Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Sensitivity of Your Pastor's Wages

Believe me, I've heard them all about my workload as a solo pastor:

"So...what is it that you do all week?"

"It must be nice having a one day workweek."

"How could you not have any time this week for (fill in the blank)?!"

"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a pastor too because I didn't want to work a lot!"

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Now, my workweek is usually a 40 hour one to start as a baseline, and ironically, Sunday is sometimes the day I work the fewest number of hours (though, as any preaching pastor will attest to, Sundays are the most demanding day in terms of energy).  But I work Mondays through Thursdays in addition to Sunday, and usually, that includes at least one evening per week for teaching Bible study and sometimes a second evening a week for other church events (music jams, wedding rehearsals, and the like), so 40 hours tends to be the minimum.  Most pastors, in fact, probably work more hours than I do: 90 percent of us work a fifty hour workweek or more.

Increasingly, though, not all of those hours are actually coming in the service of parish ministry.  More and more of us are serving churches that cannot afford a full time pastor's wages, and thus must work another job in addition to pastoring in order to adequately provide for their household.  The Atlantic characterized this arrangement in a no nonsense way: "churches and seminaries have a euphemistic term for it: bi-vocational ministry."

That Atlantic article got shared around on my Facebook feed yesterday by several of my friends and colleagues, and for good reason, too: this is their livelihood (and mine) we are talking about here.

And that's no small thing when you consider that many (though certainly not all) had to earn master's degrees in order to serve in the ministries we currently are at...and some larger parishes will even require that their senior pastor have a doctorate!

There's a double edged sword to all of this as well, because while a pastor may well be correct in believing that s/he is underpaid, that belief can quickly transform into a martyr complex of, "Well, they just don't appreciate me or all the things I do for them."

However...I do think that this can be avoided (or potentially prevented altogether, really) by, well, paying your pastor fairly.  The Atlantic article I link to above notes that the median pastor's annual wages are $43,800, and that is only slightly higher than my own gross annual wages of $42,000.  Considering that I have less experience than most pastors, that's reasonable.

The rub, though, comes in through another factor that the Atlantic cites and offers a link to: giving to churches as a percentage of income by congregants is down from 3.1 percent in 1968 to 2.3 percent today (though the traditional standard for giving to church is a tithe, 10 percent, but that's another post for another time).  Combined with the well documented decrease in church attendance across the board, it's not a matter of rocket science to understand that with church incomes stagnating, clergy wages (and the ability of churches to afford clergy to begin with) are likewise stagnating or decreasing.

Thanks to the Great Recession, wages across the board have stagnated, and most of the jobs created during the recovery from it are part time.  In that respect, we clergy are in some ways living with the exact same consequences as our fellow Christians from the Great Recession.

But unlike other jobs, ours is emphatically not a punch the clock sort of gig.  We work evenings (see above).  We work weekends (again, see above).  And we're on call for pastoral emergencies 24/7, even on our days off.  As one of my colleagues (who shall remain anonymous) said to me when their church moved them to part time status, "There's no such thing as part time ministry, only part time wages."

We are, then, caught in a conundrum of working a job that requires uncommon and sometimes extensive hours, but at lower wages than the already modest pay being offered to clergy.  And that is, I think, probably one of the newest and biggest reasons why wages are such a sensitive topic between churches and their pastors today.

I promise this: we, my fellow pastors and I, are not in this line of work to get rich (the cartoon at the top I just added because I thought it looked goofy).  We understood that we were likely leaving some earning potential on the table in order to say yes to God's call to each of us.  We knew what we were signing up for.

But that doesn't mean that clergy compensation needs to be a topic that is danced around or only tackled in furtive whispers amid the rumor mill.  It is part and parcel of being the church and of building up the kingdom.

And if we are simultaneously honest and sensitive with ourselves and with each other about that reality, there need not be resentment on either side of the open table that we sit at by right of being the church.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

(photo credit: cdn.graphicsfactory.com)

Monday, July 21, 2014

On Being Silly Putty in Evil Hands: The Ungodly Tragedy of MH17

I have written extensively here on the blog in the past on my Armenian American identity (especially as it relates to the Armenian Genocide of World War I), but one of the things I haven't really written about much, both because it hasn't overlapped with my blogging interests and because of my general lack of expertise in the area, was (is) Armenia's sovereignty, and the sovereignty (and lack thereof) of other former Eastern Bloc nations, during the 20th and 21st centuries.

Sounds kind of dry, I know, right?

But there's a lot of palace intrigue to it.  Armenia was a part of the Ottoman Empire (the precursor to Turkey) until the empire's defeat in the First World War and subsequent dissolution, at which point Armenia became a nominally independent nation.  Only two years later, though, in 1920, Turkish forces invaded Armenia, forced it to surrender territory it had received through its independence, and taking advantage of that power shift, Soviet Russia annexed Armenia as a Soviet Socialist Republic two years after that, in 1922.  The first independent Armenia of the modern era lived for only four years.

Now, if you were to think that this story shared some noticeable overlaps with the annexation of Crimea in Ukraine by Vladimir Putin's Russia, you'd be right.  Crimea has a majority Russian (as opposed to Ukrainian) population, and Russia, taking advantage of a power gap in the Ukraine, earlier this year supported a referendum in Crimea to annex it to Russia, with nearly 97 percent reportedly voting "yes," although when roughly a quarter of Crimea's population is Ukrainian and probably not bullish on the prospect of Russian governance, well, you read between the lines on that one.

Anyways, the unrest and resulting power vacuums in Ukraine has been something that Putin and the Kremlin have exploited to great effect by aiding pro Russian terrorists (and yes, I think that is an appropriate use of the term) throughout the country, much as Soviet Russia did throughout its history of satellite and proxy territories, and throughout the process of annexing its own Soviet Socialist Republics to make up the eventual USSR.

What does all this history have to do with church and ministry and, well, God?

At worship yesterday, I talked with my congregation a little bit about MH17, the Malaysian Airlines jet that was shot down over Ukraine, by all indications from a weapons system in the possession of pro Russian terrorists.  298 fatalities are the immediate life cost of this bit of evil, and in and of itself, that presents religious concerns.  No person's God should endorse the killing of innocent people, and if someone's God does, then that God is the devil.

But similarly, neither should any person, and certainly any Christian, believe that God calls for the manipulative control over populations of people as though they were playthings in a megalomaniacal quest for evil, and a lot of that has to do with Scripture: from basically the 8th century BCE onward, Israel was treated as one of those playthings to annex by empires bigger than it: the Assyrians, followed by the Babylonians, followed by the Persians, followed by the Greeks, followed by the Romans, followed by the Byzantines, followed by the Arabic and Seljuk Muslims (with only a short intermission for independent rule under the Maccabees in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE).

And this is to say nothing of how torn about early Christians were until the religion was state instituted by Constantine the Great three centuries after Jesus, or of how the Israelites were used by the Egyptians as slave labor in exile in the Exodus story.

To give a more microcosmic example, the shooting down of MH17 is scarcely different from how, in the Old Testament, King Ahab frames the vineyard owner Naboth and eventually has him stoned so that Ahab can take Naboth's land: an innocent man is killed at the whim of a power hungry ruler who wants to annex more land for himself.

All of this is to say: the Judeo Christian heritage is one borne out of literally a millennium or more of being the rope in a terrible game of tug of war between emperors, kings, and violent men of power.  At some point, you would think we would learn that abusing that power for the sake of ego or selfish, nationalistic gain is a sin.

What the shooting down of MH17 has shown is that we either haven't learned that lesson, or we have and very clearly couldn't give a tinker's damn.  We are still treating the lives of others like silly putty in our hands, where the deaths of literally hundreds of people are treated as necessary collateral damage to attaining one's political power aims.

I write this as someone whose people were once that silly putty in the hands of someone evil and more powerful than they: at some point, this has to stop.

I don't know when.

I don't know how.

But what we are doing to each other is not sustainable.

That I know.

I know because God has taught me this.

And God's teachings are what solely remains as perfect in a world that has been battered and beaten and bruised by its own inhabitants.

Let us follow, then, what is perfect.

In memory of the 298 souls killed on MH17, an in the hopes that one day, we will live in the world that Isaiah prophesies, where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears are beaten into pruning hooks, in the hope that one day we will study war no more.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, July 20, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Challenge"

Acts 4:13 to 22

13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. 14 When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15 So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. 16 They said, “What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. 17 But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” 18 So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; 20 for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” 21 After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. 22 For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old. (New Revised Standard Version)



“The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church,” Week Five

What does an impoverished person look like to you?  Or, rather, what do you expect someone who is impoverished to look like?  A beggar on the street corner with a cardboard sign saying, “Anything helps, God Bless?”  A Dickensian street urchin straight out of the pages of Oliver Twist or Bob Crachit’s home?  Or…someone like you, whether because you yourself feel poor or because, much as we might choose to not realize it, poor people really look just like us.

I see these posts get shared on Facebook all the time, where it’s something angry along the lines of, “IF YOU CAN AFFORD TATTOOS AND NICE CLOTHES AND A CELL PHONE, YOU DON’T NEED FOOD STAMPS, SHARE IF YOU AGREE!!!!!!”  And I feel like every time that status update gets shared, or when someone just says something to that effect to another person, a baby kitten bursts into tears.  Because it means we are willfully ignoring what poverty looks like today, as opposed to sixty or a hundred years ago.  According to National Geographic, sixty percent of all Americans who didn’t have enough food either were or lived with someone who worked full time.  In other words, we might associate going hungry with being unemployed, but a supermajority of hungry Americans disproves that belief by their very existence.

And I imagine we in the church are partly to blame for this.  I mean, we’re some of the same ones who send out fundraising appeals with images of the starving child with the distended belly, someone who looks exactly like who we’d expect to be malnourished.  And that isn’t to deny that little one’s reality at all, it’s to say that we pretend that their reality is the only reality for a hungry person.  We deny the reality of what hunger looks like in other people, and not just physical hunger, but spiritual hunger as well!  And us ignoring that hunger (in all its forms) is but one example in our lives (and in the fundamental mission of the church) where we end up acting just like the religious leaders in this story from Acts 4…whom, of course, we are not supposed to act just like!

This is no longer really a new sermon series for us, it is a sermon series that has been ongoing now for a while!  We began it several weeks ago for two reasons.  One is that the day of Pentecost (the day when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the remaining Apostles) fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, when we preachers preach on Pentecost, we just do that one story about the Holy Spirit, but then we go on to something else, neglecting the many amazing stories that follow.  The other is that it’s now officially summer, and summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  The Gospels have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts.  Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!  So this is a sermon series meant to take us through a Biblical sequel to the Gospels in addition to picking up where the Pentecost story leaves off, and we began with the massive response to Peter’s first sermon: a conversion of 3,000 people.  Since then, we have also seen Peter’s first healing miracle followed by Peter’s second sermon, and today, we see the first explicit pushback to those deeds by the religious authorities in Jerusalem: Peter and John are arrested, imprisoned, and interrogated, leading up to Peter’s inspired reply in last week’s passage, and to the religious leaders’ response to Peter’s reply, which is what we are looking at today.

Now, the religious leaders begin by harping at something that I highlighted last week: that Peter and John are, in their eyes, “uneducated and ordinary men.”  Peter and John are illiterate fishermen from the boondocks of Galilee, not from the metropolitan surroundings of Jerusalem like the religious teachers are, and it is clear that there is a certain amount of regional prejudice at work here, just like here in the States when we make assumptions about people from anywhere else…Portland, Seattle, New York…Kansas!  Anywhere.  It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it is easy because it is so tempting.

And it is telling that this argument, the “they’re uneducated and ordinary” argument, is the only argument they have to hang their hat on.  Standing beside them is the formerly crippled man whom Peter had healed in the previous chapter of Acts, proof positive of God’s presence and blessings as revealed by Jesus’ apostle.  They furtively admit as much to themselves: “a notable sign has been done through them (Peter and John), we cannot deny it.”

In short, the religious leaders are suffering from a bias that really, many of us suffer from today: a bias against reality.  They have been presented ironclad evidence to the contrary, yet still they desperately, tenaciously, and frankly dangerously cling to their original position because it suits them and their selfish interests, in the face of their stated mission to be spiritually enriching teachers.

The religious leaders have become honorary members of the Flat Earth society, if you will.  They’re the forefathers to what, honestly, the Christian Church itself would one day become: when the scientist Galileo Galilei stood before a panel of canon judges on accusations of heresy because he dared to conclude that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around, he had a simple, elegant retort of only three words: Eppur si muove.  Yet it moves.

In other words: no matter what you believe, reality is still, well, real.  You can believe the earth is flat and that the sun revolves it all you want, but that does not change the unbending reality of matters, that the earth still moves around the sun.

That’s the conundrum, the challenge, which the religious leaders find themselves in, and so they decide to level the playing field by issuing a challenge to the church in return: Okay, you can say a miracle has taken place here, but you cannot speak of it in the name of Jesus.  You can believe that the miracle happened because of sheer dumb luck, or magic, or anything whose name doesn’t begin with a J and rhymes with Croesus.  You can believe that, but it does not change the unbending reality that it was indeed the divinity, power, and love of Jesus Christ that made this man whole.

And holy cow, think of the ways we choose to deny reality today, in a wide variety of ways, and sometimes claiming to do so in the name of God.  When 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is real, and we still refuse to accept it, even though God charged Adam with the responsible care of the earth in Genesis 2, well, eppur si muove.  Yet it moves.  Or, rather, yet it warms.

When the consensus of psychologists and psychiatrists everywhere is that being gay is something we are born with, like being left or right handed, rather than something we can change, and we still have Christians and churches who try to “pray the gay away” through destructive counseling sessions and even exorcisms, we are ignoring reality at the staggering price of gay and lesbian youths being three or four times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers.

And when statistical evidence, hard math, tells us that most people who go hungry don’t belong to that boogeyman demographic that we label as “moochers” and “freeloaders,” we still hold onto our preconceptions about who is deserving of our charity and who is not based on outward appearances.  We are literally judging a book by its cover.  And we can act like the religious leaders of the New Testament temple all we want, ignoring certain truths because it makes our world more comfortable and less challenging, but we would be wrong for doing so.  We would always be wrong for doing so.

The challenge, our challenge, for ourselves is to not deny our reality.  It is what Peter and John say in rejoinder to the religious leaders challenging them to not mention Jesus anymore: “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”  They cannot keep from speaking about their reality, the reality, that the love of Jesus Christ has caused this lame man to up and walk.

And so they will continue to speak, and preach, and teach that reality, always ready to invade the bubbles that each of us prop up around ourselves to keep that annoying, unfortunate thing called the truth from intruding upon what we may want to be true, but is in fact not.

Where we may most need their counsel and experience…their reality, really…is in those places where we have made bubbles in the name of our faith, or in the name of protecting our faith, as though believing in something at odds with reality somehow helps us in getting to the ultimate reality of heaven.

And this was really one of those weeks where it would have been easier and less painful to believe in some things that weren’t true…that Israel and Palestine are anywhere close to making peace, for example, or that the immigrant children showing up on our southern borders weren’t fleeing some of the most violent, murder prone cities in the entire world.  It is tempting to do that because that makes our world simpler and easier and more comfortable to live in.  It would feel like a bubble.

But God does not, has not, and never promised us a comfortable world to live in.  And to paraphrase the great C.S. Lewis, if all you are looking for from a religion is to feel comfortable, I certainly do not recommend Christianity.

If you are not being challenged at all by your faith, then you may have a little more in common with the temple religious leaders than you might have first thought (again, it’s annoying how that whole truth thing points out stuff we’d rather not recognize!).

But that also means that Peter and John, for all the apostles, for all the church, are speaking directly into your ears today, asking you, pleading with you, beseeching you to no longer deny that which they have come to know.  That which we, by right of our following Jesus, have come to know.

We have seen what we seen.  We know what we know.  And our challenge, the challenge, is to always acknowledge that reality’s ultimate source: God Almighty as revealed by Jesus Christ.

For it is, as the apostles say here, right in God’s sight for us to do so.  May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 20, 2014

Thursday, July 17, 2014

When the Backstory Is Way Less Cool Than the Headline

(Subtitled: Clergy burnout really sucks.)

I saw this article that popped up on Reddit today: AWOL Priest Arrested At Cocaine Party.

Now, because my sense of humor vacillates anywhere between PG and R (depending on the circumstances), my inner comic had a field day with this.  There are potential cracks (pun not entirely intended) to make about the "a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar" premise, magic sacraments, vicars and tarts parties, and so, so much more.  All purely because it is so patently and ridiculously bonkers.  A celebrity or musician gets nicked with that stuff?  We're used to that by now.  But a man of the cloth gets caught in the act of flushing his supply down the john?  That's a steed of a different pigmentation right there.

But then I read the article.  And a far more depressing portrait was painted.  First and foremost, there is a person behind the punchline: Father Stefano Cavalletti.  He has, I would imagine, a father and a mother and friends and colleagues and people who care for him and love him.  And he has a congregation of parishioners who depend on him at the Church of Saint Joseph and Blaise.

None of those networks of support, though, prevented this: "Later, the priest told detectives he had been using cocaine as a self-prescribed remedy against depression since he was found guilty of fraud last year."

The article conveys a brief summary of the fraud conviction (he was given a five month suspended sentence for deceiving an elderly woman into giving him nearly $30,000), but what I want to focus on for a minute is the self prescription part of this.

Now, depression is nothing new as a plague that affects us clergy (nearly half are reported to have suffered from it or burnout so badly that it forced them to take a leave of absence).  And I have striven to write extremely openly about my own past (and present) with major clinical depression here on the blog.  But I also am prescribed a remedy of several different things by several different people: my psychiatrist has prescribed me Prozac, which treats my depression medically, but my remedy also includes regular check ins with both myself and trusted colleagues and mentors who are able to provide some degree of accountability in making sure I don't, you know, go AWOL and start using cocaine to self medicate.

Or bamboozle some poor innocent into giving me the equivalent of nearly eight months of my salary and housing stipend, for that matter.

So, pretty clearly, Father Stefano was (is) suffering from a severe case of clergy burnout even before he got nabbed for coke possession: it takes a particularly burnt out cleric to produce the absence of morals that leads one person to defraud another.

But I can also see how his actions here could represent a cry for help.

Y'all (clergy and non clergy alike, really), if you're suffering from a case of burnout, make your cry for help far before you ever get to such a stage.  Cry out when your friends and family and loved ones can still help when they hear your cry.

This is a screwed up world (a commercial jetliner was taken down, Gaza was invaded, and that's just today) that does its diabolical best at times to screw with us and take us down with it.  That doesn't have to happen to you.  Keep a finger on your own spiritual and moral pulse.  And if you sense yourself beginning to flatline, tell someone.

It's kind of why community exists in the first place.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How My Robotic Vacuum Reminds Me of Church

Yes, you read that title correctly.

My wedding present to Carrie (following in the time honored tradition of my own parents, who buy each other things the other person really wants) was a Neato Signature robotic vacuum whom we promptly named Sven (that's him, over there, the vacuum that looks, as one of my friends pointed out on Facebook, a little like Darth Vader).

The impetus for getting Sven was pretty obvious: neither of us relishes vacuuming, and after watching a couple of video reviews of the Neato line in particular, I thought it would do a much more thorough job than at least I would (Neato vacuums use laser technology to map out the dimensions of a room and then vacuum row by row rather than moving around all over the place like Roombas).

And, as I posted on Facebook, so far, Carrie and I like Sven very much.  Indeed, Carrie thinks I am treating Sven too much like a pet...a "very industrious hamster" in her words.  Mea culpa.

But like I said, we got Sven because we wanted him to do something for us: namely, clean the floors.  And he does that very well.  But he also requires a certain amount of babysitting to avoid getting stuck on cords or getting his brushes caught up in debris.  He does what he is supposed to do extremely well, but we cannot just push a button and let him go on autopilot.

Sound a little like your church to you?

I thought it might.

Each of us who joins a church community does so, I think (whether knowingly or not), with a set of implicit expectations for that church community: to teach them about God as revealed through Jesus, to educate them on Scripture, to be there in times of illness and trouble, to offer fellowship and mission, and so on.

Now, sometimes those expectations are more explicit and cannot be met: one time, I had a husband and wife worshiping with us for the first time with their newborn, and they wanted me to baptize their infant.  After gently explaining that the doctrine of my denomination does not endorse infant baptism (except in emergencies) and that we prefer to have a 'dedication' ceremony (which I offered to do instead) for babies and allow them to make the decision about baptism for themselves when they are older, the couple promptly turned on their heels and left without a word.  I never saw either of them again.

I felt bad that their need wasn't one that I in good conscience could meet, but it was an instructive example for me for how sometimes church is viewed by folks: a place to receive sacraments, yes, but a place to receive them on demand: the idea that you could just press a button and order up a baptism, like pressing a button to start a floor cleaning.

And honestly, that isn't what I think church should be about.  Yes, we are here to offer the sacraments, but I adamantly believe we are here to offer them to individuals, not faceless, generic, persons.  The couple I mention here came to us simply because we were a church: to them, any church would do.

But church isn't like that.  Each parish has its own unique context and characteristics, and one of the things that I absolutely LOVE about the people streaming in as new members has been their thoughtfulness in concluding that this is the church for them.  They let themselves be led by God instead of going on autopilot.

And that's instructive for those of us who have spent our entire lives in church.  It is altogether too easy for us to push a button on Sunday mornings, whirr the church to life, have it do its thing, and then shut it down again for another six days.  Then, after many weeks, months, or years of doing this, we look around and wonder why there is no longer much life to speak of in our churches.

Well...it's because going on autopilot, by definition, takes away the variables and twists and turns.  It goes for the straight line, row by row approach of Sven.  And that isn't necessarily a bad thing at all in short bursts.

But as a long term behavior for churches, it is lethal.

Being led by God and by His spirit ought to be a suitable antidote for the autopilot tendency of churches: after all, an autopilot is something that is inwardly generated (albeit perhaps externally programmed into something).  Being led by God is, by definition, being led by something far beyond yourself.

Which ultimately begs the question: how can your church, or mine for that matter, always ensure it is being led by God and not heading for robot vacuum mode?

I can't tell you the complete answer to that question simply because I don't know it.  But I have come to know parts of the answer.  Prayer is perhaps the biggest, but so too is the ability to, well, shut up and listen.  Just like the roar of a vacuum cleaner drowns out so much other noise, so too do I think we are great in the church at hearing ourselves talk rather than hearing the noise that other people are making.

Or the noise that God is making, for that matter.

There are other parts of that answer, too, but those might be the two parts that I am most sure of by now.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think Sven just got himself caught behind my recliner...

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, July 13, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Cornerstone"

Acts 4:1 to 12

While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple guard, and the Sadducees confronted them. 2 They were incensed that the apostles were teaching the people and announcing that the resurrection of the dead was happening because of Jesus. 3 They seized Peter and John and put them in prison until the next day. (It was already evening.) 4 Many who heard the word became believers, and their number grew to about five thousand. 


 5 The next day the leaders, elders, and legal experts gathered in Jerusalem, 6 along with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and others from the high priest’s family. 7 They had Peter and John brought before them and asked, “By what power or in what name did you do this?” 

8 Then Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, answered, “Leaders of the people and elders, 9 are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? 10 If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! 12 Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.” (Common English Bible)

“The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church,” Week Four

The nine year old boy, dressed simply in a plain t shirt and camo shorts, was so small that he required a milk crate to stand on in order to be seen over the podium in the city council chambers.  But seen he was, and in an extraordinarily powerful way, as the council voted unanimously to temporarily stay a citywide ordinance banning freestanding structures in the front yards of houses.

And why would a nine year old kid care about such an obscure city law?  Well, because he had become enamored with the Little Free Library movement, which strives to place small, mailbox type “libraries,” basically, book depositories, on street corners of residential areas across the country as a means of fostering literacy in children and community in adults.  The entire scheme is dependent on the “take a book, return a book in its place” honor code, and this boy, Spencer, decided, with his parents’ blessing, to build a Little Free Library for himself and his friends and neighbors to enjoy.

Until he and his parents received a cease and desist order from the city of Leawood, Kansas (which, by the by, is right next door to my hometown of Overland Park), saying the Little Free Library violated this obscure ordinance, and must be taken down.  Which led to the boy’s testimony upon a milk crate at a city council meeting last Monday.  Which in turn led to the council remedying what was, originally, a rather heartless rejection of a young boy’s attempts to simply better his community.  And in reading about Spencer’s initial rejection by his hometown, I reached immediately for the verse that Peter recites here, which was cited by Jesus before him, and was in turn written into the Psalms before Jesus ever arrived: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

The library that was once rejected has become a little boy’s cornerstone.  How amazing that truly is.

This is a new sermon series for us, and it is a sermon series that we begin today for two reasons.  One is that the day of Pentecost (the day when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the remaining Apostles) fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, when we preachers preach on Pentecost, we just do that one story about the Holy Spirit, but then we go on to something else, neglecting the many amazing stories that follow.  The other is that it’s now officially summer, and summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  The Gospels have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts.  Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!  So this is a sermon series meant to take us through a Biblical sequel to the Gospels in addition to picking up where the Pentecost story leaves off, and we began with the massive response to Peter’s first sermon: a conversion of 3,000 people.  Since then, we have also seen Peter’s first healing miracle followed by Peter’s second sermon, and today, we see the first explicit pushback to those deeds by the religious authorities in Jerusalem: Peter and John are arrested, imprisoned, and interrogated, leading up to Peter’s inspired reply in verses 8 to 12.

Now, the basic plot of Acts 4 should be pretty familiar to us: a religious teacher is in Jerusalem, the religious teacher does and says amazing things, and the religious teacher soon gets arrested for it.

That’s exactly what happens to Jesus in the Passion.  It is what happens to Peter and John as well, albeit with different short term ending (but ultimately, a similar long term ending for Peter, as he is eventually martyred via crucifixion some 30 years after the timeline that Acts of the Apostles covers).  But how Peter responds to his arrest, imprisonment, and interrogation is profoundly different from how Jesus responded to His.

If you recall, Jesus was almost completely silent throughout the interrogations of both Caiaphas, the high priest, and Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, breaking that silence only to confirm His status as the Son of God.  Peter, on the other hand, is inspired by the Holy Spirit to make a rather profound declaration about this Jesus who had remained silent.  What makes this contrast even more striking is that when Jesus did in fact engage the temple authorities who persecuted Him, He often did so in riddles, parables, and Socratic dialogue in order to trap His opponents (like when He asks for a denarius coin when asked whether to pay taxes to Caesar or not in order to discredit the temple authorities who are asking Him this). 

And that contrast is an appropriate one: Jesus uses wit, cleverness, and a divine amount of foresight to discredit his questioners.  Peter, on the other hand, is not divine…he is a humble fisherman whose name means “Rock,” or even “Rockhead” (like “blockhead” in Peanuts!), and so his defense, rather than relying on wit, simply barrels right over his questioners with its directness, laying blame directly on them for abusing their authority to have Jesus crucified.  Jesus was the type to slip away from crowds completely unnoticed.  Peter, had the technology been available to him, would probably have preferred to drive a Mack truck through the gates to escape the crowds.

In other words, Peter is a very different man compared to his teacher.  Which perhaps ought not to surprise us: Plato differed from Socrates, Alexander differed from Aristotle, and so too does Peter differ from Jesus.  But being his own person does not exclude Peter from keeping Jesus as the, as he puts it, cornerstone of his faith in God.

That term, cornerstone, in verse 11 did not, as I said at the beginning, originate with Peter, or even with Jesus.  It originated with Psalm 118, which tradition says that David, the second king of Israel and progenitor of the Davidic familial line which Jesus Himself belongs to, wrote.  And even if, realistically, Psalm 118 might have been anonymously written, you can understand how tradition would ascribe the psalm to David precisely because of verse 27, which is the verse that Jesus cites in Luke 20 and the verse that Peter cites here.

David was once the cornerstone that a builder had at one point rejected.  The prophet Samuel had come to the estate of David’s father, Jesse, on God’s command that there, he would discover the next king of Israel.  One by one Jesse’s older sons came before Samuel, and each time, Samuel was convinced that this was the man God had chosen to lead Israel.  And each time, God said no.

Until he got to the youngest, littlest son.  Until he got to the proverbial runt of the litter.  Until he got to David.  And then God said a resounding, YES!  And Samuel swallowed whatever disbelief he may have harbored and anointed David the future king of Israel, and in so doing, turning that young boy into the cornerstone upon which an entire dynasty, kingdom, and unified nation would be built.

And then, a full millennium after David, comes Jesus Himself.  Born to dirt poor parents in a freaking barn after they were turned away from an inn, the baby who was rejected would grow into the man who was once more rejected, who would resurrect into the Christ who was, is, and will forever be the cornerstone of our faith and the faith of literally millions upon millions of people.  Bible professor Paul Walaskay could not put it better: “Peter identified Jesus as a stone that might have been rejected as ordinary and useless, but instead was chosen as the cornerstone of God’s work toward a redeemed universe.”

And one of those millions upon millions, Peter, would in turn be the cornerstone himself, for, in Jesus’ own words in Matthew 16 after Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God: you are the rock upon which I shall build my church.

The cornerstone, in effect, on which the church was built.  A stone that once more builders are rejecting by arresting him and imprisoning him and questioning him with what was surely the utmost hostility is in the process of becoming the cornerstone of Christ’s brainchild: the Christian Church.

Despite how different he was from Jesus.  Despite how he had once denied Jesus.  Despite the fact that really, his name of Peter, of Rock, was probably kinda given as a commentary on his intelligence, or lack thereof.  Despite all of these things, the stone, the rock, has become the cornerstone.

You may feel like Peter or Jesus in this way…perhaps possessed of no one outstanding, savant like gift, feeling ordinary and useless, rejected by others and by the world because they did not hold you in any esteem.  It’s sadly far too easy to end up feeling worthless in a world where we spend way too much crucifying each other and not enough time resurrecting each other, where we spend too much energy burying one another and not enough energy lifting each other up out of the muck and the mud and the mess that our lives can, and do, become.  And when that happens, it becomes far too easy to see ourselves as worthless at just about anything!  For whenever that has happened to you by someone else, especially by someone in the church or claiming to act on behalf of Jesus Christ, I am so, so sorry.  That is not what we are meant to be about.  That is not what we are called to.

Because every once in a while, we reverse course.  We stop, realize what we have done, and we turn ourselves around.  The Leawood city council realized it, and decided to elevate a nine year old boy whose inarguably noble intention was simply to better his neighborhood.  Where in your life will you realize it?  Where have you been presented with a cornerstone upon which to help build your life and rejected it out of hand?  More the point, where have you actually offered yourself as a cornerstone for someone else, as opposed to offering yourself as a demolition ball or a stick of TNT?

Because Peter doesn’t refer to Jesus in terms of destruction…the holy dynamite our Lord and Savior is emphatically not.  The cornerstone, though, he emphatically is, and will forever be.  My cornerstone.  Your cornerstone.  Our cornerstone.

And as Peter bravely proclaims here to the temple authorities, in that divine cornerstone’s name you will find salvation.


By God’s grace, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 13, 2014

Thursday, July 10, 2014

This cartoon says it all...

I'll be talking more about this in my sermon on Sunday, but this is sometimes how I feel we do church: being interested more in ourselves, and in so doing we keep Jesus out.  When we start doing this, we are fast becoming the builders who end up rejecting the cornerstone that Peter speaks of during his interrogation in Acts 4...which, like I said, is what I'll be preaching on this Sunday.

I'm looking forward to it, but this is definitely also a challenging sermon.  I almost never talk about my sermons to anyone before they're given (part of that has to do with my latent insecurities that, after five years of regular preaching, are still very much present, but part of that also has do with the fact that sometimes, the Spirit calls me to make some changes to the message after I have already written it), but this is one that is finding itself bubbling up well before Sunday!

Fellow clergy: where do the personal challenges tend to pop up for you in your preaching?  And everyone (clergy and nonclergy alike), what sorts of preaching tends to challenge you the most and in your spiritual lives and why?

Yours in Christ,
Eric

And oh yeah, here's the cartoon (from nakedpastor.com):