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

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