life, greet their future, with new leadership.

But before that, they will remember their past. That’s the main purpose, it seems, of the whole book of Deuteronomy, this sermon that goes for thirty-four chapters. The people must not forget their God-drenched history, which included:

Their own founding fathers and mothers, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel and Leah; their travel as refugees to a new land, driven there by drought and famine; their lives as slaves in Egypt, generation upon generation of slavery; God hearing their cries of misery, and raising up Moses as a prophet and a leader, to confront the brutal Pharaoh and ultimately win their freedom; God’s mighty hand parting the very sea so that they could travel through it with “unmoistened foot.”

They must remember the years in the wilderness; their hunger, which God answered with manna from heaven; their thirst, which God answered with water from a rock; their utter dependence upon the God who led them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; their awe as God provided the law on Mount Sinai; their shame at their wayward actions of creating a golden idol while they waited.

They must remember all of it: their travel, their prayer, their faithfulness, and their unfaithfulness; the people lost and buried in the wilderness, including Moses’ sister, the prophet Miriam; the babies born on the road; their quarrels and infighting. Through it all, the presence of God, faithful fire; looming cloud, holy of holies in the tabernacle they carried.

They are to give thanks…

Image: Original Log Church, Riverside Cemetery, Endicott, NY.

A New Lenten Discipline: An Ash Wednesday Meditation

A New Lenten Discipline: An Ash Wednesday Meditation

Last week a friend of mine, a psychologist in Nebraska, sent me a poem he had written, in anticipation of the season of Lent. He wrote:

We give up the wrong things

Eliminating candy instead of self-criticism

Sex instead of selfishness

Acting as if what God desires most

Is for us to be on a diet from joy

Perhaps lent should instead

Be a time of letting go

Of all that prevents community

(As an aside, do people really give up sex for Lent? Maybe it’s a Nebraska thing?)

I heard someone say that each Ash Wednesday, we begin again, to take a long, honest look at our lives; to speak humbly to a loving God; to turn back to God. The church, from its earliest days, has found that certain activities, done deliberately and repeatedly, can help us to do this work. We call them the “Lenten Disciplines,” and in a few minutes, I’ll invite you to commit to them. But before that, I’ll invite you to take on yourself the sign of ashes…

Poem: Steven Andrew Westby; Image P. Raube, all rights reserved.

Look! Listen! A Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ

Look! Listen! A Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ

What is “glory”?

We sing it every week… “Glory be to God, Creator…,” as if it were within our power to confer glory. And, in a sense, it is… “Ad majorem Dei gloriam,” was the Latin motto of the Jesuit priests who taught me at Boston College, and it means, “To the greater glory of God.” So, all they did—whether they taught theology or Latin or physics, whether they were chaplains to the football team or pastors of congregations or choreographers of modern dance—all their work was dedicated to that greater glory.

But then, in our passage this morning, we witness two figures from the long history of God’s covenant people, appearing alongside Jesus, and they do so “in their glory.” And the three disciples who are roused from their drowsiness see Jesus, and “they see his glory.” And then it seems as if glory isn’t something we can give at all, but rather something we recognize, something we witness. A brilliance, a greatness, a holy and fearful beauty beyond our power to tell of it. And all we can say is “Hallelujah, Glory!”

Image: The Transfiguration of Christ, MAFA Jesus, Cameroon.

Love: the Verb (Including, Everyone's Favorite Bible Verse)

Love: the Verb (Including, Everyone's Favorite Bible Verse)

What kind of caffeine high—that rush of optimistic energy that makes you feel indestructible and brilliant and hopeful and even happier than usual—what kind of mood altering substance was I on when I thought, “Hey, I’ll totally preach on Luke 6:27-38!”

Why did I want to tackle what feels like an endless list of stuff most of us find nigh on impossible?

It’s possible I am just speaking about myself.

Image: Normal Rockwell, “Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You.”