Tag Archive | Acts

7th Sunday of Easter, 2016

7th Sunday of Easter, year C (preached 5/8/16)

first reading:  Acts 16:16-34

Psalm 97

second reading:  Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

gospel reading:  John 17:20-26


Our readings for this seventh Sunday of Easter give us a theme of the power of God:  the power of healing and authority, the power of eternity and the power of unity.

In the reading from Revelation we see God’s power over all time – the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” of all things.

In the gospel we hear Jesus’ prayer to the Father that the believers be ONE, indeed ARE one, through the unity that exists between the Father and the Son.  There is amazing power in this unity – because Jesus tells us that through this unity, WE also have unity with God – we are in God and God is in us – so that the world may know Jesus and his love.  Wow.

And we see God’s power certainly in our first reading from Acts, where I’ve been spending most of my preaching time this Easter season.  This story is filled to the brim with good stuff!  It shows us the power of God to heal, to save and to put other gods to shame.

We start off with the slave-girl.  Not only is she physically enslaved, but she’s also mentally held by a not-so-holy spirit.  For days she pestered Paul and Silas, calling them slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

Now, for us this might seem a high compliment, except “her proclamation, true as it was, proceeded not from faith but… constituted a provocation.”¹  The not-so-holy spirit was saying, “Come and get me, I DARE you.”  After “many days” of this Paul took the bait, showed God’s power and sent the spirit packing.

But Paul’s act of healing and demonstrating God’s power over the spirit was not without consequences. The girl’s owners lost the income she brought them and they were furious.  Paul and Silas were dragged in front of the authorities on trumped up charges, not give a chance to defend themselves, beaten and thrown in prison.

But that didn’t stop them from continuing to praise God.  Even after the jailer had shackled their feet, they sang hymns and prayed.  THEN God showed God’s power again.  First, God drove out the not-so-holy spirit.  Now God was going to show the Roman authorities who was boss.

About midnight the foundation of the prison shook and the doors and chains were undone.  That act showed God’s brute power, but it wasn’t enough – the next act would be one of compassion and grace.

The jailer, who had shackled Paul and Silas, was going to commit suicide – the desperate act of a soldier who thought he lost all his prisoners.  But Paul stops him.  Paul saves the man who had him bound.  The prisoner sets the JAILER free.  There is no revenge here, only a profound act of grace.

Because the point of the earthquake wasn’t to let them run, it wasn’t to flee to freedom.  It was for them to STAY and show who really had the power – and that was God – the One with true power, not the ones with little keys to the tiny locks in the cheap prison.

And the point of saving the jailer’s life wasn’t so that he could simply keep breathing, it was so that he could be truly saved by the power of Jesus’ life.  Then, the one who once had bound them became their student and nurse – caring for their bodies and tending their wounds.  It’s an amazing story that doesn’t actually end here.  In the verses to come the authorities that put Paul and Silas in prison in the first place end up giving them a public apology!

From healing to beating to prison to freeing to saving to tending – it’s all about who really has the power.

There are demonstrations of power that the world understands, but also power that the world cannot comprehend on its own.  The slave owners only knew the power of exploitation and the dollar.  The authorities only knew the power of the crowd.  The jailer only knew the power of chains.

It is the mission of God in Jesus, to use US – you and me – to show the world there is another way. Another kind of power.  The power of God to heal and love.

I hope, as we read stories like this of so long ago, that we can see ourselves.

  • WE are the slave-girl bound – physically and psychologically – that needs healing of our sicknesses.
  • WE are the slave owners, who enjoy profit or a more comfortable life on the backs of others who are exploited in unfair labor practices around the world.
  • WE are the authorities, who all too often judge others solely on their religion or country of origin or hearsay.
  • WE are the jailer, who, just doing what he needs to survive, is driven to desperation and despair at the thought of failure.
  • WE are Paul and Silas, condemned unjustly by those around us, who won’t even give us a chance to say our piece.

IMG_2087 (2)We are them ALL.  And TO them all – you and me – God brings God’s power.  But this power isn’t a fist to crush or chains to bind. God’s power is much greater – the power to heal and love.

God’s power is the power to bring life from death – healing and saving through a CROSS.  That’s greater than any power on earth I know of.  More than any judge or police officer – more than any boss or politician – more than any president or king.

This God, OUR God, who has power over death itself, chooses to love you and me in ALL the roles – sinner and saint – in ALL the times of our lives.

The power of the cross, the power of love that overcomes death, is with us always.  So may we be bold in our mission to show and share that power and love with all the other sinners and saints that “cross” our path.

AMEN.


¹Acts: Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament.  Gerhard Krodel.  Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis; 1986, p. 308.

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6th Sunday of Easter, 2016

6th Sunday of Easter, year C, (5/1/16)

first reading:  Acts 16:9-15

Psalm 67

second reading:  Revelation 21:10,22-22:5

gospel reading:  John 14:23-29


A few weeks ago in our Easter journey through the book of Acts, we met Tabitha, the only woman to be called “disciple.”

icon of St. Lydia

St. Lydia

Today Acts introduces us to another woman who was crucial in the life of the baby Christian Church – Lydia.  Lydia has her own, very special distinction, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Just like Tabitha, Lydia worked with cloth – but that’s where the similarity ends.  We don’t know if Lydia made clothing or not, but what we DO know is that she was a “dealer” – she was in sales and distribution.  We don’t know if she owned the business or not, but she definitely traveled trading.

And apparently she traveled extensively because her hometown of Thyatira (in modern Turkey) was a LONG way away from Philippi in Greece.  Not only that, but, even though she was FROM Tyatira, she owned a home in Philippi.  So she most certainly had financial resources.

So Lydia is a well-traveled businesswoman of at least good financial standing.  Interesting and a bit unusual for that time and place.  There’s another unusual thing about her too.  The author of the book of Acts describes Lydia as a “worshiper of God.”

With this title we’re not sure if she was even Jewish or not.  It could be that she was a Gentile who was interested in Judaism – that she joined the other women who were praying outside the city gates to learn from them – to grow in the belief that there was ONE God instead of many.  It’s clear though, that even if Lydia wasn’t Jewish, she was on her way to believing in THE one God.

Paul and his companions had also traveled to Philippi, not to sell anything as Lydia probably did, but to share the gospel.  There, outside the city gate, they found the women gathered for the Sabbath – sat with them, and spoke to them.

There, outside the city gate, God “opened her heart,” and the traveler Lydia listened “eagerly” to the traveler Paul.  And she believed.  She believed and was baptized – and not just her, but her whole household.

A characteristic of a good businesswoman or man is that of persuasion, and we read that Lydia had that.  She invited Paul and his companions to stay with her.  I don’t know how hard she had to work to convince them, but Paul says she “urged” them, and his response was, “she prevailed upon us.”

I don’t know why that makes me smile.  The context implies that Paul may NOT have wanted to stay with Lydia, but she went up against him and won.  Once she and her household came to believe and were baptized, she was called to a ministry of hospitality for Paul and his companions.

Now that we’ve looked at Lydia’s story, I will share with you her special distinction in our faith history.

St. Lydia's church, at the traditional site of her baptism.  Greece.

St. Lydia’s church, at the traditional site of her baptism – in Greece.

Lydia is the FIRST documented convert to Christianity in Europe.  And as head of the household Lydia also became the head of the first house church in Europe.  This church in Philippi would grow and thrive, as we can read about in Paul’s letter to the Philippians which would come later.

The book of Acts is about the baby Church – how it grew (sometimes with growing PAINS), and who the early followers supported one another and reached out to more and more different kinds of people with the gospel of Jesus.  How it began to reach beyond Jews to share not only the message, but as we read last week, even table fellowship, with Gentiles.

Our church of today, and by “church” I mean you and me, could learn some good lessons and be inspired by these stories.  In Lydia’s story we have two things that can help us out of our tiny shells.  Paul was willing to go outside his comfort zone to share the gospel with her.

The first thing he did was listen to the vision – to go – to travel to Greece.  The second thing, which in our day and age might slip past us if we don’t pay attention is…  he and his companions went over and sat and talked with… a bunch of women!  This was a definite cultural and religious no-no.   And on top of that, Lydia was probably a non-Jewish woman.  But perhaps Paul had heard of the instances when Jesus reached out and spoke with women.

Lydia was a most UNLIKELY candidate to start the church in Philippi, or to give housing to Paul and his companions.

Breaking out of our shy shells.  Thinking outside the box.   Stepping out of our comfort zones.  It doesn’t mean we have to shout about Jesus from the steps of borough hall.  It’s the little things – our small interactions with people that can make the world of difference for them.

It might be a friend, a neighbor, someone sitting next to us in the doctor’s office, or in the deli line at the grocery store.  A smile, an offer to pray for them if they’re having a tough time – letting them know we are Christians by the love and care we show for them, and for each other.

Jesus has given us everything, even his very life – for you and me.  Though we didn’t deserve it – DON’T deserve it – he died so that we can live now and forever.  In him we find a friend, guide, power, strength, love, peace, courage, and a community in which to live out all our joys and sorrows.

The European church was started through Paul acting on the vision God gave him, and the simple action of seeing some women sitting outside, sitting down, and talking with them.

Breaking out of our shy shells.  Moving in ever small steps out of our comfort zones.

Who knows?  Maybe there’s a Lydia here in [our town] just waiting to hear.

AMEN.

4th Sunday of Easter, 2016

4th Sunday of Easter, year C, 2016

first reading:  Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23

second reading:  Revelation 7:9-17

gospel reading:  John 10:22-30


Today’s readings give us a wonderful opportunity to look at COMMUNITY as shaped by Jesus.

In the season of Easter, it’s good for us to take a closer look at this “thing” which shapes us, and in which we live.  In our gospel reading Jesus calls us his sheep who follow him.  No one can steal us away.  We are sheep together, gathered and guided by the Good Shepherd.  In Revelation we read about the great multitude, from every nation singing praises to God.

But it’s our second reading that really caught my attention this week.

We have the story of a woman, an incredible woman by any measure – but singular in the history of the early Church.

Tabitha/Dorcas.  The first verse of our reading is simple and to the point – where she was who she was and her name.  “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas.” Basic information.  Easy to read quickly through.  But we have to stop, because in this short verse is something truly extra-ordinary.

Tabitha/Dorcas is called a “disciple.”  Many times in the New Testament a woman is called a follower or a believer or a witness – but this is the only place in the whole New Testament where a woman is explicitly referred to as a “disciple.”

Tabitha/Dorcas was obviously very important in her community.  And it’s sad really that we don’t make a bigger deal for her, so I’m going to do a little of that today.

tabitha discipleWhat do we know about her besides the amazing fact that she was considered a disciple?  She was “devoted to good works and acts of charity.”  I love the word “devoted.”  It implies that love and commitment went into her works and acts.  That she was surrounded by widows gives a clue that perhaps they were the recipients of her care.

Widows in that time and place had no means of support or voice or power.  They were completely dependent on the good will of others.  Some scholars think she might have been a widow herself, but we don’t really know.  But we DO know the widows were mourning for her.  It was probably the widows who washed and laid out her body after she died.

It was the weeping widows who showed Peter the other fact we know about Tabitha/Dorcas.  She worked with fabrics – she was a seamstress.  Perhaps it was this talent of hers that enabled her to be so generous in her works and charity.  She was a leader in her community, and also one of its benefactors.  So it was certainly a huge blow for all of them, but especially the widows, when she died.

They didn’t just love and mourn her, this community NEEDED her.  Perhaps that’s why they sent men to go get Peter quickly.  Then, not only is SHE brought back to life, but through her rising, her whole community is brought back from death to life, from despair to joy.

This community of faith in Joppa, formed by the rising of our Lord Jesus, experiences a second kind of Easter in the rising of Tabitha.  It’s a great biblical story.  Great for the miracle, but also great for illustrating community – REAL community.  Community that we all can understand.

This community in Joppa, but also our faith communities, aren’t built around superstar political leaders or powerful military generals or charismatic preachers.  Sure, there are some mega-churches, but the vast number of us belong to smaller congregations.

And even though Tabitha was an important person in her community, she wasn’t “THE” person.  For Christians, “THE” person is Jesus.  

The raising of Tabitha is a miracle, but it’s also a story of everyday normal people.

It’s about a seamstress, healed by a fisherman, who was lodging with a tanner.

This is what a faith community looks like.  Tabitha used her talent in making clothes to do good works and acts of charity.  A seamstress supports her community, a fisherman comes preaching and healing and a tanner provides housing as he is able.

God is in the ordinary things with ordinary people – but the work accomplished is EXTRA ordinary.

God is the creator of all our gifts and talents, and all of them, no matter how small or insignificant we think they are, can be used in service to God and others.

We are baptized into a community.  We are called through that baptism to serve God IN community, just as Tabitha, Peter and Simon.

It’s not perfect.  We are flawed people, in bondage to sin – and that is definitely the challenge of community.  Community, even communities centered around Jesus, are messy.  It’s messy, but it’s messy because we ALL are.  I’m sure Tabitha/Dorcas wasn’t perfect, neither was Simon – and we KNOW Peter had his problems.

This is what we are as the Church – a community of SINNERS, (here, locally and globally) gathered around the gospel of Jesus Christ.  This gospel of love and forgiveness and salvation frees us to serve God and each other even THROUGH our imperfections.  So, we need never fear that we’re not good enough or can’t do enough or bring enough to the table.

In fact, it’s also important to note that Simon was a tanner – a profession which kept him in a state of ritual uncleanness.  One of the original “dirty jobs!”  And God used even Simon!

Whether we are a small gathering, or a “great multitude that no one [can] count,” we are brought together through Jesus Christ – to support and strengthen one another in faith and service.

God gives each of us life, gives us a community in which to live out our lives, and gives us gifts to offer that community and the world.

God in ordinary things with ordinary people creating a community that is EXTRA ordinary.

Amen.

 

 

3rd Sunday of Easter, 2016

3rd Sunday of Easter, year C, 2016

first reading:  Acts 9:1-20

Psalm 30

second reading:  Revelation 5:11-14

gospel reading:  John 21:1-19


In today’s readings, one of the overarching themes we find is that of RECOGNITION.

Each of our readings show us many ways of recognizing the Lord, and seeing Jesus in one another and in community.

In our first reading there’s A LOT of recognizing going on.  Saul (who will later become the great St. Paul) hears a voice, but initially doesn’t know who it is.  When he says, “Lord” in verse 5, he doesn’t mean “Lord God,” he’s using the title more to mean “sir.”

But he learns soon enough.  This recognition is harsh.  Jesus blinds Saul, so that Saul can finally SEE who Jesus really is.

Then there’s Ananias.  Ananias know the Lord, and knows OF Saul.  He recognizes Saul’s reputation as a persecutor and recognizes the danger of meeting him.  But Ananias also recognizes the Lord’s power and authority.  And because he recognized that power and authority he was able to TRUST.  “Okay Lord, whatever you say.”

In fact, Ananias trusted the Lord’s words SO much that when he finally meets Saul, the first word out of his mouth is “brother.”  Ananias recognizes that the Lord has brought them together – these two men who were once enemies.

Our reading from Revelation is recognition from start to finish.  The whole book is about recognizing who God is – and here we have God praised in song!

God’s place on the throne is recognized, God’s sacrifice for us is recognized; God’s character of power, wealth, wisdom, and might are recognized.  And OUR place, and the place of every creature in heaven and on earth is recognized:  our place is to fall and worship.

Interesting fact:  almost 100 hymns in our hymnal get their inspiration from the book of Revelation.  It may be a confusing book for many of us, but the hymn-writers get it.  It tells us who God is.

Our gospel reading continues this theme of recognition plainly.  The disciples didn’t recognize Jesus, but when he performed a miracle of fish, the beloved disciple got it.  “It is the Lord!”  And then Peter gets to “undo” his earlier three denials – when he had refused to recognize Jesus – and proclaim three times, “I love you.”

Recognition.  I recognize you – on one level, as someone I know – and on another level, as someone I value.  And you recognize me.

If we consider ourselves followers of the Lord Jesus, we recognize him.  But since he won’t be helping us catch any fish anytime soon, or blinding us with light, we have to work a little harder to “see” him.

If we can’t recognize Jesus, then our relationship with him will be pretty empty.  It’s hard to have a relationship with someone you never hear from or see.

So, how do we, here in the 21st century recognize Jesus?

We recognize him where he promises to be.  And where is that?

11173340_1208991342450171_5284530707964794726_nJesus promises us he is present in the sacraments of the Church – Baptism and Holy Communion.

“This is my body,” isn’t some platitude.  We don’t completely understand it all, but in a mysterious holy way Jesus Christ IS here – in the water and the meal.

Jesus also promises that he is with us in worship.  “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matt. 18:20)

This is why gathering for worship is so important in our lives as Christians.  Through our baptism Jesus puts us in a community.  We become part of the myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” – singing together, recognizing the Lord is HERE.  Right now.  There’s no substitute for it.

I’m not saying we can’t have God with us when we’re alone but there’s a value Jesus places in the community that is unparalleled, as flawed as we are.

And this is the other primary way we recognize Jesus – IN ONE ANOTHER.

Jesus tells us that he is IN us (John 14:20), and if he is in us, then how can we NOT recognize him in one another?

It’s not always easy.  We get tired.  Burned out.  Angry.  Frustrated.  Ours is an imperfect community.  As I said a few moments ago – we are flawed.  It’s hard to recognize Jesus in the noisy toddler or the pre-occupied teenager, or the stern elder.  It’s hard to recognize Jesus in the person we don’t like or in the one who doesn’t like us.  But Jesus told us, LOVE your enemies, and to pray for those who curse you. (Matt 5:44)

Not only that, but with this recognition of the Lord comes a mission.  In our gospel reading he tells Peter to feed and tend his sheep (JESUS’ sheep, not PETER’S!) – and “Follow me.”

Nowhere does Jesus promise us that discipleship would be easy.

So why do this thing?  Why do we follow?  We do we choose to try and recognize Jesus?  Why am I here? Why are YOU here?

I can only speak for myself.

I’m here because Jesus loves me – and you.  I’m here because I recognize and acknowledge that love.  His love for me, despite all my failures, gives me strength to get up another day.  I’m here because, even though community is a challenge, and I’ve had moments of disappointment, it is IN community that I have also received incredible support in joy and sorrow.

And as hard as it can be to recognize Jesus, especially in others, the alternative – to be turned inward, only thinking of myself – is just too destructive.  It isn’t the easy road, but it’s the best one.

I encourage each of you in love, as you recognize Jesus in your own life, to answer this question of “Why?”  Because in the process of doing so, you’ll perhaps find renewed purpose and focus – for your life in the Church – AND in the world.

AMEN


I must give some credit to my Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, who in her April column for the ELCA’s magazine, “Living Lutheran,” posed the question “Why?”

 

2nd Sunday of Easter, 2015

2nd Sunday of Easter, year B, 2015 (preached 4/12/15)

first reading:  Acts 4:32-35

Psalm 133

second reading:  1 John 1:1-2:2

gospel reading:  John 20:19-31


Every year on the Sunday after Easter we read the story of doubting Thomas.  Partly because we hear Thomas’ story every year, I DON’T want to preach about it today.

This is not to say Thomas’ story isn’t important, because it is.  Doubt can actually play a crucial role in faith.  Doubt can be a good thing, because it means we’re actually thinking about our faith, not taking it for granted.  Being open and honest about our doubts and questions can help our faith grow.

image

Resurrection window, First Lutheran Church, Waterbury, CT

What I want to talk about today is this – now that Jesus has been raised, so what?

Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! Alleluia!  So what?  What difference does this make to you?  What difference does this make for me?

I’m not talking about heaven.  That’s all fine and good.  But we have no control over that.  Thankfully Jesus took care of that for us.  What I’m asking is about the things over which we do have control.

What difference does Jesus’ resurrection and lordship over us make in our lives today and tomorrow? Because his death and resurrection isn’t JUST about heaven and the future, it’s also about our life in the here and now.

How do we answer the “so what?” question?  Because how we answer that question helps shape our WHOLE life – how we live day to day and over the long-haul, how we view ourselves and one another, and how we view the Church.

We get a clue to the answer in our first reading for today.

The “so what?” has a lot to do with our relationship with one another.  This makes sense given Jesus’ response to the question of the most important commandment.  He said it was to love the Lord God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  On Maundy Thursday Jesus gave us the new commandment to love one another as he has loved us, and put that love in action by washing the disciples’ feet.

In the reading from Acts we hear that the early believers sold what they owned and held all things in common.  The sold everything to share with others and to give to those in want.  We read, There was not a needy person among them…

An ideal community.  A community founded in faith and sustained by the common sharing of goods so that everyone had enough – – NOT in proportion to one’s ability and strength, but by the strong and well-off taking care of the weak and the poor.

This is a immense challenge to the way we live our lives.  We’ve grown so mistrustful of each other, so suspicious of one another’s motives – even during Easter dinner I was having a debate over whether to give money to a person sitting on a city street holding a sign that read, “Homeless, please help,” with a box for donations on their lap.

My teenager challenged me, and for all my nice logical arguments about concerns over drug use, and wanting to connect that person to services that would help them long-term, I had to admit there was also a part of me that was afraid of my OWN wallet going empty.

What Jesus and the early church SAYS to us and SHOWS us is indeed an enormous challenge to our thinking and our lifestyle.

We are Christians, and Jesus told us to care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, work for justice.  No exceptions.  No litmus tests.

Jesus washed the feet and DIED for the one who betrayed him and the one who denied him, so who are we to deem anyone unworthy of Jesus’ love or our help?

Theologian Gerhard Krodel wrote, “Spirituality dare not be divorced from social responsibility…” and “to believe in God is inseparable from caring for and sharing with the members of the people of God.”***

Jesus calls us to COMMUNITY – not to some individualistic society where it’s dog eat dog, each man for himself or survival of the fitest.

I’m thankful that we in our congregation, and in our larger Lutheran Church, take Jesus’ command to love and serve our neighbors seriously.  For a congregation our size and age we do a great deal to help those in need both near and far.  We are part of a larger Church that reaches all over the globe, proclaiming God’s love in word and deed – working to alleviate human suffering, advocating for justice, seeking peace.

I’m thankful that we live out the example in Acts.  We’re not perfect – very few people in history live up to the ideal given to us by those first brave followers.  Having these examples keeps us humble, so that we don’t think too highly of ourselves, so that we always strive to do better and confess (as we’re commanded in our second reading) when we have fallen short, as individuals and as the Church.

So… the “so what?” of the resurrection is this – in thanksgiving for Jesus’ immeasurable sacrifice and gifts to us, we live our lives as part of a COMMUNITY, where in the words of John’s letter, we have fellowship with God and EACH OTHER.   We love our neighbors and even our enemies as Jesus commanded us – we work for peace and justice so that all may see God’s love shine through our words and deeds.

That way, when others look at us they’ll see Jesus – and when we look at them we’ll see Jesus too.

So little by little we edge toward that ideal community of the first followers.  It may be work, hard work, but it’s a labor of love given to us by the Lord of love.

AMEN.


***Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament:  Acts.  Augsburg Publishing House: Minneapolis, MN, 1986, pp. 116, 117.