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Hail Mary, kick some butt.

So, admittedly, I stretched the lectionary a bit here. But in my opinion, right now we could all do with two weeks together of contemplating the Magnificat. For it is awesome. As a summary of the gospel, you cannot do much better than that.
(Also, there be pictures in this sermon!).
So here:

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
December 11, 2011
Advent 3
John 1, Magnificat

All religious figures eventually develop schizophrenia. It’s quite unfortunate, but it’s a common side effect of being venerated by humans for any length of time whatsoever. Jesus Christ becomes simultaneously the figure of meek and passively love for the world, and the avenging Judge of the World, Complete WITH flaming Sword action. God becomes the all-merciful, all-compassionate, all-loving source of Endless Creativity in the Universe, and also the Gigantic Wrathful Parental Figure in the Sky who is about to send you straight to hell without supper or $200. It’s rough.

And then there’s Mary. Ah, Mary, full of projections.

If you listen to most (western, old-school) depictions of Mary, she is pretty straight-forward. Mary is meek! Quiet! Passive! Excellent at taking directions! Her claim to fame is saying ‘yes’ when an angel appeared out of the literal blue and said, “Excellent news, unwed teenage girl! You are pregnant! Sound good?” (Reading between the lines, here, Mary is also none too bright.).

She is depicted in lovely (non-threatening, very flattering) shades of blue, and pink. And she’s always paler than me. Which, to put it in perspective, makes it look usually like she’s about to die tragically in the final stages of some medieval opera of consumption– not raise a healthy Galilean kid. Extra points if she’s got blonde hair, or hair paler than mine. Double points if her eyes are blue.

Turns out, I have some problems with this Mary.

Hyperdulia (great word! Look it up!) or the elevation of the mother of Christ above other saints is something I came late to. And it was because of this version of Mary. I couldn’t understand her. She wasn’t compelling. I’ve never been able to pull off meek and mild– how am i supposed to relate to her? Yet I sat in church, and saw popular piety instruct me that I really should be like her.

Then,bored, in college, as you do, I reread the Gospel of Luke. And realized that Mary in the story of the Annunciation, was almost unrecognizable to me. The Mary who emerged wasn’t the meek and assenting milquetoast of old sermons– she was that girl from the Tanner painting– she who stares at the column of light as if God is playing a really uncomfortable trick on her, and had best be explaining himself, because what the heck, YHWH?

behold, the painting!

Her response to the angel isn’t “Of course!” Her response is “how can this be?”. In other words, “check your facts, you angelic loon.”. She’s not blindly assenting, she questions the crap out of that guy. THEN and only Then, does she agree, but when she does, she doesn’t just say Yeah, ok. It’s a conditional assent– let it be to me according to your word. This is not an “anything goes, you’re the boss,” sort of assent. The deal has been explained satisfactorily, and Mary is agreeing to its terms. (How are you, first century agency?)
And THEN. Then, Mary launches into the most kick-ass, non-meek section of scripture that there freaking is. She goes to visit Elizabeth, and in greeting, sings the Magnificat.
And spoiler alert, in so doing, she pretty much sums up the entirety of the gospel message. What Jesus will get tossed out of the synagogue for saying in his first sermon, Mary lets loose with right here.

He has looked with favor on his lowly handmaid, from this day forth all generations shall call me blessed. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts– He has shown strength with his arm, he has cast down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted the humble and weak, he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.

This is not meek language, this isn’t a submissive speech. This Mary isn’t sitting quietly in a corner, waiting for God to tell her what’s going to happen next– she’s boldly proclaiming her experience of a world flipped upside down, and her central role in it.
Right here, this is where this version of Mary takes form. Not so much the cardboard figure of purity, but the complex icon of what it means to be a human, interacting with God.

Mary is us, complexity and all. Being confused by God, being delighted by God, being frustrated by God, wishing God would stop already with the annoying little parables and just say something straight out like a normal person…Mary is the human caught up in the dance of divinity, with all the emotions, joys, and struggles that come along with it.

And as we watch Mary’s journey through the gospel, God is ok with full range emotions, Jesus is ok with normal humans. God chose the lowly, the normal, the talkative teenage girls– not the precious moments figurines. (why make her into what she isn’t, what we can’t be?). God used her as she was. God needs us as we are. Not as what someone else tells us we should be. But just as we are, in all our human complexity.

And the intriguing thing about Mary is that despite our constant tendency to shrink her down to size, when she appears in visions, it’s in the terms of those she appears to. To Bernadette at Lourdes, Mary appeared as a French teenager. To Juan Diego at Guadalupe, she appeared as an Aztec princess.

Because really? The example of Mary remains true– God doesn’t need Precious Moments figurines, or marionettes. God needs us. The angel informs Mary “With God, all things are possible”. In other words, you’re in this too, kid. Just as you are.

So hail Mary, full of grace and spunk. And teach us to sing along with you, as best we can. Amen.

This sermon was partly inspired by a series of icons by Br. Robert Lentz OFM, like this one. In Latin American liberation theology, oddly, Mary is often overlooked, despite the widespread devotion to her there. If I ever write a PhD dissertation, it will be on this. Anyway! This icon! Mary as the Mother of the Disappeared–Those taken by the death squads in the 1970s..

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My God can evidently beat up your God

This past week, the governor of Texas released a television ad which revealed some startling and disturbing news:  children can no longer celebrate Christmas openly.

I’m glad he informed me of this, as I was all set to proceed as normal with Advent 3 and Advent 4, before celebrating my merry little way into Christmas Eve and Christmas 1.  (Possibly I might go nuts and break loose with the Feast of the Holy Name.  Who knows?  I’m unpredictable!)  But thank God for you, Rick Perry!  Who knows what horrors might have befallen me had I proceeded?  Fire from the sky, locusts, plagues, mass chaos, cats befriending dogs, etc, etc.  (Also, suddenly my schedule just opened way up.  Drinks, anyone?)
Is it possible Rick Perry is the Grinch and I have failed to notice up til now?
(A more pressing question: please God, does this make Rick Santorum Max the dog?  Because that would explain so. very. much.)
It’s possible that this has escaped Rick Perry’s notice til now, but there do exist people who choose to either not celebrate Christmas, or to celebrate it differently than he does.  (The same goes for Easter, actually.  Also, Maundy Thursday.  Seriously, Newt Gingrich, anytime you want to spearhead a Catholic-politician movement to widen the federal recognition of such an important religious holiday as Maundy Thursday, bring it on.)
So people celebrate it differently.  Or don’t celebrate it.  And in the mind of Rick Perry, Bill O’Reilly, etc, this creates a war on Christmas.  This is puzzling.  Do holiday trees invalidate the birth of Christ?  Does saying ‘Season’s Greetings!” one too many times cancel out the Incarnation?
What sort of flimsy, wishy-washy Christmas is that?
Once God breaks into creation, God doesn’t drift back out again, like Casper the Highly-Suggestible-and-Holy Ghost.  You can’t take the Christ out of Christmas.
Christ is in this thing permanently.
Which, if you ask me, is sort of the whole point.

And one returned

In the ordination vows, as all ordained folk know, there exists an infamous line: “you are to carry out all other duties that may be assigned to you from time to time.”  It’s in the Examination, during the Ordination of a Deacon, and, since ordination is an indelible mark, promises made here are boom!  Permanent!  It is an unassuming little promise, but as aged ordained folks will tell you, this is the promise where They Get You.  This is the promise that ends, five years later, with once-chipper-young ordinand fixing the plumbing in all 5 of the church’s bathrooms and wondering what on earth happened?

That’s the less-fun scenario.  That’s the story told by grizzled elders who, more than likely, did not go on CREDO retreats or pay attention in Fresh Start, so they did not take their most important Day Off.
The more-fun scenarios are ones like I’ve had:  improvising a funeral for a dearly-departed dead bird (RIP Davey).  Unpacking the theological significance of ‘Arrested Development’.  Being given a cat as a thank-you by a parish.
And the most rewarding of all: Periodically I get to be Official Church Presence at something.
This past week was Coming Out Week at NAU.  For the first time at NAU, the university also has an Office of GLBTQ Affairs to coordinate said week, and its activities.  (Give thanks, all readers.  Our president presumably saw a calendar, noticed it was 2011, and decided to Get somewhat With It.)  Two of my colleagues and I noticed this development with glee, and asked nicely if we could do something having to do with inclusive Christianity.  (For such a thing exists, don’t you know.)
The result was a brown-bag discussion this past Thursday, on churches that took an inclusive view of the GLBTQ community.  One of my colleagues had an emergency at the last minute, and couldn’t come, leaving me and my Lutheran colleague to hold down the fort.
I made cookies, and wore my collar, and heels.  (Because when you want to convince people that God does, in fact, love them, you should wear proof that someone thinks you capable to opine for God on occasion, and bring proof that someone loves them enough to bake them Diabetes in Disk-form.)
We expected that we’d get maybe 6 people.  We got over 20.  All talking, all engaged.  We talked for over an hour and a half.  Everything from “how do you approach that verse in Romans?”  to “how do you counteract the media image of Christians as Westboro Baptist?” It was an extremely thoughtful and earnest group of college students.
I didn’t say anything earth-shattering.  However, I did get to be the one to sit there in a collar, and say, “Hi!  I, as an Official Christian-type Person, would like to tell you that the church I represent does not believe that you are going to hell.  We believe strongly, in fact, that God loves you just as much as anyone else, and that happens to be quite a lot.  God actually created you just as you are, intentionally!   And if I am the first person to tell you this about God, then I’d sort of like to stomp on the former religious leaders in your life with the high-heeled shoes I have worn specifically for this purpose.”***
After it was over, and I was packing up the left over cookies, one girl stayed behind.  She came up to me and my Lutheran colleague and thanked us, “You’ve entirely changed my image of the church,” she said, “All I’ve heard before this was negativity and hate.  I didn’t think I would find a place that would accept me, but I heard something different today.  So I wanted to say thank you.”
Sometimes my job is complicated–budgets and funding sources and pastoral care issues and family systems theory.
Sometimes it is just simply awesome.
This was one of the simply awesome days.
***I DID NOT ACTUALLY SAY THESE THINGS.  I used other words.  And I did NOT threaten physical violence, to which I am opposed quite passionately.  PLEASE don’t actually stomp on people with high heels on.  I don’t advise it, no matter how whacked-out their theology may be.

Love Wins!: Questions at Heaven’s Door, Ch 1-2

Because of how the first chapter is laid out, I’m combining the first and second chapters of “Love Wins”.  Basically, the first chapter, entitled, ‘What about the flat tire?’ poses a series of questions which the book, as a whole, will answer, or attempt to answer.  (Spoiler alert.)

They are good questions, they need to be asked, and, again, Rob Bell is doing a noble, martyr-like  job in bringing them up to his community.  (Have you seen his YouTube page’s comment section recently?  His community hasn’t been so friendly.)
That being said, the questions are predicated again on assumptions  that aren’t examined.  Nearly all the situations Bell brings up are based around the idea of how you properly believe. What’s the ‘age of accountability’?  How do you know when you’ve sincerely said the Jesus prayer, and how do you know it’s worked? How are you saved, “saved” meaning “going to heaven to be with God and Jesus after you die”?
All of these are specifically Protestant concerns– more than that, they are 20-21st century American evangelical Protestant concerns.  (Fun experiment– ask any Eastern Orthodox Christian about any of what I just wrote.  See?  To make up for the fact that you just ran an experiment on them, in a gesture of ecumenical friendliness, promise to never again say the Filioque clause.).
In Bell’s defense, he makes the point that all of these things are, in face, problematic.  Have to say a prayer to “be saved”?  Ok, but what if you say it wrong?  Or you didn’t understand it?  And he’s right.  His questions are good.
My problem with what he does is that he doesn’t really deconstruct the assumptions– he just pokes them a bit.  He never asks what ‘being saved’ might mean, or, hey, how it probably means something really different for us today in middle-upper class suburban churches than it did for persecuted minority Christians in the Roman Empire.  Or for a slave in the American South in 1860.
Which gets me into chapter 3: ‘Here is the New There”. Which is about specifically about heaven.
:: takes deep breath::  When I read this chapter through the first time, I read the whole thing, getting progressively more excited, got to the end, and got really annoyed and frustrated.  Here’s why.
In Ch. 1, Bell poses all these questions about how someone gets saved, based on biblical quotes, wherein he conflates phrases like ‘kingdom of heaven’, ‘forgiveness of sins’, ‘age to come’ and ‘salvation’.  Which all mean entirely different things in context.  ‘Kingdom of heaven’, for example, means about 20 different things in Matthew, and that’s being conservative.
In Ch.2,entitled “Here is the New There,” Bell actually addresses that.  (Hooray!)  He points out that for a large part of the 1st century community, saying ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ was another way of referring to God, and the reign of God on earth.  So there’s that.  (Hooray again.)
He also points out that it’s not like Jesus’s community had a clear concept of heaven-as-otherwordly-and-floaty-on-a-cloud.  Heaven, for them, was the complete manifestation of God’s will.  As he puts it.  Heaven, then, is achieved not so much by dying and getting transported somewhere else, but by doing God’s will on earth, and by participating in God’s recreation of the earth.
He follows this up by talking about how there are tons of different dimensions that we simultaneously participate in (via string theory), and heaven can be more real to us (sort of like being in love) than our present reality.
Ok.  It’s not that I disagree with Bell.  I don’t.  It’s just that I don’t think he goes quite far enough with some of the ideas he puts out there.  He’s pulling his punches.
If you are going to start to deconstruct the biblical passages that undergird ‘salvation theology’ then do it.  Tell me what exactly salvation means for Jesus. (Hint:  Jesus never says–Have a personal relationship with me.  We have jackets!)  Bell starts by pointing out that for Jesus’ community, it’s not otherworldly, but that also means it was material and physical.  It was in the here and now.
That is a huge statement to make, and it needs to be unpacked and explained, especially for an evangelical Protestant audience.  (Trust me.  I said that last night to a Lutheran college group reading this book and everyone stared at me.  Fun times!)  Bell never quite gets there.  He opens the door, but never goes through.
Also, an aspect that Bell never addresses is the communal aspect of heaven.  He brings up the story of the rich man and Jesus (Rich man asks Jesus how to enter heaven).  Salvation, being physical and not otherworldly-on-a-cloud-someplace, is also not just between me and Jesus.  When the rich man asks what he must do, Jesus responds by listing the commandments that have to do with our relationship to other people:  (don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, etc).  Salvation depends on others in a real way.  We are saved for each other, not from each other.

Why we should not emulate the Borg

This week I got to stay in Flagstaff again, and preach at Epiphany, the local Episcopal church. Hooray! While I enjoy driving all over Arizona, it is also nice to stay home every so often.
Especially when I-40 is closed because of fire again. (Ah, summer in the high desert!)
Here is what I said. And the following things should be noted:
1. I got my brother’s permission for citing our email discussion.
2. The Hafiz poem is from a book called “The Gift”, translated by Daniel Ladinsky. Highly recommended.

Easter 7, Year A
John 17:1-11, Acts 1:6-14

My brother, Aaron, is a comedy writer in Los Angeles. We are very different people– we don’t even really look alike. To meet us, most people wouldn’t guess we were related at all. When I went out to visit him and our two cousins in March, our cousin Elliot asked me if I played basketball in school. Aaron and I looked at each other and laughed for several minutes.
In school, Aaron played three varsity sports, including basketball. Meanwhile, I wrote a scathing op-Ed piece in the school newspaper, partially aimed at the misdoings of the basketball team. Aaron helpfully disavowed being related to me.

This week, I sent Aaron a link to a newly-founded ‘women’s entertainment and humor destination!’ website. What did he think? Because I didn’t think it was funny, and I wanted to know if I was missing something, and he’s usually good at this sort of thing.
Aaron responded the way I expected him to: with a long commentary about women in comedy, and a comprehensive review of the website in question. What I did not expect was the final note at the end: ” you’re a girl. I’m not. Respond to this with thoughts!”.
Aside from his sudden failure at writing like someone with a bachelors in communications, I was impressed with my brother.
Generally, his approach to the world is pretty know-it-all. But here he was, admitting that there was going to be a difference between how he perceived something, and how I did, and that difference was important. That difference could even be creative.

The readings for today center around an idea of wished for unity. At the end of his prayer, Jesus prays for the disciples to be one. As he is about to ascend to God, the disciples anxiously inquire of Jesus if this will finally be the time when Jesus will restore the one true united kingdom to Israel under the one true unified God. Unity all over the place.

It’s such an attractive idea, unity in God, unity with each other. No strife or conflict to worry about, everyone agreeing all the time. There’s even a psalm about it. Oh how pleasant it is, exults the psalm, when the people dwell together in unity! It is like oil upon the head, running down upon the beard! Which, I’m assuming, is actually, a more pleasant a thing than it immediately sounds.

How often do we come home at the end of a long day, or better yet, at the end of a church meeting, and dream of a day when everyone will be brought by the power of the Spirit to perfect agreement with everyone else? When we won’t actually have to have meetings anymore, because the perfect solution to each problem will just present itself magically in our minds?
When denominations will disappear, because, as an old professor of mine used to say, everyone will eventually give up, and become Episcopalian as God intended? Oh happy day!

Unity! Is this what we picture when we say unity? But, notice!
When Jesus asks for his disciples to all be one, he conditions it. He says, as the Father and I are one.
And now that’s a tricky image, isn’t it? What is the relationship like between Jesus and God?
Jesus and God, the Father and the Son, are close, but they were by no means the EXACT same entity. They didn’t subsume each other.
They were different. They are different.
While both of them are God, they are still different, unique. So much so that Christianity doesn’t work if they suddenly start to merge into each other.
Now, At a certain point, we need them to be the same. We need Jesus to be the Christ, to be God made flesh, to be God’s way to experience our human life. We need them to be the same.
But at another point, we need Jesus to be Jesus, and God to be God. We need God to create the heavens and the earth, and we need Jesus to wander around down here explaining it to us, and telling stories, making God reachable.
Without the difference, it doesn’t work. Without the sameness, it doesn’t work either.

But Oftentimes, we get fixated on similarity. We become convinced that unity is the only way to go, and that if we don’t achieve perfect similarity, we have failed. If everyone doesn’t think like us, we are failing, if there is conflict, we have screwed up, if there is disagreement, or strife, or whatever, we have done something wrong. We confuse unity with conformity, and the two are not the same. As Christians, if our model for human relationships is the Trinity, then we need to remember that the Trinity is not conformed to one another, and it would not work if it was. We don’t worship a weird version of the Borg. Praise God.

We worship a triune God. We worship unity in diversity. We worship a God who is complicated and multi-voiced through the centuries. And this God teaches us that each individual voice needs to be more than tolerated: they need to be celebrated.

Our different perspectives are valuable, not just a fact. They are gifts of God, given by the Spirit for our enrichment, for the benefit of the whole. Those aspects of ourselves that make us different also lead us to see aspects of the world that others cannot, movements of the Spirit that others miss. That’s important. That is necessary. That is necessary if the Body of Christ is to function as a full Body, and not just a disembodied head, or a dismembered arm.

And though the fact that our differences lead us to see the world distinctly, often leads to clashes and conflicts, that’s ok. If the spirit can speak through our differing voices, our distinct perspectives, then the spirit is going to speak through our conflicts too.
Sometimes the people of God disagree. Sometimes they do this loudly and vigorously. And sometimes, unfortunately, they do this in not so kind ways. Conflict isn’t antithetical to being a good Christian– you can have conflict and still have unity.

Because, in the end: What gives unity isn’t similarity, and it isn’t perfect agreement, and it isn’t, most certainly, forced acquiescence. What gives unity is simple: Unity is found in love.

Jesus and God and the Spirit are bound in love. The perfect sort of love that recognizes the unshakable, unbreakable image of God in the other. That honors the other, and promises that despite disagreement, the relationship will not end. Love: patient, kind, unselfish and unfaltering. The sort of love that we find in God is the sort of love we are called to cultivate for all people on earth. That sort of unbounded, unbroken love flowing out from God and uniting us with every living thing.

That is the love in which we find ourselves, and all of creation already enclosed, so long as we open our hands to embrace it. As the poet Hafiz said: out of a great need, we are all holding hands and climbing, not loving is a letting go. Listen! The terrain around here is far too dangerous for that.

Amen.

Love Wins: And so do tiny sentences, evidently.

Remember that time I asked if y’all would be interested in my rambling thoughts on Rob Bell’s new book? Well, being as no one talked me out of it, I hereby begin a weekly series that shall be known as:
Love Wins! (You’d think more people would be happy.)

Part 1: Preface: Millions of Us
First off, let’s get this out of the way:
The layout is driving me up the wall.
I mean, really.
(Whole thing?
It reads like this.
Tiny little lines.
And questions? So many little questions?
Have you noticed?)

Either I am not trusted enough to read two complete sentences in a row, or he’s going for something akin to oral presentation in a written form (difficult to believe, given the overall vocabulary level of the book– that generally takes a lot of thinking/reading out loud in your head) or, option three, he’s segueing into a pseudo- poetical form, and trying to make the reader feel deep and insightful. Actually this would go along with a theory I’m beginning to develop about the way Bell is approaching this book, and its topic. More on that later.

Bell opens the book with stating something that should be apparent, but might not be, for the average reader of this book: Jesus’s central message is about God’s expansive love, but this central message frequently gets lost when surrounded by talk of heaven vs hell, and fiery damnation. So then, our struggle now is whether this heaven and hell stuff really is central (& biblical) to the message, or whether it is adiaphora. He points out that arguing and dissent is not new in Christianity, and that, in fact, the Bible records lots of debate, even with God. and, he argues that nothing he is proposing is new– it’s all been said before in the course of Christian history.

A few things:
Hooray for Rob Bell, given that he is a prominent evangelical pastor, and he is confronting this, most central, and most thorniest of issues for the Protestant-y community. That takes courage, and given the book’s reception, even before it hit shelves, he deserves credit for raising the issue. That being said…..

From reading the book, I am getting conflicting messages. On the one hand, Bell explicitly tells the reader that this isn’t new. On the other hand, the language he uses and the entire set up of the book suggests over and over that this is SHOCKING, SURPRISING, INFLAMMATORY information, that I need to be led to gently, lest my head explode. The text layout (as I mentioned before) strikes me as odd on this count as well. All short little sentences and lots and lots of questions. What are you trying to ease me into? Why am I going to need to be eased into this?!? Good Lord, man, WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?!?
At no point are there footnotes, citations, even explicit biblical verses (just descriptions). I’d expect if he’s trying to convince me of something that’s been out there before….that he’d show me these preexisting ideas. The way it reads now, despite the assertion of the preface, it seems like this is an idea, the rightness of which, has just occurred to him. (If so, honestly, even more credit to him. Changing like that is not easy. But in that case, he should cop to that. He didn’t just uncover the idea of universalism, bless his heart.).

Also, it’s striking to me, just in reading the preface, just how very assumed- evangelical this is. Which is not to say that it’s bad. It’s not. There are just many assumptions just under the surface that I don’t happen to share, being a non-evangelical, and not-so-Protestanty. For example, he makes the assumption that there is essentially a single story of Jesus unambiguously and harmoniously recorded in the bible, and that this Jesus can be easily and unequivocally understood by all people everywhere with minimal confusion.
Like I said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. My first reaction is that it’s sort of sweet, really. (Awww! Evangelical modernist assumptions!)
But it’s a big, huge assumption to make, and it guides a lot of his thinking. So, for example, he just goes ahead and cites Jesus, without making allowances for which gospel a parable appears in, what community wrote it or what their needs were, or (and this is sort of a biggie) the 2nd Temple Jewishness of everyone involved. This will come up more later, but suffice it to say that: Assumptions! Rob Bell has them.
As do we all.

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.