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Camp is Wonderful; Church Signs are Terrible.

I spent the past week at Chapel Rock, our diocesan camp, training counselors for the upcoming Children’s Camp.  This year, Children’s Camp is Narnia-themed, which means that our Canon for Children’s Ministries went whole-hog and built a WARDROBE over a door.  (Pictures in a future post, so campers won’t be spoiled.)

Suffice to say, I spent the day of the wardrobe’s construction running back and forth through it like a maniac.  People, it even had MOTHBALLS stuffed in the corners for authenticity of smell.  (Behind safely stapled black fabric.  Accidentally poisoning children isn’t Christian.) 

It was a fantastic week.  Bible study every day with counselors, in which we dream-cast a movie of the Prodigal Son (Father: Morgan Freeman, Elder Son: Christian Bale, Younger Son: Charlie Sheen), and composed time-shifted versions of the Resurrection accounts.  

Then, home I came, and to Sedona, I preached.  They got more or less the following sermon.  


Mark 4:35-41

When I was a kid in Pennsylvania, we lived behind a Southern Baptist church, with a church sign out front. Each week, my brother and I would wait anxiously to see what message they’d put on that sign.  Every week, it featured some pun, or saying. “God answers Knee mail.” or something about Jesus: “Jesus: he’s coming. Justice: its coming too.”. So basically– of puns and vague threats. A certain, specific type of evangelism.

The one I really remember said “Tears bring rainbows.”. And it appeared the week my mother had a mastectomy, and I decided I just hated that sign. Because it came to encapsulate all of the token phrases people repeated, over and over, like magic words: hoping they would have some effect in the world, but repeated so often that they lose their meaning. Those platitudes we say all the time, without thinking, almost, like charms. God will provide. It’s God’s plan. Have faith.

It’s the easiest thing in the world repeat these. And to say them to someone else.  To tell someone else to have faith! Trust in Jesus! But what on earth does that actually look like? In 2012, at the end of June, here, today, what, does that actually look like? Because repeated words are well and good, and sometimes very comforting, but oftentimes, we need a little bit more of a concrete reassurance than that.

So how do we have faith? How do we trust in God?

Like most behaviors, trust and faith are learned. When babies are born, they learn that someone, hopefully, will be there when they cry to hold them, and feed them, and change them, and stay up all night with them, becoming horribly sleep deprived…but in this way, hopefully, we begin to learn the concept of trust. It’s also how peek a boo works. I’m gone! But I’m coming back.

And also like most behaviors, faith and trust are tricky beasts to master. All the world does not operate like a game of peek-a-boo, and so many of us also learn that occasionally trust can be misplaced. And that hurts. And we get cautious.  We get careful.

Observe the disciples. They have been following Jesus around for a bit now. They’ve left house and family, their livelihoods, and their security behind. They’ve seen him preach, and heal, and cast out demons. They’ve witnessed the massive crowds that are following him.

They’ve seen a lot, they’ve heard a lot. The action in Mark’s gospel up until this point has been nonstop. This is the first break Jesus has had since his ministry started– he’s been followed pretty continually by large crowds, and now he gets in a boat for some peace and quiet, and a nice nap. The introverts among us can identify with this.

And through all of this, the disciples have been witnesses of how Jesus has acted towards them, and towards others.

But their first reaction, when the storm hits, is “Ack! Jesus! Why are you abandoning us to let us drown in a boat!!!!”. You don’t love us, we’re all going to die, ahhhhh!!!”

It’s definitely a human reaction, to be sure. It’s a reaction of sheer panic. To be in a storm in a boat at sea is not a pleasant experience. I can see how they thought they were going to die.

But what in the world had given them the idea that Jesus was going to just let them all drown? The same guy who had healed the sick, conquered demons, and saved Peter’s mother in law from death was now just going to sleep through their collective doom?

In this moment, fear trumped the faith that they had learned. Fear overrode what they knew to be true about Jesus. They knew who Jesus was– they knew that Jesus was not going to abandon them, and hadn’t abandoned them. They knew that Jesus didn’t do that, wasn’t going to do that. But fear is a primal force at times, and can speak pretty loudly, while faith is quieter.

It’s a challenge to keep listening to the quiet voice of faith, even in the midst of fear. It’s a lot easier sometimes to fall back into our patterns of cautious behavior. Easier to go back to believing that trust hurts, faith gets broken, and God acts like everyone else who’s ever hurt us.

 And so, when storms strike, we fall back. When disaster strikes, we revert. We accuse God of hurting us. What caused the earthquake, the hurricane, the wildfire? God must have been punishing someone’s wickedness. What caused the cancer? God must have been trying to teach a me a lesson. Why are we sitting in a boat in the middle of a storm? Jesus is trying to kill us.

 It’s easy to listen to fear, and to forget that none of that fits what we know about God. Certainly, none of that fits what we know about Jesus. The loving God who promises to be with us always, who stayed with the Israelites, even when they complained for 40 solid years, the healing Christ who made whole torn up and sick people. God doesn’t send disasters and sickness and death as punishment, or to teach us lessons. God doesn’t abandon what he has created. God doesn’t manipulate people like that. God suffers when we do–and has suffered with us, in the person of Jesus.

God doesn’t leave us. And will never leave us. Jesus is right in the boat with us, even when we are scared, and even when we panic, and cover our eyes with our hands. Jesus is still right there in the boat with us.

That’s what we know. That’s what we have faith in– a living, loving God-in-Christ. Even when we’re scared, and most especially then. Thomas Merton expressed it in this prayer:

Lord,I have no idea where I am going, 

I do not see the road ahead of me,

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,

And that fact that I think

I am following Your will

Does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe

That the desire to please You

Does in fact please You.

And I hope I have that desire

In all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything

Apart from that desire to please You.

And I know that if I do this

You will lead me by the right road,

Though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust You always

Though I may seem to be lost

And in the shadow of death.

I will not fear,

For You are ever with me,

And You will never leave me

To make my journey alone.



I Love You; Now Change

This is a good week to be an Episcopalian.  In one exciting week, we get All Saint’s Day, All Soul’s Day, and the Feast Day of Richard Hooker, our first proper Anglican theologian.  We get to loudly sing about the ‘one [who] was a teacher, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast.’  We sing our Alleluias to the stirring Sine Nomine by Vaughn  Williams.  All in all, it’s a good week to shake off whatever complacency has crept into the heart over the plodding Ordinary Time of the summer.

(Also, we have Halloween, which I believe in celebrating.  What better way to emphasize unconditional divine love and grace than to freely distribute unearned candy to children you don’t know, who have dressed up in ugly and unappealing ways?)

As Episcopalians, also, we do not have Reformation Day.  This is a thing that Protestants*** have on or around October 31.  (Know how we have this liturgical time rule wherein feasts cannot move backwards, only forwards, and only certain feasts may eclipse a Sunday?  The ELCA, bless their late-blooming-liturgical-renewal hearts, have not such a rule.)  So my ELCA brothers and sisters celebrated Reformation Day this past Sunday, and since I was preaching at the church in Williams, a combo ELCA/Episcopal parish, I was asked to preach on the Reformation.

Here is what I said.

Proper 26, Ordinary Time

Matthew 23: 1-12

Reformation Sunday (ELCA recognized)


In seminary, I had a renowned Church History prof who used to refer to the Reformation as ‘The Great mistake’.  This drove the lone Lutheran in my class up the wall, every time he did it.   Fr. Wright would stand there, sort of looking all Mr. Burns-ish, and poor Mark would sit there, with steam visibly emerging from his ears, until finally, he flatly refused to study church history after about the middle ages with this guy.    This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.


I was thinking about that this week.  Reformation, reform is in the air right now.  No matter where you look, people are calling for change, calling for something to give.  We can’t go on as we have been going, something has to change, something must be different, and here is what it is…..  People everywhere nailing their theses to the doors.  The GOP candidates have their ideas of what needs to change.  The Tea Party has their ideas of what needs to change, Occupy Wall Street–which has now spread to the streets of every major city in the country, they have their ideas of what needs to change too.  And certainly, if you put all of those people in a room together, their ideas will not line up.


And within the church too, three weeks ago, at diocesan convention, we passed a resolution, evidently the first in the whole church, asking for a special convention to be called, so that we could begin to reform the entire structure of the Episcopal Church as a whole.  I spent a lot of that weekend talking about committees, and constitutions, and canons, all those church-y c-words.  All that really boring-sounding stuff that is also pretty important because it is the foundation of how we live in community with each other.


All of that stuff, all of it, is changing.  Inside of the church, outside of the church, it’s all changing.  We are beginning to discuss things that we have not discussed in generations.  We are beginning to talk about things that we have not discussed maybe in the span of our lifetimes.


The theses have gone up on the door, whether we are ready for it or not.


Everything is being called into question.  Everything is being challenged.  Everything is being reformed.


Which poses the question–how then, do we live?


When we feel called to nail those theses to the doors of the cathedrals of the world, of the churches of our world, how does God want us to act?  When people come to us, posing questions that we hadn’t considered, that make us uncomfortable, wanting to reform the things that we hold so dear and unshakeable, how does Jesus call us to respond?


The early church started out as something of a reform movement.  Jesus and the disciples were Jewish, in a Jewish society.  From most of what Jesus taught, he sounded like the other reforming rabbis of his time– preaching the best of the tradition, of what was already there, and trying to draw the people back to faithfulness, and what they already knew.  Not trying to start something new.


But in times of crisis, people polarize pretty quickly.  It was one thing to offer critique and questions during a relatively safe period in Jewish history– it’s another thing to do it during a period when Rome has wiped out Jerusalem, and sent the survivors into exile.  And so eventually, what starts off as a reform movement within faithful Judaism, ended up as a different religion altogether.  And the past two thousand years have been marred by some pretty excruciating history between the two.


So the gospel reading stands as a stark reminder of that history.  It was Written by a community that was at war with itself and being attacked all the time by Rome, and that frustration, the hurt and betrayal seeps into the text.  We’re getting that part of Matthew where it’s the clearest.  There is name calling!  There are insults. And standing at this end of the past two thousand years, it’s hard not to cringe, a bit.


But, like I said, let it be a reminder.  A reminder of the choice that any sort of reformation poses.  The choice that was there, two thousand years ago, and the choices we have again today.


Because whenever anything, is faced with questions, with protests about what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, whenever anyone  is faced with those challenges on the door, we have to make a choice. Either open our arms to it, take it in and work through it in some way, or close it out, ignore it, and shut down.  That’s the choice.


The reason my old professor called the Protestant Reformation the “Great Mistake” was not that he was in favor of the pope, or in favor of selling church offices.


He lamented that the Roman Catholic Church split.  He was upset that the pope couldn’t listen to Luther’s critique until well after it was too late, and instead, punished him for challenging the church’s authority.  And in the ensuing years, the rift between Catholic and Protestant spread to include hundreds, if not thousands of offshoot little Protestant denominations, all because no one could sit down and talk through their problems in church.


That was the mistake.  The church couldn’t listen.  It made the wrong choice.


And like the frustration we see in the gospel, it helped fuel bitterness and conflict for generations.


Even though it can feel threatening at times, reform comes from love.  It comes from loyalty.  No one wants to fix something they don’t care about.  And so our choice, in our day, cannot be one of fear. We can’t be so self- protective, so crouched over in a corner that we miss where the Spirit is trying to lead us.


Because God, somewhat shockingly, does not give up on God’s people.  The same God who sent the prophets, and came down personally, still hasn’t given up on us, despite our continued attempts to be stubborn and sad.  God sends us reformers, and breathes the Spirit through our stale world, again and again.


The least we can do is listen.



***  This would not include us.  ‘Protestant’ indicates a church that actually went and protested the Roman Catholic church, or some aspect thereof.  We, on the other hand, basically wandered away, in the dead of night, first in a huff, then slower and slower.  Finally, we sulked in our corner of England, when we realized that the pope had not chased after us, armies in tow, to win us back, in the manner of a romantic comedy ending.  It was traumatic for many.

Cliff Gardner gets a sermon

Oh yes.  And even though I didn’t preach at the morning services, I did preach at the 5:30 Canterbury service.

And to my never-ending delight, I FINALLY got to use this story that I’ve wanted to use in a sermon since about 2001.

Here’s to you, Cliff Gardner.  I can’t get you a Congressional Medal of Honor, but I can cite your brilliance in a sermon.


October 2, 2011

Proper 22, Ordinary Time Year A

Isaiah 5: 1-7

Matthew 21:33-46


Philo Farnsworth invented the television in Provo, Utah in 1927. And

by that, I don’t mean that he was like Jonny Carson, and was the first really

entertaining person to appear on the TV back in ye olden days of very little

mass entertainment. I mean that he invented the cathode ray tube, and a

method to project moving images across a distance to a receiver.

But he’s not the important person in this story.

The important person in this story is Cliff Gardner.

Cliff Gardner was Philo’s brother in law, and one day, as Philo was tinkering

around in his workshop, Cliff saw the drawings that he was working from.

Now Cliff was like pretty much everyone else in Provo– he had no idea

what Philo was on about much of the time. Electricity was brand new and


But there was one thing in those plans he recognized as familiar– one thing

he could get a handle on– glass tubes.

So Cliff moved into Philo’s backyard and set up a glassblowing shop,

because he reckoned that this weird project was going to require an untold

amount of glass tubes.

And that was something that even he could do.

He could make glass  tubes.

And while he had no idea about how electricity worked, or how to send tv

signals through the air, doggone it, he could make glass tubes.

Not fancy, not showy, not memorable, but it was what he had to offer, and

so offer it he did.


There’s something heroic about that: this impulse to offer what one has,

even though we are convinced that it isn’t much, or we aren’t sure it will be

valued, or we aren’t in perfect control of the entire project.

There is something heroic about that, mainly because the alternative is so

very bleak.


We have two vineyards in the readings tonight. And though it’s vaguely

possible that among a lesser congregation, eyes might have glazed over,

and brains might have fogged with all the talk of grapes and tenants and

landlords, I know yours didn’t, so it’s not necessary for me to tell you that

they are described sort of similarly for a reason.


And it’s probable that Jesus, being up on his Law and his Prophets, knew

this Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah backwards and forwards, and that

what he’s recorded as doing in Matthew is retelling and reshaping the

passage to suit his own purposes. He’s proof-texting the Pharisees, in

other words. (Again, the writer of Matthew is in a bitter fight with fellow

members of the Jewish community, and it comes out here. Think of church

fights about music, about moving the altar away from the east wall.  It’s like that).

And in both vineyards, some of the same things are happening. There is a

landowner. He loves the vineyard. He loves it enough to build it on good

soil, to weed it properly, to install a well, and a guard tower (dangerous

grape thieves about, evidently), and to lease it to some tenants.

and here’s where we run into some trouble.

Because the tenants promptly forget, in both cases, that the vineyard isn’t

actually theirs.


And in the Matthean retelling, they even resort to a whole lot of

violence. Pretty presumptuous for some squatters.

They get so invested in tilling the soil, planting stuff, harvesting the grapes,

stomping out some wine, that when the landlord comes and asks for his

harvest, they are outraged. “How dare you presume to take our grapes!

We worked hard for this harvest!”

Which they did. Hard working tenant farmers.

But their problem is that they entirely forgot the point of their labor. The

vineyard was never theirs to begin with. It was given to them to care for

and to shepherd, not to hoard. They didn’t build the protection wall, they

didn’t dig the well, they didn’t even send the rain or fertilize the soil. Here

was this wonderful garden, given as a gift. The question then becomes,

what will those who are given this gift do with it? Will they be good

stewards, or will they forget, and keep all the bounty for themselves?

It’s a fairly easy trap to fall into, this sort of amnesia, and it doesn’t really

matter what the ‘vineyard’ is. We start thinking that all the good things we

have are OURS! And OURS ALONE, through the virtue of our hard work

and dedication!

But really, nothing is ever that simple.

For example, my father is a rather good basketball player. Played college

ball, won the ACC tournament, went to the NIT, played pro in Europe,

drafted by the Celtics. And I could make the argument that he did all that

because he practiced free throws in the driveway as a kid, and worked

hard, and never gave up and was his own never-ending Disney movie.


Which would be true to some extent, but it would be overlooking the fact

that he had incredibly supportive parents, who could afford to send him to

college, the sort of college that wins stuff, a high school coach who took an interest in him, and most of all,

the fact that he grew up in a family of small giants, all of whom are over 6 ft


None of us live in a vacuum. We are products of communities, and

products of history, and products of context, every one of us. In a sense,

we are all landlords to each other.

But most of all, we are tenants to God. Every step, every breath of air on

this fragile goldilocks planet is done at the whim of the God who gave it life.

Our very being is the slimmest chance in a universe full of long shots, and

when we lose sight of that, we start to forget that we are tenants at all.

So for all of us tenant farmers down here, my question to you is this: look around you. What is your harvest going to be?  And who will you give it to?



Elijah: Ancient Israel’s Answer to Johnny Cash

Sunday was spent again at the friendly Local ELCA Parish, and this time, I made sure to get the readings correct. (Take that, lectionary curse!).
This was my second week in a row with Friendly ELCA Parish, and they were again so nice to me. We were scheduled to have a Camping Eucharist (oh, those crazy Lutherans!) but not enough people signed up at the last minute, which was a disappointment, because when I’m talking at length about wilderness, it helps to literally be in the wilderness. But oh well. Being on the side of a giant volcano crater, in a building, gives a similar effect.
Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
August 10, 2011
Proper 14
1 Kings 19:9-19

One of the biggest changes I had to get used to moving out here from the East coast was the highways. Driving down 95 in the east is a pretty social experience, even if you are by yourself. There are exits every mile, with food, gas and hotels aplenty. And when you get north of the Mason-Dixon line, there are rest stops with Starbucks in them every so often. Running low on gas or caffeine, if you have the money, isn’t really a problem.
This is not the case here, as y’all know. Driving from here to Phoenix is a long stretch of desert, broken up only by Camp Verde. Other than that, you’re out of luck. No people, no food, just wilderness as far as the eye can see (which, out of the high desert, is a pretty far ways). So I’ve gotten pretty good at checking my fuel and making sure I have water. Because we have us some honest to goodness wilderness out here.

In the Old Testament, wilderness is a constant. The Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years (or, in biblespeak, a really long time). Moses meets God in the burning bush in the wilderness. Hagar escapes with Ishmael and is saved in the wilderness. Abraham hears God and receives the covenant in the wilderness. Most really important things happen for the people of Israel while in the wilderness.

Which actually sort of bugs them. Because, if you read these stories, they aren’t fans of the wilderness. No one is. And here, I’m not necessarily talking about the relative merits of Starbucks vs camping, or the beach vs the desert or the mountains.

For the ancient people of Israel, the wilderness was the murky undefined place you went when you were on your way somewhere. It was an in-between place. A place of getting lost and being confused and not having a settled home, or roots. Which, for a group like the Israelites, who defined themselves in relation to the Promised Land, was a really unsettling feeling.

But. The wilderness is also always where God shows up. Always.

So today. We meet Elijah as he’s fleeing to the wilderness. Now, understand this about Elijah– it takes a lot to make him flee. He’s the greatest, most confident prophet Israel has ever had. He’s Notorious. He’s intimidating. He calls the shots. To picture him in an ancient near eastern equivalent of a black leather motorcycle jacket would not be far off.
No one messes with Elijah.

Until someone does.

Elijah’s problem begins when King Ahab marries a non-Israelite woman named Jezebel. And I know you’ve all heard of her. Or at least can guess that she was not a model of kindness and decorum.

Right away, she gets on Elijah’s bad side, because she brings her gods and her cultic practices with her. She re starts the worship of Baal in Israel– rebuilds the temples on the mountains to Baal, whole nine yards.

So Elijah, being no shrinking violet, offers her priests a challenge– whose god could call down fire from the sky to burn the offered sacrifices? It doesn’t go great–
This little bet ends with Elijah slaughtering the 450 Baal priests singlehandedly, and Jezebel offering to kill Elijah by the next sundown.

Realizing that perhaps he’s gone a wee bit far, Elijah flees to the wilderness. All the way to the wilderness. He flees from Mt. Carmel in the north (right by Lebanon) to the desert of Beer-Sheba in the south. In today’s terms, that’s about a 4 hour car ride on nice highways with no traffic. Or checkpoints.

Elijah is out of options. He’s convinced that his nice career as a court prophet and an Alive Person has come to an end. But more than that, God seems to have abandoned him. The god who so readily came to his aid and killed this hundreds of Idol worshipping heathens in a blaze of fire from the sky is nowhere to be found.

After all, prophets who are on the good side of God don’t have to flee the kingdom in the dead of night. That’s not how this is supposed to work.

So we meet Elijah today, in a funk. In a cave. In the wilderness. Alone and confused and depressed.

Because what has worked up til now has stopped working. He’s in a cave, towel thrown in.
When something odd happens.

God calls to him, and asks him what he’s doing there. And the whole sad story pours out– and note please, how pitiful and picked on mighty Elijah makes himself sound. It’s great. He’s having a real pity party in that cave.

And then God shows up himself.
But something’s different. Because this God isn’t in the earthquake or the mighty wind that splits the boulders, or the fire that destroys. This is a still, small silent God.

This God who appears to Elijah now is a far cry from the god who threw down fire from the sky and killed all those idol worshippers. This God appears in silence. In peace.

It’s a major attitude adjustment for Elijah. But he hears God again. He refinds his calling. And God sends him back to do what God has been calling him to do. To use his gifts in a different way,

But that’s what happens in the wilderness, in those unsettled places, unrooted places. Places of travel, of transition. You go in one way, you come out another.
Sometimes by conscious choice, and most of the time, not. But the wildernesses of our lives always offer the opportunity to stop and refocus on where we are being called. Who we being called to be. And who is doing the calling. And the voice we hear may not be the same each time we pass through. But it’s there if we listen– often in the most mundane places.

I used to work the overnight shift in a 24 hour gas station and convenience store off the PA turnpike. So around 2-3 am I would get the long haul truckers in to get coffee and snacks. They’d come in looking tired, but always would perk up when I’d hand them coffee. One guy commented to me early one morning that it was just nice to see another person, alive and awake, like he was, and talk to someone not through a radio. It made him feel less alone in the world, he said.

The times we spend in the wilderness, the times we spend uprooted, feeling confused and drifting. These can be scary times. But these are times that God uses to refresh and reorient us as we journey. God calls us to the wilderness– Christ calls us out of the boat– and with God waiting for us, what can we do but follow?

So if you’ve been panicking that I won’t post any more sermons on here now that the summer is ending, fear not! I seem to have been hired by another semi-local ELCA church to preach at them until they can hire a regular pastor. So the sermons, they shall continue.
Also, seriously, the Rob Bell thing is coming. For Real this time.

Telling Stories

Today, I got to supply at a local ELCA parish here in Flagstaff, and got my ecumenism on. All the churches I supply for are kind and welcoming, but this group is particularly laid back. The first time I supplied for them, I forgot that the Lutheran liturgy goes as follows:
1. Confession or Reminder of Baptism
2. Absolution
3. Opening hymn
4. Kyrie-esque responsorial prayers, generally sung to one of ten (!) settings.
5. Gloria/ song of praise, and on.
So it’s mostly identical to Episcopal liturgy, with penitential order added,just a teeny bit different. And the first time I supplied, I forgot the opening hymn, just entirely. (They announce hymns, rather than just break into them.). Graciously, no one said anything, or looked aghast. They just proceeded on. Gold star for laid-backness for them. And meanwhile, I have gotten lots more practice at Lutheran liturgy.
Anyway, here is what I said in the sermon.

6 Easter, Year A
Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21

My grandfather liked to tell stories about our relatives. Lots and lots of stories, about his great grandfather who lived on the plantation in Spotsylvania County and was so ornery that he got into a bar fight, got sliced open across the stomach, and held his intestines in by hand as he rode to the courthouse so he could swear out a statement against the guy who stabbed him.
Or the ancestor in Scotland, who was in a boat race to claim some land from the king– whoever laid his hand on the shore first won the land. Seeing that he was losing, my ancestor cut off his hand and threw it to the shore, winning the race….and losing his hand.
My brother and I loved to hear these stories, over and over, and of course they would get taller and taller with each retelling. First it was one mile to the courthouse, then it was five. Then it was ten. And I have no idea if any if this really happened.
But here’s what I do know– I learned a lot of truth by listening to these stories.
The stories my grandfather chose to tell spoke some deep truths about his family, whether or not the facts were accurate.

Clearly, we were a strong group, maybe headstrong is a better word, and maybe prideful. And the sort of person who will chop off their own hand to win a contest is probably prone to the streak of insanity that definitely was present in my Southern Tennessee-Williams inspiring family. But stubborn? Able to persevere? And proud enough of those traits that we tell story after story about them? You bet.

As humans, we are story-telling machines. It’s how we make meaning out of things. It’s how we convey things that we feel are important. We do it as Christians, certainly. We are nothing if not people of a central story that we tell over and over again– the story of Jesus. And in that story, we celebrate and remember everything that we hold dear. What we know about God, how God relates to the world, how god wants us to relate to each other. All of that really is wrapped up in our big main story of Jesus.

The book of Acts is pretty much a description of the disciples trying to live out the central story of Jesus. Acts is a sequel to Luke– sort of Luke 2.0, written by the same guy for the most part. And if Luke is the story of Jesus, Acts is the story of what the disciples decide to do with the story of Jesus. It’s the story of ‘what comes next’.

And what comes next is essentially what you’d expect. The disciples witness the Ascension. They find someone to replace judas. Pentecost happens. But mainly, they travel around, filled with the Holy Spirit, sharing the story of Jesus, bringing new people into their fledgling community.

But each time they share the story of Jesus, they share it in a specific way. Each time the story of Jesus is told in the book of Acts, it changes. It morphs a little bit.

Notice the story we get today. Peter is in Athens, and, having wandered a bit around the city, excitedly makes his pitch to all Athenians within earshot that the God of Jesus is in fact a god that they already know. The god of his story is a god of their own story. How about that!

This is a bit of a left-field assertion for a devout Jew to make. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is usually not to be confused with Zeus, Mercury, or Hera. That’s the sort of talk that got a person exiled to Babylon, generally. So what’s going on with Peter?

But all throughout Acts, the apostles are doing things like this. The whole time. All the way back to Pentecost. Because, if you’ll remember what happened on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon them and gave them the ability to speak and understand other languages, gave them the ability to listen and speak to people different from themselves.
And that’s pretty much what they’ve been doing ever since.

The first thing Peter does upon getting to Athens, filled with the Holy Spirit as he is, is he listens. He wanders around the city and he listens. He listens to who the people are, what they care about. And then, he starts to speak to them. And that way, he manages to convey to them the story of Jesus in a way that’s meaningful and authentic to them.

Listening, true listening is a gift of the Spirit. When Jesus tells his disciples that he will send them the Advocate, one of the things that the Advocate is supposed to do is allow the disciples to be led into all truth. To hear more truth. At Pentecost, in Acts, it was the Spirit that opened the ears of the disciples to hear God in a fuller way. But how often to we use that gift today? How often do we forget to listen at all, and rely on speaking instead? How often do we rush to speak ourselves, because we are so eager to share our story with the other person, and in our rush we forget that they have a story too?

Each encounter the apostles had in Acts exposed them to a different story. All of the languages they heard on Pentecost, each was a different story. Philip’s encounter with the eunuch– a new story to be heard. Saul– definitely a story, that would be told over and over and over again. And Cornelius, the Roman centurion, a new story. In each case, these weren’t just stories the apostles listened to for the exercise. And to be really cynical– they didn’t just shape their evangelism to fit the market.

The church at the end of Acts is a radically different thing than the church at the beginning of Acts. Each encounter, each story heard has shaped it. And the work of the Spirit has been nowhere more prominent than in the apostles’ willingness to let the stories they hear change them. When Cornelieus the Roman soldier shows up, they don’t just listen politely to Cornelius; they end up welcoming Gentile converts because of what he tells them of his experience of God. The Spirit works through his story, the spirit works the apostles’ listening. And the church is enlivened.

So, we, as we are sent into the world, our job is not so much to talk to people until we are blue in the face, filled with the power of the Spirit, and handing out biblical tracts.
Our job is to listen. To hear where the Spirit is in fact already at work in the lives of the people God created in the first place. And then, as the hands and feet of Christ in the world, to catch up and help.