Bloom Where You Are Planted Acts 17:16-31

16 While Paul was waiting in Athens, he was upset to see all the idols in the city. 17 He went to the Jewish meeting place to speak to the Jews and to anyone who worshiped with them. Day after day he also spoke to everyone he met in the market. 18 Some of them were Epicureans and some were Stoics, and they started arguing with him.

People were asking, “What is this know-it-all trying to say?”

Some even said, “Paul must be preaching about foreign gods! That’s what he means when he talks about Jesus and about people rising from death.”

19 They brought Paul before a council called the Areopagus, and said, “Tell us what your new teaching is all about. 20 We have heard you say some strange things, and we want to know what you mean.”

21 More than anything else the people of Athens and the foreigners living there loved to hear and to talk about anything new. 22 So Paul stood up in front of the council and said:

People of Athens, I see that you are very religious. 23 As I was going through your city and looking at the things you worship, I found an altar with the words, “To an Unknown God.” You worship this God, but you don’t really know him. So I want to tell you about him. 24 This God made the world and everything in it. He is Lord of heaven and earth, and he doesn’t live in temples built by human hands. 25 He doesn’t need help from anyone. He gives life, breath, and everything else to all people. 26 From one person God made all nations who live on earth, and he decided when and where every nation would be.

27 God has done all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him. He isn’t far from any of us, 28 and he gives us the power to live, to move, and to be who we are. “We are his children,” just as some of your poets have said.

29 Since we are God’s children, we must not think that he is like an idol made out of gold or silver or stone. He isn’t like anything that humans have thought up and made. 30 In the past, God forgave all this because people did not know what they were doing. But now he says that everyone everywhere must turn to him. 31 He has set a day when he will judge the world’s people with fairness. And he has chosen the man Jesus to do the judging for him. God has given proof of this to all of us by raising Jesus from death.
Paul was waiting in Athens for Timothy and Silas to join him. He had time to kill, so he used his time to share the Gospel. Athens was a sophisticated city, one of the birthplaces of modern democracy. Paul found a perfect pulpit for his speaking: the Areopagus.

The “Areopagus” was both a place and a group. It’s a small rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens (Greek for “hill of Ares” or in Latin “Mars Hill”). More importantly, the Areopagus was the most prestigious and venerable council of elders in the history of Athens, so-named because it met on that site. Dating back to the 5th-6th centuries BCE, the Areopagus consisted of nine archons or chief magistrates who guided the city-state away from rule by a king to rule by an oligarchy that laid the foundations for Greece’s eventual democracy. Across the centuries the Areopagus changed, so that by Paul’s day it was a place where matters of the criminal courts, law, philosophy and politics were adjudicated.

This place of learning and government was the perfect place for Paul to present The Good News, the new news of Jesus Christ. As Luke tells us, vs. 21 More than anything else the people of Athens and the foreigners living there loved to hear and to talk about anything new. He was invited by the authorities to speak: 19 They brought Paul before a council called the Areopagus, and said, “Tell us what your new teaching is all about. 20 We have heard you say some strange things, and we want to know what you mean.”

Contrast this picture of Paul with a picture of you, standing in a busy, popular place sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Just for a minute, imagine standing outside the track meet or the Pub or the Legion during the Fish Fry, talking about Jesus. Imagine yourself sharing your excitement that Jesus Christ was crucified and raised from the dead. Share your hope, your faith, that Jesus will welcome you with open arms when you leave this earth.

The people of Athens were a searching people. They were curious, eager to learn something new. Paul brought them something new. But he had to meet them on their level. He is very strategic. First, he compliments the Athenians

22 People of Athens, I see that you are very religious.

Then he observes that they have some gaps in their knowledge: 23 As I was going through your city and looking at the things you worship, I found an altar with the words, “To an Unknown God.” You worship this God, but you don’t really know him. So I want to tell you about him.

Paul then fills in the blanks for them:
24 This God made the world and everything in it. He is Lord of heaven and earth, and he doesn’t live in temples built by human hands. 25 He doesn’t need help from anyone. He gives life, breath, and everything else to all people. 26 From one person God made all nations who live on earth, and he decided when and where every nation would be.

27 God has done all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him. He isn’t far from any of us, 28 and he gives us the power to live, to move, and to be who we are. “We are his children,” just as some of your poets have said.

Once he has explained that this God, his God, is invested in the human family, he points out the difference between all the statues that populate Athens and the one true God.
29 Since we are God’s children, we must not think that he is like an idol made out of gold or silver or stone. He isn’t like anything that humans have thought up and made.

Paul concludes by offering an opportunity:
30 In the past, God forgave all this because people did not know what they were doing. But now he says that everyone everywhere must turn to him.

You may have noticed that after church, I head for Heinie Jo’s for coffee. There are coffee drinkers and card players and they know who I am and where I come from: our church. I hold my office hours at the Dixon Legion. That is my Areopagus. If I held my office hours in our church office, I would be mighty lonely. When I am at the Legion, I meet new people and they know that I am, first and foremost, the pastor at Hope Lutheran. You all already know the good news. You love the good news. I suspect that the coffee drinkers and the card players and the beer drinkers know the good news, but they may be searching for the good news.

Where should we minister?

If you count the number of empty pews, you may come to a variety of conclusions.
One, we have too many pews.
Two, people have something better to do than go to church on Sunday morning.
Three, people don’t believe in God anymore.
Four, maybe we need to change how we do church.

Let me share from an article I found. See if any of this sounds familiar.

Conventional wisdom, at least within my own evangelical tradition, is to build a nice building, provide contemporary worship, good children’s ministry, and hope their lives are transformed. There are however problems with this approach. First, it only gets off the ground in more affluent areas (i.e. the suburbs). Second, decision making becomes driven by the need to pay the mortgage (even if only at a subconscious level). As a result, while some life transformation takes place, it happens in isolation from the wider culture. Third, rather than the church serving it’s members the members end up serving the church’s programs (again, ultimately, to pay the mortgage).

So, what is the solution?

First, get out there. The church’s best communicators are not tied to a Sunday morning pulpit but rather engaged in the very centers of culture.
We’re good at that, aren’t we? When we decided to begin anew, we declared that we would be a presence in the community. And we’ve done that…at the Fish Fry, at the Car Show, on Taco Night.

Second, engage in appreciative inquiry. Paul was greatly distressed to find a city full of idols (v. 16). What are the idols filling our cities (e.g. consumerism, careerism, self-fulfillment)? The purpose of these conversations was not be primarily to convert, but to understand and build empathy.
In other words, meet people where they are; don’t push people to where you are. Learn about what people need. Engage in conversations that let people talk about themselves.

Third, offer a persuasive apologetic. Having developed an appreciation for the culture (beliefs, practices, values) of his audience Paul framed his communication of the gospel accordingly. Be open about your church, your faith, the joy and comfort and strength you find in your church. Let it be part of the conversation, not a lecture from you.

Another tidbit I ran across in my research is this: The gospel sounds different everyplace it is told. Our words about faith and Jesus reflect where we are, with whom we speak, even the mood we are in.

I went to a lecture once given by a woman who traveled to the Middle East to visit the sites once traveled by Jesus and Peter and Paul and the rest of gang. She decided to conduct an experiment—-a very simple experiment that any of us could conduct. At each place, she recited the Lord’s Prayer. She recited it at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, at the Mount of Olives, at the Western Wall, in Bethlehem, in Bethany. She discovered that the prayer, the one we say so easily that we can gloss over the meaning of the words, she discovered that the Lord’s Prayer held a different meaning for her in each place. We could do that. Pray it in your car. In the garden. At your desk. Pray it as you walk through the woods or down the street. Pray it as you prepare invoices or supper. Pray it as you change a tire or change your clothes.

Paul found the most important place in Athens, the Areopagus, to share the Good News.

Where is the most important place in Lost Nation, in Toronto, in Wheatland, in Calamus, in Dixon, in New Liberty? I would say that the most important place in the world is right where you are. Sometimes you will minister to the person sitting next to you in the pew. Sometimes you will minister to the person at work. Sometimes you will minister to someone sitting next to you on the bleachers. Jesus doesn’t spend Monday through Saturday in this building waiting for next Sunday. Jesus is walking with you, all week long. Include Jesus in your conversation. He’ll appreciate it. Amen.



Sources: Dan Clendenin
making the case

Annoying! Acts 16:16-34

Paul and his associates are in Phillipi, in Macedonia. Their hostess is Lydia, a local merchant.

16 One day on our way to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl. She had a spirit in her that gave her the power to tell the future. By doing this she made a lot of money for her owners. 17 The girl followed Paul and the rest of us and kept yelling, “These men are servants of the Most High God! They are telling you how to be saved.”

18 This went on for several days. Finally, Paul got so upset that he turned and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I order you to leave this girl alone!” At once the evil spirit left her.

19 When the girl’s owners realized that they had lost all chances for making more money, they grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them into court. 20 They told the officials, “These Jews are upsetting our city! 21 They are telling us to do things we Romans are not allowed to do.”

22 The crowd joined in the attack on Paul and Silas. Then the officials tore the clothes off the two men and ordered them to be beaten with a whip. 23 After they had been badly beaten, they were put in jail, and the jailer was told to guard them carefully. 24 The jailer did as he was told. He put them deep inside the jail and chained their feet to heavy blocks of wood.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing praises to God, while the other prisoners listened. 26 Suddenly a strong earthquake shook the jail to its foundations. The doors opened, and the chains fell from all the prisoners.

27 When the jailer woke up and saw that the doors were open, he thought that the prisoners had escaped. He pulled out his sword and was about to kill himself. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! No one has escaped.”

29 The jailer asked for a torch and went into the jail. He was shaking all over as he knelt down in front of Paul and Silas. 30 After he had led them out of the jail, he asked, “What must I do to be saved?”

31 They replied, “Have faith in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved! This is also true for everyone who lives in your home.”

32 Then Paul and Silas told him and everyone else in his house about the Lord. 33 While it was still night, the jailer took them to a place where he could wash their cuts and bruises. Then he and everyone in his home were baptized. 34 They were very glad that they had put their faith in God. After this, the jailer took Paul and Silas to his home and gave them something to eat.


“What annoys you?” I asked my husband. “What annoys you, besides me?” I was trying to be funny. He answered, “I really can’t think of anything else.”
What annoys you? A traffic light that won’t turn? A cough that won’t go away? Day after day of cold, cloudy weather? Political rhetoric? People who don’t agree with you? People on cell phones?

The Sunday School version that I remember of this story emphasized that Paul and Silas did not run away from prison and that the jailer and his family and servants became Christians. But more than half a century later, in a different time, a different society, I am most struck by the servant girl. Likewise, some of my resources also wonder about the servant girl, the girl who was possessed with some kind of clairvoyance, some ability to see the future.

I’m going to quote heavily from my sources today, because they reflect what I was thinking as I read and reread this text.

My biggest concern is this: the slave girl. Remember she is a slave, not a friend or a family member. She is valuable to her owners only because of her gift of being able to tell the future. They charged people to hear their futures from her. If she had not had that gift, perhaps she would not have become a slave.

Here I share some musings from Rev. Janet Hunt, who writes a blog called “Dancing with the Word.” She asks these questions about the slave girl:

I wonder, for instance when her ‘spirit of divination’ was first discovered. Was it something she always had or did it only become apparent when she was a little older?
-I wonder how it was that she was sold into slavery. Did the certainty that she was ‘possessed’ by something frighten her family and as a result, were they at least a little bit relieved to see her go?
-Or was their financial situation desperate and so they sold her in order to benefit from whatever the ‘going rate’ was for girls such as her?
-Oh, I would imagine that in that time and place it must have been her father’s decision to sell her in this way and I wonder if her mother grieved this always.
-Or perhaps her father did this at her mother’s urging.
-Or maybe her parents had both died and she had no other way of supporting herself except for this unthinkable way.
-Or maybe slavery was simply a generations old reality for her family and her particular ability simply made her valuable in a different way to those who owned her.
-And I wonder what her life was like as a ‘slave.’ Did her owners only take advantage of her seemingly supernatural ability to discern the truth or was there more to her enslavement? This certainly was bad enough, but it could have been more and perhaps was.

I am bothered by the fact that Paul evidently removed the demon that gave her her powers, not because he felt compassion for her, but because she annoyed him. This makes me wonder how we treat those who annoy us. Do we seek simple solutions to shut the person up, to remove them from our sight?

My first thoughts turn toward the people who use government programs to supplement their income. Ironically, most of us use government programs to supplement our income or, at the very least for our own benefit. Government programs I’m thinking of are the Department of Transportation and the roads that are built and repaired; and the Department of Education and the free education provided to most of us.
And my meanest joke, ever: How do you starve a farmer? Weld his mailbox shut. And my own personal favorite government programs—IPERS and Social Security.

But we are also—and this is cruel and shallow—we are also annoyed by people who benefit from food stamps and medicaid and fair housing aid. That is an awful thing to say, but it’s true, according to some of my friends, according to conversations I overhear in restaurants. It seems those of us who have been born into the right families, have been able to hold down jobs, have been able to play by the rules, are annoyed by those who are not able to hold down a job, who can’t feed their families or afford medical care.
And you know what? That attitude separates and excludes and humiliates and alienates the people who are supposed to be the focus of our love and support.

I witnessed this as a classroom teacher. Some of my students owned only one pair of jeans. I know one family who washed a load of jeans every night—one pair for each kid, so that they would always have clean clothes to wear. What’s wrong with that? Nothing! But there were classmates who made fun of them for wearing the same pair every day. For some reason, they found it annoying to be in the same room with someone who had only one pair of jeans.

We are annoyed by people who don’t march to the same beat as us. We are annoyed because, in our hearts, we want everyone to have a comfortable life. We’re annoyed because we want everyone to have a fulfilling life, whether it be making quilts or raising cattle or teaching children or waiting tables or analyzing data or preaching sermons. So we deal with that annoyance, by getting rid of it.

Sometimes, a few choice words will encourage a person to move on. Sometimes, the annoyance is more than we can handle. I bring up the idea of what we call “welfare,” because I think we have a very efficient way of dealing with the annoyance that not everyone is as lucky or as smart as some of us. I think we use entities like the Carrol Assistance Center or the North Scott Food Pantry to get rid of those annoyances.

Here’s the thing: our consciences annoy us. We know that Jesus loves people no matter where they live, how they live, where they work, where they buy their food. So, deep in our hearts, we know we should love our neighbor, each neighbor, with equal generosity. But we’re annoyed by some and at the same time our conscience annoys us. So, to quiet our conscience, to stop that prophetic voice in our hearts, we donate a couple cans of food, a bottle of Spic and Span. And then we ignore the persons who use our donations.

Paul was annoyed by the slave girl, who, ironically, seemed to be sharing the same message he was trying to preach:
17 The girl followed Paul and the rest of us and kept yelling, “These men are servants of the Most High God! They are telling you how to be saved.”

So he took away her gift, shut her up, silenced her. And then he walked away. What happened to her? Did he invite her to join their group at Lydia’s house for worship? I have a feeling once she was no longer annoying him, he ignored her.
Again, I quote from Rev. Hunt:
-Once she was freed from that which so benefited her owners, did they actually let her go or did they keep her for other purposes?
-And if they did set her free, was she able to return home?
-And if she did return home, was she welcomed there?
-Was she able to return to any semblance of a normal life?
-Or was she forever damaged, forever changed by the experience of having been sold into slavery and living as such for who knows how long?

Once we donate a can of corn, a package of paper towels, even $200, is our responsibility over? I will grant you that the taxes you pay also help families survive. Do you resent that use of your taxes or are you grateful that you can share with someone who is, in your eyes, lazy, manipulative, freeloading?

We do what we can. But I think about that slave girl. Was she abandoned? She was no longer annoying. But did she walk alone? I wonder if we use our donations to silence people, so that we don’t have to see them, we don’t have to think about them. I wonder if there is a way to establish a relationship that is more than a hands-off, feel good donation. I wonder if Paul and Silas invited the slave girl to accompany them. I wonder if there is a way that we can walk with the people we help with our donations.

The longer I live, the more I admire people who can survive under unequal conditions, denied advantages, unseen burdens and roadblocks. The longer I live, the more I realize that people are annoying for a reason. No one is annoying on purpose.

The girl was annoying because she had a gift. Do we overlook the gifts of those who annoy us? Paul set her free from her demon, but he did not set her free from her slavery. You might remember a song from the sixties, “Me and Bobby McGee,” written by Kris Kristofferson and sung by Roger Miller, later by Janis Joplin. The first line of the chorus could be the theme song for the life of the slave girl: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Was she set free or abandoned?

The same Paul who was annoyed by the slave girl wrote these words in one of his letters to the congregation in Corinth:

1 Corinthians 13 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
What if I could speak all languages of humans and of angels? If I did not love others, I would be nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. What if I could prophesy and understand all secrets and all knowledge?
And what if I had faith that moved mountains? I would be nothing, unless I loved others. What if I gave away all that I owned and let myself be burned alive? I would gain nothing, unless I loved others.
By extension: What if I cast out demons? I would be nothing, unless I loved others. What if I donated 500 gallons of milk and 3,000 cans of soup? I would be nothing, unless I loved others. What if I paid the rent for a family of five? I would be nothing, unless I loved others.

I don’t think Paul loved the slave girl. I think Paul thought only of himself. In the best of all possible worlds, I want the slave girl to join Paul and be as important as Lydia and Silas. I want the slave girl to know the freedom that Paul preached. Maybe we can be satisfied that the slave girl knew Jesus as Savior. Maybe we can be satisfied that Jesus loves the people who annoy us.

Is there away to go beyond salving our consciences with a can of creamed corn to inviting and walking with slave girls, the lazy, the unlucky, the addicted, the struggling, the different, the strange, the lost? God, show us the way. Amen.


A New View: Enemies Acts 9:1-19

9 Saul kept on threatening to kill the Lord’s followers. He even went to the high priest 2 and asked for letters to the Jewish leaders in Damascus. He did this because he wanted to arrest and take to Jerusalem any man or woman who had accepted the Lord’s Way. 3 When Saul had almost reached Damascus, a bright light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice that said, “Saul! Saul! Why are you so cruel to me?”
5 “Who are you?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus,” the Lord answered. “I am the one you are so cruel to. 6 Now get up and go into the city, where you will be told what to do.”
7 The men with Saul stood there speechless. They had heard the voice, but they had not seen anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and when he opened his eyes, he could not see a thing. Someone then led him by the hand to Damascus, 9 and for three days he was blind and did not eat or drink.
10 A follower named Ananias lived in Damascus, and the Lord spoke to him in a vision. Ananias answered, “Lord, here I am.”
11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the house of Judas on Straight Street. When you get there, you will find a man named Saul from the city of Tarsus. Saul is praying, 12 and he has seen a vision. He saw a man named Ananias coming to him and putting his hands on him, so that he could see again.”
13 Ananias replied, “Lord, a lot of people have told me about the terrible things this man has done to your followers in Jerusalem. 14 Now the chief priests have given him the power to come here and arrest anyone who worships in your name.”
15 The Lord said to Ananias, “Go! I have chosen him to tell foreigners, kings, and the people of Israel about me. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for worshiping in my name.”
17 Ananias left and went into the house where Saul was staying. Ananias placed his hands on him and said, “Saul, the Lord Jesus has sent me. He is the same one who appeared to you along the road. He wants you to be able to see and to be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
18 Suddenly something like fish scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see. He got up and was baptized. 19 Then he ate and felt much better.
For several days Saul stayed with the Lord’s followers in Damascus.
Damascus. Do you know where that city is? It is the capital of Syria. Do you know where Syria is?
Syria is bordered by Turkey to the north, Lebanon and Israel to the west and southwest, Iraq to the east, and Jordan to the south. It’s one hundred seventy miles north of Jerusalem.

The Damascus mentioned in our Scripture today is the same Damascus that has suffered in the Syrian Civil War. In my perfect world, all the sites mentioned in the Bible should be protected by some universal law that doesn’t allow any war in those areas. No bombing. No fighting. No destruction.

Have you heard the latest news about Syria? The United States, France, and Great Britain have bombed Syria. Their targets were logical: chemical weapon manufacturing and storage sites. No matter how how precise the bombing is, there is always “collateral” damage.

Damascus is one of six Syrian sites that is listed on the World Heritage List. There are 1073 sites in 167 countries.
Here are some of the criteria for being designated important to human history and culture:

World Heritage Site Criteria for Selection
To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria. Here are a few of the criteria:

— to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;
— to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;
— to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;
— to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
— to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features; (

To be on this list is the only protection afforded many sites that are holy to us Christians. News stories say that all six Syrian sites, including Damascus, have been damaged from bombing and fighting.

Damascus meets several of these criteria and has long been a destination for tourists and pilgrims who want to visit the sites where Paul lived, worked, and preached. One of my friends, a New Testament scholar, used to take groups of students to Damascus. The last time I saw him, he was heartbroken by the destruction of sites he once used to share with his students. Paul’s imprint is still found in Damascus.

Paul was a devout Jew, a Hebrew by birth. Paul was so devout that he was determined to protect the Jewish community by imprisoning all the people who had, in defiance of the high priest, started following Jesus. Paul had stood by as Stephen was stoned. Paul had been imprisoning men and women in Jerusalem. For some reason, he set his sights on Damascus. He received permission from the high priest to round up the Christians in Damascus.

Damascus is about 170 miles north of Jerusalem, so it was a long trip. He did not travel alone; he had other people with him, probably to help him round up prisoners and transport them back to Jerusalem He was God’s best follower, destroying God’s enemies—or so he thought. He saw these new followers of the troublemaker Jesus as threatening the Jewish nation. God let him get so far, and then he decided that Saul would benefit from a conversion.
Some Christians declare that one must have a specific, instantaneous experience that converts one from non-believer to believer. I find that limiting and exclusive—because it hasn’t happened to me. I don’t know if that’s what happened to Paul. For three days, he sat in blindness. We aren’t told what thoughts plagued and puzzled him through those dark days. Was there doubt in his mind? Had he really been knocked to the ground by Jesus? Did he instantly believe that Jesus was the Savior instead of the enemy? We are told he prayed for those three days. Did he pray to God or to Jesus? What did he ask for? To have his sight restored? Did he ask for forgiveness? Did he ask for understanding?

Paul’s conversion is perhaps the most dramatic conversion story in the Bible. But what about Ananias? In the past, when I have studied this story, I have focused on Paul and his dramatic transformation and thought of Ananias as just a tool, a handy person, a nice guy to take Paul in. But in fact, this encounter was as life changing for Ananias as it was for Paul.

13 Ananias replied, “Lord, a lot of people have told me about the terrible things this man has done to your followers in Jerusalem. 14 Now the chief priests have given him the power to come here and arrest anyone who worships in your name.”

Ananias had heard of Paul. Probably every Christian had. Saul was the enemy of the new Christians.
I got this idea about Ananias from a Facebook post. I belong to a lectionary group on Facebook, and I always learn from the discussion among its members.
I can’t put it any better, so here is exactly what he posted:

Unexpectedly, Ananias receives what most would call an unwelcome vision from the Lord. He’s being called to go and pray over a man who has been a terrorist to his people, a man who has imprisoned and commissioned the murder of followers of the Way like Ananias himself. You can imagine the feelings that welled up inside Ananias when God said go lay hands on your worst enemy and pray for his healing. But just maybe, it’s the prayer of healing for our enemies that ends up being the best thing for us. ( Kaleb Heitzman,Narrative Lectionary, Facebook Some @Storied thoughts for this week )

Pray for your worst enemy. Go visit your worst enemy and pray for them. Lift up your best wishes for your worst enemy to God. Now I want to challenge you.

I want to take you back to Damascus, not the Damascus of the first century, but the Damascus of the twenty-first century. I want you to think about the people we’ve been told are our enemies: immigrants, refugees, terrorists. Damascus is full of immigrants, refugees and terrorists. The world is full of immigrants, refugees and terrorists.

One headline I saw regarding the bombing of Syria started with three ominous words: World War Three. What will we be hearing in the news? Will we be asked to pray for our enemy? Or will we be asked to pray for victory? Are we, right here, in Eastern Iowa, in harm’s way? Will bombs be raining down on us? Will our livelihoods be disrupted by the destruction of roads and buildings? Will our storehouses be decimated? Probably not. That only happens in faraway places. So, can we wash our Jesus-filled hands of this evil? Can we ignore the cries that we can’t hear, ignore the wounds we can’t see, ignore the loss we can’t feel, not only in Syria, but in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan? Some of you know first hand the atrocities of war, the dangers of NOT going to war. Our country is in the odd position of having to decide where to go to war next. North Korea? We already have troops in Syria.
Should we just throw up our hands and declare war a necessary evil? Should we just dismiss world peace as a fantasy? So far, in the history of humankind, that’s all it’s ever been.
In movies about war, every so often you’ll see a child wandering through the destruction, crying, lost, pathetic. Once in a while, the news will show wounded children, because they are cuter than wounded soldiers and may touch our hearts. But what good does it do to touch our hearts?
Paul’s heart was touched — in fact, it’s a miracle his heart didn’t stop. Mine would have. I can only handle God in small doses. Being knocked to my feet, being blinded for three days, being put in the hands of an enemy for healing—-no thanks.
Paul and Ananias were enemies. God put them together for healing. The Damascus they knew is no more. But the love they found for Jesus and for each other is still very much present, even in Damascus.
Are you, like me, too worried about the safety of my own friends and family to worry about people I will never meet, never feed, never hug, never bury? Maybe, like me, you are an isolationist, ignoring the troubles of the world.
There is a part of me that sees war as necessary. There is another part of me that sees war, that is, people trying to kill each other, as just plain stupid. In other words, just like the whole world, I am conflicted. What does Jesus expect from me? Jesus has not made me a world leader, Jesus has not given me some bombs to deliver strategically, Jesus has not given me the power to legislate boundaries or distribute natural resources. Jesus has not given me the power to change the minds of anyone.
Matthew 5:44 Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
That’s all Jesus gave me. Prayer. Thanks a lot, Jesus. The human race is destroying itself and you want me to pray.
It doesn’t seem like much. Still, Jesus, you prayed a lot. You even taught us how to pray. Paul got knocked on his keister and prayed for three days and spread the good news of forgiveness and love and salvation. That’s all it took. Three days of sick leave and go change the world.
So, Jesus, I don’t have to learn how to use a gun, right? Jesus, I don’t have to join the army, right? I don’t have to run for congress. I don’t have to send all my money to refugees. I don’t have to do anything. But Jesus, you did say, pray for my enemies. Not just the little children running parentless in the streets. Not just the widows loudly weeping. Pray for the people who make the orphans and widows.
Pray for the people who want to hurt me. Pray for the people who hate my country. Really, Jesus? Really? I’ll think about it. Amen.

The Benefit of the Doubt John 20: 19-31

19 The disciples were afraid of the Jewish leaders, and on the evening of that same Sunday they locked themselves in a room. Suddenly, Jesus appeared in the middle of the group. He greeted them 20 and showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they became very happy.
21 After Jesus had greeted them again, he said, “I am sending you, just as the Father has sent me.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they will be forgiven. But if you don’t forgive their sins, they will not be forgiven.”
24 Although Thomas the Twin was one of the twelve disciples, he wasn’t with the others when Jesus appeared to them. 25 So they told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But Thomas said, “First, I must see the nail scars in his hands and touch them with my finger. I must put my hand where the spear went into his side. I won’t believe unless I do this!”
26 A week later the disciples were together again. This time, Thomas was with them. Jesus came in while the doors were still locked and stood in the middle of the group. He greeted his disciples 27 and said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and look at my hands! Put your hand into my side. Stop doubting and have faith!”
28 Thomas replied, “You are my Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus said, “Thomas, do you have faith because you have seen me? The people who have faith in me without seeing me are the ones who are really blessed!”
30 Jesus worked many other miracles for his disciples, and not all of them are written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you will put your faith in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. If you have faith in him, you will have true life.
Contemporary English Version (CEV)
Do you have favorite disciple? I asked my husband who his favorite disciple is. His immediate answer: Cookie Monster. Mine is a tossup between Peter and Thomas. I identify with Peter’s impulsiveness, with his act-before-thinking foot-in-mouth stumbling. If Peter acts before he thinks, Thomas is the opposite: he thinks before he acts or speaks. I want to be more like Thomas, deliberate and objective.
I’ll give you some examples. Thomas, in my opinion, has a dry sense of humor.

John 11: 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead! 15 I am glad that I wasn’t there, because now you will have a chance to put your faith in me. Let’s go to him.”

16 Thomas, whose nickname was “Twin,” said to the other disciples, “Come on. Let’s go, so we can die with him.”

Thomas was referring to the fact that Jesus and the diciples were heading toward Bethany, just two miles from Jerusalem, where the Jewish authorities were hoping to trap Jesus and do away with him. So, that sardonic line kills me: “we might as well die with him.” Maybe it sounds dead serious to you, but I think there was some underlying irony there, some half serious thought of “this can’t really be happening, so let’s laugh while we can.”
A second example: Thomas is not afraid to ask questions.
John 14 Contemporary English Version (CEV)

14 Jesus said to his disciples, “Don’t be worried! Have faith in God and have faith in me. 2 There are many rooms in my Father’s house. I wouldn’t tell you this, unless it was true. I am going there to prepare a place for each of you. 3 After I have done this, I will come back and take you with me. Then we will be together. 4 You know the way to where I am going.”
5 Thomas said, “Lord, we don’t even know where you are going! How can we know the way?”

When I picture this scene, I see the other disciples nodding their heads, without really understanding. Have you ever been in that situation? Someone is explaining something. Then they ask, “Does anyone have any questions?” And everyone remains silent, because they don’t want to look dumb. What happens later? Somebody makes a mistake because they didn’t want to ask questions. Thomas asks the questions that everyone else is thinking.
The most famous example of his need to know takes place in a locked room after the resurrection.

24 Although Thomas the Twin was one of the twelve disciples, he wasn’t with the others when Jesus appeared to them. 25 So they told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But Thomas said, “First, I must see the nail scars in his hands and touch them with my finger. I must put my hand where the spear went into his side. I won’t believe unless I do this!”

By the time Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, rumors must have been flying all over Jerusalem. The possibilities concocted after the discovery of the empty tomb must have flown through the Roman and Jewish communities as everyone tried to come up with a logical reason for the disappearance of Jesus’ body. Thomas has obviously been out and about, since he wasn’t in the room when Jesus first appeared. He probably heard all kinds of conspiracy theories—the disciples took the body, the guards were in collusion with the high priest— just imagine if something like this happened in Dixon/Toronto. A lifeless body disappears. What stories would you be hearing by noon the next day? Drugs? Coyotes? Aliens? Cults? Cover ups? Mistaken identity?Love triangle? Domestic dispute?
After Jesus’ second appearance in the secret room, Thomas knew for sure, as did many of the disciples and followers. For another forty days, Jesus continued to teach and heal and live a normal life among those who believed him as well as among those who merely were curious.
Wouldn’t it be great if Thomas could be standing here today, telling us exactly what it was like to know, for sure, that Jesus was the same Jesus with whom he had been working and traveling.
Let me share with you a meme that’s been floating around on Facebook.
THE BIBLE IS CLEAR: Moabites are bad. They were not to be allowed to dwell among God’s people (Dt. 23) BUT THEN comes the story of “Ruth the Moabite,” which challenges the prejudice against Moabites. (And Ruth becomes an ancestor of Jesus.)
THE BIBLE IS CLEAR: People form Uz are evil (Jer. 25) BUT THEN comes the story of Job, a man from Uz who was the “most blameless man on earth.”
THE BIBLE IS CLEAR: no foreigners or eunuchs allowed. (Dt. 23) BUT THEN comes the story of an African eunuch who is welcomed into the church. (Act 8)
THE BIBLE IS CLEAR: Gods’ people hated Samaritans BUT THEN Jesus tells a story that shows not all Samaritans were bad and that Samaritans welcomed Jesus into their community.
Sometimes God has doubts. Sometimes God changes God’s mind. Maybe that is too radical. Maybe—-and here is my doubting—-the writers of the Bible left something out or the translators didn’t get it right.
Frankly, the contradictions in the Bible give non-believers lots of fuel to show how insubstantial the Bible is as a book of faith.
My friend and I were talking religion the other day. Specifically we were questioning how important doctrine is. I had been writing a paper and I was struggling with a basic concept of Christianity, Atonement Theory. During Lent and on Easter, I realized my atonement theory is captured in hymns, specifically, “O Holy Jesus,” (#349) and stanza three of “Jesus, Christ is Risen Today.”
3 But the pains which He endured, Alleluia!
our salvation have procured, Alleluia!
now above the sky He’s King, Alleluia!
where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!

My friend agreed that doctrine is important to those of us who carry the word from the well to the table. We pastors are the trustworthy ones, the smart ones, the educated ones. We need to know doctrine because you learn it from us. Just to be clear, let me give you a definition of doctrine: “a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party, or other group.” [That brings up an interesting question: What happens when your church doctrine contradicts your political doctrine?]

How important is doctrine to each of you? Furthermore, could you express what you believe without reciting something you’ve memorized during your confirmation days? Maybe like me, hymns best express what you believe. I once read that next to the Bible, the Christian’s most important book is the hymnal. I believe that. When do you feel your faith more deeply—when you’re reading from the Bible or when you are singing from the hymnal? And maybe reading the Bible is not your most inspiring way to reflect on your faith. So, compare reading from the bulletin, which is, of course, Biblically based, to singing a hymn. Which “does the most” for you?
One of the things I love about family funerals (my family)—-and that’s a strange thing to say—but one of the highlights of our funerals is when we all join in song. I come from a family and a congregation that like to sing and like to sing loudly. All the verses. A little amateur harmony. One of the reasons we sing with such gusto is that we are declaring to the world what we believe. In a group, singing the same words at the same time, affirms our confidence in what we believe I catch that same gusto, that same passionate declaration of belief when I hear you sing on Sunday mornings. Even though we are small in number, singing hymns is equal in importance to listening to the Word. How can I say that? Because our hymns come straight from the Bible. They are the Word.
But still. If someone —at a ballgame—-at a fish fry—-at Walmart—asked you about your church and asked specifically, “What do you all believe up there in your church?”, what would you say?
It could happen. Someone might be looking for a church to attend. They see that you like your church, but they’re not sure if it’s for them. What would you say that would clarify for them what we believe about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit? Not about the sermons or the hymns or the activities, but about the important things: what do you believe?
Would you sing them a hymn? Which one? What are your options? Here is where doubt comes in. You could say to your potential pew-sitter “I believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior?” What does that mean? Does it answer the question or does it bring up more questions?
Who is Jesus Christ?
How does that affect your life?
How did Jesus become a Savior?
From what are you saved?
You could end up with a host of questions—-in fact, that’s the way it should go. When my preacher friends and I get together, we ask questions—not about what brand of grape juice do you use for Holy Communion, but questions like, did Jesus really say that? What was God trying to do?
My point is that doubt is not wrong. Doubt strengthens our faith. Anne Lamott says “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk.”
Have you ever heard me say anything from this space that you disagree with? Have I ever said anything that gave you a different way of looking at Jesus, that made you think some more about your beliefs? When I write my sermons, when I read the research I used to prepare my sermons, my reading is sometimes driven by doubt. I need to read what someone else has written about a passage of Scripture, because I’m not sure what it means.
By the same token, you need to hear what someone else has to say about the Scripture you hold dear. And back to the fish fry, back to the ball game, you need to be able to express why you invest time in this faith. Is it the cookies? That’s only one Sunday a month. Is it the people? That’s an incredibly important part of our faith community, but, more importantly, we say things in here, we hear things in here that aren’t said or heard anywhere else.
What we say and do is not secret. Anyone is welcome to be a part of this group. We are not hidden in a rented room. We are here, with unlocked doors, ready to share with anyone who walks in the door. If we doubt, it is because we care. If we doubt, we know that we have a safe place to discuss our doubts.
How is it that we are able to accept Thomas’ testimony, Paul’s testimony, Peter’s testimony, all the testimony of the Christian Scriptures? Through the power of the Holy Spirit, sent to us by Jesus, our faith is strengthened and holds firm. Through the power of the community of believers, our faith is strengthened and holds firm. Through the attention we give to the Word, our faith is strengthened and holds firm. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The New Normal John 20: 1-18

20 On Sunday morning while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. 2 She ran to Simon Peter and to Jesus’ favorite disciple and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb! We don’t know where they have put him.”

3 Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 They ran side by side, until the other disciple ran faster than Peter and got there first. 5 He bent over and saw the strips of linen cloth lying inside the tomb, but he did not go in.

6 When Simon Peter got there, he went into the tomb and saw the strips of cloth. 7 He also saw the piece of cloth that had been used to cover Jesus’ face. It was rolled up and in a place by itself. 8 The disciple who got there first then went into the tomb, and when he saw it, he believed. 9 At that time Peter and the other disciple did not know that the Scriptures said Jesus would rise to life. 10 So the two of them went back to the other disciples.

11 Mary Magdalene stood crying outside the tomb. She was still weeping, when she stooped down 12 and saw two angels inside. They were dressed in white and were sitting where Jesus’ body had been. One was at the head and the other was at the foot. 13 The angels asked Mary, “Why are you crying?”

She answered, “They have taken away my Lord’s body! I don’t know where they have put him.”

14 As soon as Mary said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there. But she did not know who he was. 15 Jesus asked her, “Why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

She thought he was the gardener and said, “Sir, if you have taken his body away, please tell me, so I can go and get him.”

16 Then Jesus said to her, “Mary!”

She turned and said to him, “Rabboni.” The Aramaic word “Rabboni” means “Teacher.”

17 Jesus told her, “Don’t hold on to me! I have not yet gone to the Father. But tell my disciples that I am going to the one who is my Father and my God, as well as your Father and your God.” 18 Mary Magdalene then went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord. She also told them what he had said to her.
Contemporary English Version (CEV)

Copyright © 1995 by American Bible Society

How do you experience Easter? Do you decorate a branch with little painted eggs? Do you get a new dress? Do you boil and dye eggs? Do you place bunnies around the house on nests of Easter grass? Do you buy jelly beans and Reese’s peanut butter eggs and Peeps? Do you prepare Easter baskets with little gifts? My friend Michelle wanted to know what to put in the basket of her 13-year-old son. His grandpa suggested a 13-year-old girl. Bad grandpa. I suggested a catechism.

Customs change. Many, many years ago, women made sure to wear a beautiful hat. That is a custom I’d like to see return. Of course, that was when men wore suits and ties to church. When I was a little girl, my mom made sure I always had a new dress for Easter. Of course, I wore it every Sunday until Christmas, when I got a new Christmas dress. Part of that was due to the fact that I kept growing. But the timing was always related to a Christian holiday. I think we got new shoes, too.

Another custom that has changed is egg-dying. It used to be food color in a custard cup. Boil the egg. Drop in a luxurious amount of food coloring. Dip the egg; wait patiently, then let it dry. The trend this year is to cover a cookie sheet with shaving cream, drop food coloring on the shaving cream, then roll the eggs in it. I have not tried this. One year I did try a Martha Stuart trick. Mix water and oil and food color. The result is a sort of pale marbling. Not bad. The problem was I didn’t want to take time to boil the eggs, so I died raw eggs. Nobody thought I was clever.

If you do your homework, you know that Easter, like Christmas, is a mishmash of older religions and Christian symbolism. Maybe you’ve noticed that Christmas is always on December 25; Easter is not always on April 1. Easter’s date is tied to the date of the first full moon following the spring equinox. The day of Easter is a part of God’s creation. Do you know that if it rains on Easter, we’ll have rain on the next six Sundays. Guess. What.

Easter is a season of beauty. But the real beauty for us Christians is the beauty of new life, eternal life, through the resurrection of our beloved Savior.

The verse that most resonated with me in today’s passage is

9 At that time Peter and the other disciple did not know that the Scriptures said Jesus would rise to life.

Jesus knew Scripture. He quoted Scripture. He used Scripture to illustrate his teachings. But the the idea of resurrection had not been understood by the disciples.

Why would they understand? Death is death. Death is final. Defying death is defying common sense, is defying human knowledge, experience, observation. Nobody gets around death. The disciples, both the men and the women, had stood at the foot of the cross and watched Jesus die. They had heard his final words. They had watched as his body was removed from the cross and prepared for burial. There was nothing to suggest in those last brutal hours that Jesus would ever, ever walk among them again.

And yet, two days later, the tomb was empty. Mary’s question, “Where have you taken him?” implied conspiracy. There had been plenty of conspiracy around Jesus’ arrest, trial, and conviction. Judas had conspired with the High Priest. The Sanhedrin had conspired with Pilate. Why wouldn’t something else improper and mysterious have happened to Jesus’ body? Everything about the last days of Jesus’ life happened outside the normal expectations of justice. So Mary was, even in her grief, suspicious. Nothing was normal.

There is nothing normal about the response she hears to her question. The answer is her name, “Mary,” spoken by her beloved Jesus.

This was no vision. This was no ghost. This was no trauma-induced hallucination. It was Jesus, restored to life, genuine physical life. This was the Jesus everyone followed, the Jesus who taught them, who ate and slept with them, the Jesus who inspired them to leave everything to follow him.

Something clicked for Mary. Was it that she remembered the Scriptures and suddenly connected prophecy to the man in front of her? Was it that she remembered Lazarus being raised from the dead? Was it pure belief and faith that Jesus was really alive?
Mary did not doubt her senses. She accepted what she saw and felt and heard: Jesus. Not some version of Jesus. Just….Jesus.

What clicks for us? Why do we claim the same Jesus Mary claimed? We don’t have to wander in a dark, cold cemetery or hide in a rented room, grieving and fearful.
Two thousand years later, we don’t have to wonder. We know!

What do we know? We know that our Savior, the person we follow and respect, the person whose teachings guide our decisions, conquered death. We believe that he conquered death not just for himself, not just to prove something to his heavenly father, not just to defy Roman and Jewish authorities. He conquered death for us. You. Each of you. You do not ever have to fear death.

Yes, you can fear the way you will die. Will it be painful? Will you be alone? Will you be frightened? We have to confront death at sometime. We can’t get around that. Yet we do. Our encounter with death will be temporary, not permanent. We will be restored to life, not as ghosts or spirits, but in fresh new bodies.

Paul explains it best:
1 Corinthians 15:35-38 The Message (MSG)

35-38 Some skeptic is sure to ask, “Show me how resurrection works. Give me a diagram; draw me a picture. What does this ‘resurrection body’ look like?” If you look at this question closely, you realize how absurd it is. There are no diagrams for this kind of thing. We do have a parallel experience in gardening. You plant a “dead” seed; soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed. What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike. The dead body that we bury in the ground and the resurrection body that comes from it will be dramatically different.

Death is no longer the normal end of life. There is a new normal for us. Normal for us is not to fear death, but to welcome it, to anticipate it as the next step in our God-created lives. I am not by any means advising you to stop living. Life is the gift God has given us and it is meant to be cherished and enjoyed and improved. There is no need to stop playing cards, no need to stop hiding Easter eggs, no call to stop enjoying potato chips and dip, no need to stop listening to music, no need to stop knitting or raising bees or learning long division. We must keep on because this life is a promise, too.

As one writer puts it, “We are the body of Jesus. If we want the world to know that Jesus is alive today, we are the physical evidence of his resurrection. If Jesus lives in us, then He must live through us.”

That first Easter day began as a day of mourning and grieving. It is normal to grieve after the death of a loved one. But every Easter since then has been a day of unmitigated joy and thanksgiving. In our family, we like to say to each other “He is risen!” In this day of cell phones, it’s fun to see who can text it the earliest to wake the others up. My sister was first today, at 6:26. This is normal.

This is the new normal: “He is risen!” Amen.