Sunday, August 17, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Hope"

Acts 5:12 to 16

12 The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. They would come together regularly at Solomon’s Porch. 13 No one from outside the church dared to join them, even though the people spoke highly of them. 14 Indeed, more and more believers in the Lord, large numbers of both men and women, were added to the church. 15 As a result, they would even bring the sick out into the main streets and lay them on cots and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow could fall on some of them as he passed by. 16 Even large numbers of persons from towns around Jerusalem would gather, bringing the sick and those harassed by unclean spirits. Everyone was healed. (Common English Bible)

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

The video clips on Facebook, Twitter, Vine, etc. are all more or less the same: some oddball in a t shirt and bathing suit stands somewhere, usually outdoors, and talks for a little bit to their friends before proceeding to dump a really giant, huge bucket of ice water all over them.  It is called the Ice Bucket Challenge, and it has taken social media by storm.  Basically, you have to dump said giant, huge bucket of ice water over you or donate $100 to research for Amyotrphoic Lateral Sclerosis.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is, I think, one of the most frightening things ever whose name many of us do not even know…instead, we know it by another name: Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the famous Yankee first baseman whose career and, eventually, life were sacrificed to this illness.

And ALS is frightening for a number of reasons: its difficulty to diagnose, its lack of known causes beyond family history, and its deadly prognosis: while some of its targets end up living long and amazing lives (Steven Hawking celebrated his 72nd birthday this year after being diagnosed at age 21, with his doctors at the time giving him only two years to live), the average person lives for only a little over three years after diagnosis.  Only 4 percent of patients live longer than 10 years after their diagnosis.  And those who die from ALS usually end up succumbing to either respiratory failure or pneumonia as the disease shuts down their body, beginning with the extremities of hands and arms before ending with the lungs.  It is an incredibly vivid, harrowing way to go out.

With so much of the deck stacked against us, it’s perhaps not surprising that we haven’t found anything remotely close to a cure (or even disease management) yet, but that still hasn’t kept us from trying, and sometimes, with a disease that desperate, you are desperate enough to do utterly ridiculous things, like, say, drench yourself in ice water (and if you’re the CEO of my hometown soccer team, Sporting Kansas City, drenching yourself in ice water from the MLS Cup your team is currently defending this season).  And it has made a difference: according to TIME, the ALS Association took in $32,000 in donations during this particular three week time period last year.

This year?  $5.5 million.  For those of you keeping score at home (or in your pews), that’s an increase of 171 times normal.  Not bad for what ice water with a dash of desperation and hope can do.  And it’s the same desperation and hope, I think, that moved and saved lives for people as far back as this story from Luke in Acts about how people who were so sick and so desperate for a cure would seek out Peter’s shadow, of all things, in order to make themselves whole. 

What a little bit of hope and desperation can do, indeed.

This 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 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, and today, we actually sort of rewind to the beginning of the series when Luke more or less restates an accounting that he also includes in Acts 2, after Peter’s sermon, about how the early church lived out the faith, which contrasted with the standalone story of Ananias and Sapphira that we studied last week.  This week, we’re back on the move again, as Luke once again zooms out to gives us a more macro view of what the New Testament church is up to now.

And in a lot of ways, it’s the same old tricks as before: they’re on the road, healing people, performing what Luke calls signs and wonders, but this time, a funny thing happens: nobody is joining them anymore.  And we can probably think, well, no wonder after what happened to those two dopes Ananias and Sapphira.  If getting close to the Apostles means giving literally everything you own and a death sentence if you don’t, well, that’s just any marketer’s dream client.

But that doesn’t stop people from joining anyways, they just maybe are keeping a safe distance from Peter and John for a bit.  And it certainly doesn’t stop those who are still seeking healing from the disciples; after all, church membership isn’t a prerequisite to have a miracle happen in your life, it’s that church membership helps you to make sense of it and process it and live accordingly afterwards.  But when you’re desperate enough to seek out a band of itinerant heroes who have a reputation for mysteriously miraculous healings, you don’t care about any of that.  For a lot of us, I think, our health and wholeness comes first, and you’ll worry about all the other stuff whenever that bridge gets crossed.

And the folks coming to the disciples now are so desperate that they will bring out their sick loved ones and friends and neighbors and simply place them out in the street in the hope that Peter’s shadow will cross over them.  Imaginatively, it sort of brings to mind that “bring out your dead” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, only instead of Eric Idle clanging metal together, you have Peter proclaiming the Gospel.  A small but certainly significant difference.

The truly ironic thing, though, is that Peter himself has argued previously in this series, just two chapters ago in Acts 3, that his healing abilities did not, as Bible professor Paul Walaskay says, “come through his (Peter’s) own power or piety, but by the name of Jesus.  In this passage, however, Luke suggests that Peter himself, even his shadow, was the vehicle of healing.”  Walaskay suggests that this may be due to “Luke’s attempt to make a connection with some of his readers who are outside the mainstream of early Judaism and Christianity: Gentiles who needed a display of miracles as an inducement to become believers,” but I’m not entirely sure that is the case here, simply because Jesus likewise used miracles to induce Jewish Israelites to believe in Him as the Messiah: in fact, when Jesus is about to raise Lazarus from the dead in John 11, He says, in effect, “I am doing this so that they may believe that God sent me.”

So what on earth are we to do with Peter and his magical healing shadow?  I mean, if he ever lost that shadow, hopefully he could get it sewn back on, and hopefully whether he sees it doesn’t determine whether or not there are six more weeks of winter (one too many popular cultural references there?  Oops).  No, this can be seen as another consequence of Peter’s piety and faith, and a consequence that has some pretty big symbolic and theological consequences.

Because a shadow is inherently dark.  It offers darkness, shade, and coolness.  None of these things tend to be used as adjectives by the writers of Scripture whenever they try to describe God.  No, God is light and warmth to us; heck, the very first thing God creates when everything was without form and void in Genesis 1 is...light.  God said, “Fiat lux,” let there be light, but that alone was not enough.  He then saw that the light was good.

Here, though, God (and all of us) are seeing that a piece of darkness can be good as well, that it can provide good.  Symbolically, that communicates all the difference in the world.  It means that everything, not just the light, can be used by God for His purposes.  It means that things we might otherwise be afraid of because of darkness we need not be afraid of anymore.

And I am sure that Luke knew that as he was documenting this story.  And I am sure that he knew that what he was documenting was, and would be, and could be, a source of hope for all of his readers.

And, well, this is a world in desperate need of some hope from some unexpected places and some unexpected sources.  It isn’t just the hope that we might have brought ourselves with something as wonderful but limited as the Ice Bucket Challenge, it’s the hope that we need to able to find in places like Gaza.  Places like West Africa in the Ebola epidemic.  Places like Ferguson, Missouri.

And places like here at home, in Longview, in the wake of an attempted murder suicide in town.

These are the places, and these are the people, living under shadows right now…shadows that do not offer healing, only further darkness.  Shadows which do not offer any sense or semblance of hope.  Shadows that need what Peter, through God, was able to offer: a source of wholeness in our fragility, a source of wellness in our sickness, and above all, a sense of hope that in God, no matter how painful your circumstances, no matter how crappy a hand you have been dealt, no matter how much this broken and imperfect world beats you up, that things can and will get better one day simply because God is God, and God does not allow the hurt from sin and wrong to live forever.

That is the hope that Peter is bringing with him in this story.  It is the hope that Jesus not only brought with Him, but that He taught, that He lived, that He incarnated as the Messiah.  And that hope is why Jesus has followers to this day…why we follow Him to this day.  Because of our own hope that God’s love wins out in the end, and that no amount of evil can last forever.  We may be fragile, we may be vulnerable to it, but that does not mean we have to succumb to it.  We may be sick, ill, injured from it, but that does not mean that God will not offer us a way out, that God will not offer us a source of healing from it.

Indeed, God already has.  It is His love, given and poured out and made great for each of you.  Take it.  Place your own hope and faith in it.  For it is God’s gift, offered to you.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 17, 2014

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