Leave us alone, Jesus

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A look back to Sunday

Luke 8:26-39

37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.

It was a simple thing we did on Sunday. I printed 49 copies of a list of the names of those who were killed in Orlando, and went through the list highlighting a first name on each list. I then passed the lists out at the end of the sermon asking each person in the congregation to take one and, in the prayers of the people, name the name that was highlighted on their list.

It was simple and moving to hear these names rise up from many different voices in the congregation. It is customary for us to offer individual prayers from the congregation when the assisting minister has finished the more general prayers he or she has prepared for those people and concerns that are on the heart of the whole congregation. Typically, there are individuals named who are dealing with illness or grief – and an occasional prayer of thanks. Having different people in the congregation each lift up a name had the effect of making audible that the people we named each have their own families and networks of friends.

These are not the only ones whose lives have been cut down by violence this last week. The world is too full of sorrow from the hates and callousness that divide us. I do not know what the answer is. I do believe it has something to do with this Jesus who went to the region of Gerasa, where even now violence bears its terrible fruit, and there delivered a man from the legacy of rage and despair.

When the townspeople see the man restored to his right mind, they are filled with fear and ask Jesus to leave them alone. There is a terrible truth in their request: we have lived with our demons so long, we choose the familiar and the known over the possibility of true healing.

So go away from us, Jesus. Don’t ask us to surrender our hates and fears, our passions and desires. Don’t ask us to surrender the sweet satisfaction of self-righteousness. Don’t ask us to consider why we are alienated from others or ourselves.

Don’t ask us to see the hungry at our gate or the wounded at the side of the road. Don’t ask us to see the log in our own eye. Don’t ask us to sell our possessions and give alms. Don’t ask us to bless those who curse us or forgive those who sin against us. Don’t ask us to beat our swords into plowshares. Go away from us Jesus. We choose what we know. Egypt is fine. There are melons and leeks.

The healed man begs to go with Jesus. But Jesus sends him home. Home to all those he has cursed and wounded. Home to make his confessions and mend his relationships. Home to tell what God has done. Home to live the peace of Christ.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_Master_of_the_Furies_-_Tormented_Figure_-_Walters_71435.jpg  Walters Art Museum [Public domain, CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Dragged into the kingdom

File:Seabee Olympics at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam 150304-N-WF272-056.jpg

Saturday

Acts 11:1-18

1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

It doesn’t surprise me that Peter would face criticism; criticism is one of the most wearying aspects of congregational life. What surprises me is that Peter explained what happened and “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God.” It’s easier for me to believe that Jesus walked on water than that Peter’s congregation was turned so easily from criticism to praise.

I want to believe that those first believers were as open and perceptive to the work of the Spirit as Luke describes, but I know that the question whether Gentile’s could be baptized into the community of Christ without first becoming a member of the Jewish community was a deeply challenging issue for the early church.

It is difficult to be certain exactly what the terms ‘Jew’ (Greek = ‘Judean’) and ‘Gentile’ (Greek = ‘the nations’) signified in the first century, but they clearly represent a deep cultural divide between those in the Judean community who define themselves as separate from the Hellenistic world and those who are thoroughly acculturated to that world. How do you have table fellowship – or any fellowship – with those who do not share the same mores, food laws and sense of purity?

To welcome “those people” is always a profound challenge for any community, and it was especially significant for the developing Christian movement. Luke goes into great detail in telling this story – and then has Peter relate the events again. Paul’s ministry to the nations is under constant attack and three times Luke relates Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord and his call to go to the nations. The problem of “Jew” and “Gentile” is the subject of the apostolic delegation to Antioch, Paul’s confrontation with Peter, and the so-called Jerusalem Conference. This issue of “them” and “us” didn’t go away and, in the end, led to the riot in the temple, Paul’s arrest and his eventual execution.

Change is not an easy thing. And it is especially difficult to bridge those cultural boundaries between different social and ethnic groups. But this is the wondrous thing about Jesus. He reaches out to tax collectors and parties with Zacchaeus and his outcast friends. Women travel in his company and he welcomes them as disciples. He converses with the Samaritan woman, treating her as a member of his family – and she brings her whole Samaritan village to him.

The Spirit empowers the believers at Pentecost to proclaim God’s praise in every language. Hellenized Judeans living in Jerusalem take up the Gospel and, when they are scattered by communal violence, share it freely with Samaritans. Philip declares there is no impediment to baptism for the Ethiopian Eunuch (who cannot enter the temple because, as a eunuch, he is ritually unclean). Peter baptizes Cornelius. Antioch welcomes Greeks. Paul and Barnabas are sent to the nations.

Despite ourselves, the heart of the Christian message transcends culture. Christ welcomes all peoples. Indeed, transcending tribalism is at the core of the Christian proclamation that the healing and redemption of all creation is at hand in Jesus. And so Paul declares:

“In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

This is a far more profound creation of a new community than the modern liberal notion of inclusiveness. It is the kingdom of God.

And though I love Luke’s picture of a Christian community open to the movement of God’s Spirit to gather all into Christ, and I still hope for a congregation that welcomes all and can recognize the movement of the Spirit with joy and praise – the more profound truth is that we are usually dragged into that kingdom kicking and screaming.

But God’s kingdom comes. To us, and for us, and in spite of us, God’s kingdom comes.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASeabee_Olympics_at_Joint_Base_Pearl_Harbor-Hickam_150304-N-WF272-056.jpg  By Petty Officer 2nd Class Diana Quinlan (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1797950) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Only this day will be this day

Sunday Evening

File:Hand bell large.jpgWe had a delightful addition to worship this morning: a husband and wife team playing hand bells. Twelve bells in four hands playing music whose richness and delight I can’t describe. They were fabulous. The music was wonderful and the sight amazing.

But it was a holiday weekend, people are traveling, and attendance was low. People missed it.

I was still a student at the seminary when I learned not to skip church. We had chapel every day in the mid morning. My apartment was a small building along an alleyway everyone traveled from the classrooms and offices to the chapel. One morning, swamped with homework, I tried to duck into my building, but a professor spotted me. “Bonde, you coming to chapel?” It was a professor to whom I wouldn’t have been able to say no, so I said instead “I’m just putting my books down,” and joined the mob heading towards chapel.

It was the most memorable sermon I heard at seminary. It spoke so profoundly to me I was in tears. And all I could think about later was that I almost missed that moment of perfect grace.

Not every Sunday will be life changing, though added together they will be. Again and again we will be taken back into the story of God and the world. Again and again we will be taken back into the grace that is Christ. Again and again the Spirit will breathe upon us, slowly shaping our lives as a people gathered and sent: gathered by grace and sent to a world in need.

Not every Sunday will be life changing, but a surprising number are. One sermon taught me to tithe. One sermon changed our marriage by the practice of Sabbath. One sermon changed the way we ate on behalf of those who hunger. There are others whose effect is harder to describe, but I remember them still. One involved a homeless person who wandered into an elaborate liturgy installing a bishop and tried to address the community.  I learned something important about who we should be that day.

Worship services are not repeatable. They are not like movies offering multiple showings each day; they are unique, like concerts. They have a common structure. They contain familiar prayers. But what happens this day will only happen this day. We will hear other bells, but it will not be the same surprise and joy as this day.

And you never know which day will be the day that changes you forever.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hand_bell_large.jpg