Such as these…

My favorite part of worship yesterday was communion. Specifically the communion hymn: “Jesus Loves Me.” I couldn’t sing myself, since I was serving communion, but to watch everyone’s faces as they sang this song was wonderful. There were tears in more than a couple of eyes. Our window for the week was Jesus blessing the children. These familiar songs and stories can make us feel very nostalgic–for a lot of us, they are probably some of the first things we learned in church. Nostalgia’s not a bad thing, but in my sermon, I tried to push past it a little to dive deeper into what’s happening in the gospel. Let me know what you think!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I was in elementary school, my parents took my brother and me to Hershey Park one summer. And at Hershey Park, at least when we went, the way they measured you for rides is you stood next to these giant candy bars and find which candy bar you’re the same height as. My brother, who is only a year older than me, he was the tallest one—I think a Cookies and Cream bar. Being Cookies and Cream meant that he could go on any ride he wanted to. Now, I’ve always been a little height challenged, and I think I was like a York Peppermint Patty, or something equally embarrassing. This meant that I could not go on all the rides.

This had happened to me before: at Disney World, the boardwalk, even my grandmother wouldn’t let me sit in the front seat of her car when my brother could. Of course, all those things were about safety; the restrictions were there for good reasons. But it didn’t feel that way at the time. It felt so disappointing to not be able to do these things. I couldn’t wait to get bigger, because getting bigger meant being more important. There would be no more kids’ tables, or kids’ meals, no more restrictions on what activities I could and couldn’t do. It seemed like I would matter more when I was grown up.

And I felt that way in a society that values children. In a family where my parents listened to me and cared about my feelings. Jesus’ time wasn’t like that. We hear this story of Jesus welcoming children, and it’s not surprising to us at all. We’ve heard it a lot of times, for sure, but it also fits well with what we know about Jesus. We’ve known that Jesus loves children ever since we learned the song “Jesus Loves Me.” What surprises us is the disciples’ behavior. Why would they be so rude, so mean as to send the children away?

But the people of Jesus’ time would have had the opposite reaction. The disciples’ actions would have made perfect sense, and Jesus’ response would have seemed ridiculous. Children weren’t important then. They were needed, of course, to help with work, to someday take care of their parents, and to inherit. But until that time came, the children themselves weren’t very useful. And, because of high infant mortality rates, they certainly weren’t valuable until they had grown up some.

It’s not surprising the disciples try to send them away. To be seen spending time on children isn’t going to help Jesus’ reputation any. They have nothing to offer Jesus or his followers. The disciples would rather Jesus spend him time advancing their mission, making inroads with the right people. The people who could make a difference. The people who matter.

But of course, that is exactly what Jesus is doing. Spending his time with people who matter. Shocking everyone, he says that these children have a place of honor in God’s kingdom. In fact, the kingdom belongs to them! Instead of the children wishing to be more like the grown-up disciples, the disciples ought to wish to be more like the children. Because this is who God’s kingdom is for.

Society said that children aren’t important, or aren’t important yet, and Jesus said they are an example to all of us right now. They are immensely important to God. It’s not just children; Jesus valued those that his society said didn’t matter: children, women, the sick, the imprisoned, the strangers. These are the people who will find their place in the kingdom of God. God is not experienced in power, but in weakness. Entering God’s kingdom is not a way to become first or great, but it’s a way to identify with the least and most needy.

Who is that in our society? In Jesus’ time, it was children, widows, and orphans. Who is it that our culture says doesn’t matter? Who do we overlook? Or who doesn’t have power? Still today, children are vulnerable, dependent on others. Those without jobs or homes. Those who are strangers in our country, immigrants and refugees. Those who are sick, and unable to find or afford care. Those who are differently-abled. It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. To those that we look past or look away from. To those that sometimes, driven by indifference or hatred, we wish would go away.

This story tells us about the radical Kingdom of God, as it is intended to be lived here on earth, as well as in heaven. As Jesus welcomes children to him and declares that the kingdom belongs to them, we learn what this kingdom is like, who it’s for, and what its values are.

It’s a kingdom that values vulnerability instead of strength, mercy instead of power. In God’s kingdom, there is a place for everyone, no matter how insignificant they might be to the rest of the world. This is the kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate. This is the kingdom that we strive towards.

A place where all are welcomed, and valued, and encouraged. Where none are turned away because they aren’t good enough, or important enough, or from the right place. God’s kingdom is a place where we are able to be our honest selves: vulnerable, needy, broken. We do not have to pretend to be strong if we’re not right now. We do not have to pretend to be happy if we’re not right now. We do not have to pretend we have it all together, if we don’t right now.

This is the kingdom that we are members of. This is the kingdom that we get to be part of building, right here, in this space. The kingdom where all are welcomed. Where you are welcomed, just as you are. And where we are invited to build community centered around the values of God’s kingdom.

Jesus welcomed the children and blessed them. We hear those words and think: how nice and kind Jesus was. How loving. It’s true. But it was a radical love. A love that broke rules and expectations in order to usher in God’s kingdom.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Jesus loves us, it is true. Let us love like Jesus does. Let our love shock and surprise people. Let our love bring down barriers until all are welcomed and valued. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs. Amen.

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Swords into Plowshares

I did not imagine–nor hope–that my sermon on Micah vision of getting rid of weapons would be as timely as it was. It had already included a paragraph lamenting the gun violence that we experience every day in America. It was depressingly easy to edit on Sunday morning to address the specific instances of violence that occurred last Saturday. In the face of constant news of mass shootings, it is easy to become hopeless and cynical. But Micah offers us something different: promise. Even as we can see that the promise is not yet fulfilled, we are invited to be people of the promise right now.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I first came to St. Paul’s, it was this window that caught my eye. It’s clearly different from the others. The others were all done at the same time, and this one came later. It uses different, darker colored glass and a different style, too. Smaller pieces of glass, almost mosaic like, create the images. This is the only window that doesn’t feature Jesus, either. Instead, we have an unlikely scene for a church: guns and army helmets.

It’s given in memory of Tom Winthrop, a sergeant in the American Expeditionary Forces, who was killed in action in France on September 6, 1918. A little more than two months before the Armistice. He was twenty-four years old. There’s been a lot of focus lately on World War I, in books and film, as we just passed its one hundredth anniversary.

The Great War, it was called then. The War to End All Wars. After the unprecedented devastation wrought in the fields of France, and Belgium, and the Netherlands, no one could imagine that another war would happen. The weapons had become too cruel, the fighting too entrenched. Surely humanity could now see the futility of war, the evilness of war.

The League of Nations was formed. The first worldwide organization committed to maintain world peace. One of its primary goals was preventing wars through collective disarmament. Through turning swords into plowshares. It seemed as if maybe, just maybe, the day was coming when we would not need to study war any more. When nation would no longer lift sword against nation.

But of course, that day didn’t come. The First World War was merely the first world war, to be followed by a second. To be followed by countless other conflicts big and small, which have continued ever since. Violence and hate continue. Weapons continue to exist. Weapons continue to leave devastation and grief in their wake. There were two mass shootings yesterday. Not one, two. Thirty dead and dozens more wounded. It’s become so routine that I’m hardly even shocked or surprised when I hear of a mass shooting anymore.

Micah’s vision, of everyone laying aside their weapons, and sitting under their own fig trees, as beautiful as it sounds, can seem ridiculous in light of what happened yesterday. Of what happens many days. Nice, but never realistic. But this is not just a vision. This is a promise. It is a promise of God’s future. It is a promise that God will bring this about. The prophet Micah isn’t naïve. He was living in the midst of war and death and captivity. And still he spoke of the promised day when weapons of war are turned into agricultural tools. When instruments of death become instruments of life.

It’s a promise for the days to come. It hasn’t happened today, and maybe it won’t happen in our days, but the day will come when God shall judge between the nations. God’s justice is the fertile ground for peace. God judges and arbitrates, and the ending of inequity is ground for the ending of violence. All of the reasons for envy and greed, resentment and fear, will be abolished. And weapons will be rendered irrelevant. There are no longer strong and weak, there are no longer insider and outsiders, for all are gathered together on God’s mountain. That is when peace will come.

All of this will happen, says Micah, because God will make it so. The kingdom is God’s to make. We cannot usher in the kingdom of peace on our own terms or in our own time. But, we can practice peace—within ourselves, among our families, in our neighborhoods, for our world. As people of faith, who have glimpsed God’s light and God’s intention, we get to live this promise right now.

We can look all around and see that the promise might not be complete yet, but that doesn’t stop us from trusting it. So we live as people of peace, now. We live practicing reconciliation now. In the face of violence, and evil, and death, we practice peace, and love, and life.

In reading about this text, I came across a lot of Christmas-related things, probably because Isaiah’s very similar version is an Advent text. And for the first time, I read all of the verses to Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” He wrote this poem shortly after his son was wounded in the Civil War. The first verse was familiar to me: I head the bells on Christmas Day/ Their old, familiar carols play,/ and wild and sweet/ The words repeat/ of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But the last two verses I had never heard: And in despair I bowed my head;/ “There is no peace on earth,” I said;/ “For hate is strong,/ And mocks the song/ Of peace on earth, good-will to men.” Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:/ “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;/ The Wrong shall fail,/ The Right prevail,/ With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

For hate is strong and mocks the song. Despite the hate that we see around us, the violence and the evil that mock God’s promised future, we still sing God’s song. Trusting in the promise of peace. We can glimpse it even now. Can you see the swords being beaten into plowshares? Can you see the rice paddies of Cambodia, now green and fertile? Dozens of programs are ridding the country of land mines and returning the fields to farms. The number of people killed or injured each year in Cambodia by land mines has fallen from a high of over 4,000 in 1996 to just under 300 in 2016. Can you see the farmers working in the field?

Can you see the women, Christian and Muslim together, all dressed in white? They were lying on their stomachs near the main highway in Monrovia, Liberia, where everyone could see them. It was embarrassing to President Charles Taylor. They protested until he finally agreed to attend peace talks in Ghana. And when the talks stalled, the women traveled to Ghana. Can you see them? They linked arms around the government building until the talks started again. The civil war in Liberia finally came to an end. Can you see the women dancing in the streets?

In days to come, people shall stream to the Lord’s house. In days to come, they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. In days to come nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. In days to come, no one shall be made afraid.

But this day, we walk in the name of our Lord. This day, we practice the promise yet to come. This day, we believe in God’s promised peace, and we live that promise in our lives. It is not easy to sing a song of peace in a world of violence and war. But it is God’s song, and it is our song. Until that day when all are gathered together in peace, we will continue to sing God’s promised future into our present.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds on Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Living Water

Are there Bible stories that you just never tire of hearing? For me, it’s this week’s window, of the woman at the well. There’s so much to dig into here (so much, in fact, that I had people sit for the Gospel reading!). I knew that this reading is coming back up next Lent, so I really tried to pick one thing to focus on: the woman leaving her jar behind. This encounter with Jesus came in the middle of her mundane tasks but was so extraordinary that she completely abandoned what she was doing. What type of event or encounter would it take for me to do that today?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

She left her jar behind. I love that small detail from this long story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman’s encounter at the well. She left her jar behind. Presumably, she needed the water. She had come out to the well in the middle of the day, after all. You usually come to the well in the early morning, or in the evening, when it’s cooler. But she had come at noon. You wouldn’t do that if you didn’t need water. But still, she leaves her jar, as she runs back to her village to share what she had found instead of water at the well.

It’s a wonderful detail in a story where we don’t have as many details as we’d like. We don’t know much about this woman, we don’t even know her name. We’re given a few details from her life, that Jesus recounts to her. She has had five husbands, and currently is not married. That’s all we know.

We wonder, and our imaginations begin to fill in the gaps for us. I’ve often heard this woman judged for her situation. As if she is somehow immoral. This woman has been either widowed or divorced five times over. We assume she bears at least some blame. But that’s our modern minds filling in the gaps of an ancient story. Women in Jesus’ time didn’t decide when they were going to get married. They didn’t have much say in the matter at all. And while they could be divorced, they couldn’t initiate one. If this woman has indeed been divorced five times, it wasn’t something she choose. And the most likely reason for it was that she hadn’t been able to have any children. Her story is much less scandalous than it is deeply sad, and lonely.

We don’t know her whole story, but Jesus does. Jesus knows, without being told, her past, and we can assume he knows more details than are shared. He tells her these things so that she might take him seriously. So that she can see he is indeed a prophet, and more than a prophet. But he doesn’t offer judgment. He doesn’t blame her or anyone else for her circumstances. He simply names the reality.

And I love how their exchange continues from there. In Jesus, this woman has found someone who knows her whole truth—and doesn’t treat her any differently because of it! He engages with her questions, takes her seriously, and reveals his true self in exchange. When she says that she believes in the Messiah, he responds: I am he. Except, in order to translate the Greek smoothly, we’ve added that extra word, “he.” Jesus actually says to her: I am. I am. It is more than a simple statement. It is the name of God. Jesus reveals his whole self to this woman, and he makes good on his promise of living water.

And she leaves her jar behind. She has received living water in the form of Jesus’ truth and acceptance. She leaves her jar behind and goes to share what she has found with the people of her village. But she leaves more than just her jar. She leaves her abandonment behind. She leaves her isolation behind. She leaves her rejection behind. She leaves them behind because she has found living water. She has experienced the salvation that Jesus brings. The new life of relationship with Jesus. She leaves the jar behind and goes to share the good news she has found. There was a lot stacked against her, but nevertheless she leaves it behind to share the story of what God has done.

What jars would you like to leave behind? What jars do you need to leave behind? What is keeping you from living into the future that God has prepared for you and sharing the good news of what God has done? What jars do we need to leave, trading our past tragedies and present challenges for the living water that Jesus offers? Maybe it’s a dead-end job or the difficulty of finding one. Maybe it’s an unfulfilling relationship or no relationship at all. Maybe it’s a past wound or fear about the future. Maybe it’s an illness, or grief, or anxiety, or guilt, or shame. What is it that you struggle with, that holds you back from accepting the living water Jesus offers?

Just as Jesus knew the woman, her whole story, Jesus knows us. God could tell us everything we’ve ever done. The things we’re proud of, the memories that bring us joy and love, and the things that bring us shame, worry, and pain. God knows our whole truths. And God is not deterred by them. God offers us living water. God offers us relationship. God offers us futures not limited by our pasts.

The water of life that Jesus gives can’t erase this woman’s past. It can’t take away the years of feeling shame, or failure, or worry. But it can offer a different future. A future where she is more than abandoned. More than shamed. More than ostracized. God’s well of water never runs dry.

We don’t know much about this woman at all. But we do know she ran to tell her village about Jesus’ truth and power, all the while wondering—could it really be the Messiah? Like the disciples left their nets, she left her jar to share the good news. In the Orthodox Church, tradition has given this woman at the well a name: Photini. It means the enlightened one. And she is celebrated as an Evangelist and Apostle.

She came to the well alone, for the daily task of retrieving water. She left without her jar, forgetting completely what had brought her there in the first place. And she returned with a multitude, to share the life that she had found. Her words invite us, today: Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. And still gave me the living water of salvation: relationship, belonging, and love. Come and see. Amen.

 

The Reckless Shepherd

Sometimes, Bible stories are so well known that we can take them for granted. I think the parables of the lost sheep and coin fall into this category. We’re so used to the story of the shepherd going in search of the one lost sheep that we don’t stop and wonder, “Is this really normal–or good–behavior from the shepherd?” I don’t think it is normal, or logical, behavior for a shepherd to abandon ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to go in search of just one. And that’s the point. God’s love for us isn’t logical. It isn’t normal behavior. It’s extraordinary, tireless, and reckless. And thank God for that.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Which one of you,” Jesus asks, “that has a hundred sheep and loses one, would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost until you found it?” Which one of you wouldn’t risk the ninety-nine for the sake of the one?

Or, which one of you, Jesus continues, having lost a silver coin, a tenth of what you own, wouldn’t light the lamps and sweep the house until you found it? And having found it, which one of you wouldn’t call together your friends for a celebration that might cost more than the coin was worth?

Jesus poses these questions in a rhetorical way—making us think, who wouldn’t do this? But, when we pause and consider them, who would do this? Who would leave ninety-nine sheep alone in the wilderness, in danger, all to find one sheep? Who would be so over-the-top excited at finding a coin that they would call all their friends together to celebrate? Is one sheep worth that much risk? Is one coin worth that much joy? This shepherd is actually pretty irresponsible. This woman is actually fairly wasteful. These characters aren’t the kind of people we’d put in charge of our flocks or our bank accounts.

These parables are two of three stories that Jesus tells in Luke fifteen. The third, taking up the rest of the chapter, is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Sometimes, people even jokingly call this the “Lost Chapter” of Luke. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Jesus tells all of these stories to address a very specific situation that’s described in the first three verses of the chapter.

He has been attracting quite a few followers lately, from many different walks of life. And it’s starting to rub people the wrong way. The Pharisees and scribes, in fact, are grumbling that Jesus “welcomes tax collectors and sinners and eats with them.”

There’s a lot that we can miss here, because we don’t live in the same world as Jesus did. The Pharisees and scribes? Those are the good religious people of the day. They’re the church-goers, the service-project doers, the upstanding citizens, trying to do their best.

The tax collectors and sinners? Well, they’re not the upstanding citizens. When we’re told Jesus is eating with sinners, this isn’t sinners in the sense of “we’re all sinners, because we all make mistakes.” These are people whose habitual actions have put them on the fringes of society. It’s not that they’ve done something wrong once, or even occasionally. They regularly reject the cultural norms and rules of the good religious people. And the tax collectors, well they’ve sold out their own people to collude with the Romans.

And Jesus is eating with them! He is sharing table fellowship with those people. Eating together meant placing yourself alongside someone else. Our English word companion literally means someone you break bread with. Jesus is letting those people be his companions.

And the good religious folks just don’t understand. Why? Why those people? At the very least they should be made to clean up their act before they get a place at the table. They should change their behavior, stop being so objectionable. They just don’t see the value of those people. And if those people are invited, the Pharisees really don’t want to be at the party.

Whenever we read parables, we try to see who the different characters might represent. And the narrative setting for these parables can make it pretty easy. The tax collectors and the sinners are the lost ones—the sheep, the coin, the son. The Pharisees and scribes must be the ninety-nine other sheep, the older brother. They don’t need special attention, because they’re already part of the group.

Although, it’s interesting to turn the parable on its head. Could we not say that the Pharisees and the scribes are the ones who are truly lost? That they’re the ones who do not understand, while the tax collectors and sinners actually get what Jesus is all about? It’s the good, upstanding people who are cut off from what Jesus has to offer, who need to be restored to the community. I’m not sure that’s what Jesus meant, but it’s fun to think about.

And who are we in this story? Are we the lost? Are we the ninety-nine? Do we celebrate with the shepherd and the woman, or do we feel resentful of all the attention that one troublesome sheep has gotten? These are all questions that we could have an entire sermon about! It’s part of the beauty of parables—in just a few sentences a rich and complex story develops, inviting us to see ourselves and others through new eyes.

But as much as we can ponder whether we’re the coin or the friends, the one sheep or the ninety-nine, none of those things is the main focus in our parables. These aren’t stories about a lost sheep or coin, really. They’re stories about a shepherd who risks everything to go look, and about a woman who sweeps all night long to find. It’s the shepherd and the woman who take center stage. These are parables that, while they can teach us about ourselves, are mostly about God.

Jesus is telling the Pharisees and the scribes—and is telling us—what God is like. God is like a shepherd in charge of a hundred sheep, who notices when even one sheep goes missing. God is willing to risk anything for that sheep. He picks it up and carries it back to safety.

God is like a woman who has lost something valuable, who will stop at nothing to find it. She turns her entire house upside down, possibly creating chaos and confusion, just for that one coin. God does everything in these parables, for the sake of the lost. God searches, God seeks, God finds, and God restores.

And God rejoices. God throws a party and celebrates, because the lost has been found! The community is whole and complete again. It’s not just the one sheep that has been restored, the whole community has been restored to the way it is meant to be. The ninety-nine were not complete without the lost one.

The shepherd and the woman go to a great deal of trouble to find something that isn’t worth very much to anyone else. Because to God, there is no such thing as a person with no value. To God, there are no “those people.” There are no insiders and outsiders. Jesus understands that those on the outside of the community are so important to what the community should be. Without them, the community is incomplete.

And everyone is invited to be part of the celebration. Wherever you find yourself in these parables—lost, found, begrudging, or joyful—God seeks for you.. Recklessly so, even. God risks everything for you, for me, for each of us. And God wants nothing more than to celebrate with the lost and the found. With the insiders and the outsiders. With the Pharisees and the tax collectors. Together. May we give thanks for a God who seeks. A God who searches. And may we celebrate together the joy that is found in community with God. No insiders or outsiders, but all of us. Together. Amen.

Martha, Martha, Martha

Mary and Martha is one of those stories that tends to divide people. I’ll admit, I’ve always identified more closely with Martha than Mary. But while there are many things we can take away from this short story, I don’t think a harsh dichotomy is the point. This week, I chose to focus on the “why’s” in the story. Why is hospitality important? Why are any of our many tasks important? Why did Jesus tell Martha to chill out? (In different words, of course.) What do you think? Have you ever been so rushed and busy that you lose sight of what matters? How do Jesus’ words speak to you?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last year, at Vacation Bible School, one of our stories for the week was Mary and Martha. My leader’s guide had given me a fun little social experiment to start each class with. I met the classes just outside the Kugler Room and explained to them that we were expecting a very special guest today. Jesus was coming! And I needed their help to get ready.

Each class was split into four groups, and each group had an important task to help us get ready to welcome Jesus. One group would set the table, one group would sweep the floor and take out the trash, one group would wash and dry the fruit. And the final group had a special assignment, they were going to go with Lauren and Paige, my helpers, when we got in the room.

The kids got into the make pretend game and really worked hard at their tasks. That is, until they saw what the fourth group’s special assignment was. They went with Lauren and Paige to a bunch of pillows and blankets, snacked on some Goldfish and lemonade, and watched Veggie Tales on YouTube.

I was very quickly told that this was not fair at all. The kids demanded that I make this group help, or else no one should be working. “Don’t worry about them,” I said, “they’re doing exactly what I asked them to.” This response did not go over very well. But the experiment had worked! We had a room full of indignant and upset Martha’s and some very smug and self-satisfied Mary’s.

Kids have a built-in sense of fairness. They are very attuned to anyone getting more or less than they should, or not doing their fair share. As we grow up, we learn that sometimes things just aren’t fair, but still this story of Martha and Mary can rub us the wrong way. Who thinks Martha got a bad deal?

Why isn’t Mary helping? Surely if they both worked together, they might have both had time to spend with Jesus. Why does Jesus rebuke Martha like he does? She’s harried and overwhelmed, and she’s only asking that her sister help her out.

And, what is this stuff about Mary choosing the “better part”? Are some ways of being a disciple better than others? Isn’t this what Martha is supposed to be doing? Welcoming Jesus into her home, being a gracious host. Our first reading, the story of Abraham welcoming three strangers, is all about the importance of hospitality. About what a gift hospitality is. Abraham runs to make these visitors feel welcome. He rushes to make sure bread will be prepared, he kills a valuable calf, and presents them with a veritable feast. Far more than the little bread and milk he promised. The surprise comes when we learn that through this lavish welcome for strangers, Abraham has unwittingly welcomed God to a meal.

Hospitality, providing welcome, is part of showing love and care to those we meet. The book of Hebrews implores us: do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, some have entertained angels unawares, referencing this story of Abraham. In fact, the word used to describe Martha’s actions is even diakonia, service. It’s the same word that Jesus uses to describe himself: as one who came to serve.

So, what’s so wrong about what Martha’s doing? Why is she reprimanded? It’s easy for us, when hearing this story, to make it an either/or situation. If Martha’s wrong, then that means Mary’s right and vice versa. We’re tempted to take sides, to declare ourselves as Martha’s or Mary’s. We can easily take offense on Martha’s behalf, because maybe we’ve been in her shoes. Overwhelmed, overworked, and unnoticed. The work of hospitality is so often behind the scenes, unrecognized and underappreciated. But if all we hear in this story is Martha or Mary, or Martha versus Mary, we’ve missed something important.

Jesus doesn’t chide Martha for what she was doing, but for how she was doing it. “Martha, Martha,” he says, “you are worried and distracted by many things.” Worried and distracted by many things. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Martha is anxious and overwhelmed by all that she has to do. She is busy, with a capital B. She is so busy being hospitable, that she doesn’t even have time for her honored guest. Have you ever passed up a chance to spend time with a loved one, with family or friends, because you were just too busy? When someone’s asked you how things are going, have you ever responded by saying how busy things are?

Busyness is a badge of honor in our culture. It’s the Protestant work ethic run amok. Busyness is seen as a virtue. It means you’re doing things, producing things, accomplishing things. Few people use all of their vacation days, if they’re lucky enough to have them in the first place. To not be busy is to risk being seen as lazy, indolent, or apathetic.

And it’s not that we shouldn’t do things. Often, like Martha, there’s nothing wrong with our tasks. The things we’re doing in all our busyness can be good and holy things. Martha was doing a good and holy thing by showing hospitality. Our work is so often good—we can use our work to do good in the world, to care for ourselves and our loved ones. The activities we do, they’re part of nurturing meaningful relationships. The chores we do and the errands we run, they’re part of taking care of each other. Maybe you fill your time with advocacy, or with service projects, or meaningful time with family and friends, or whatever it is you are called to do.

The things we do can be beautiful ways to love God and serve our neighbors. Martha’s tasks aren’t the problem. The problem is when the tasks themselves become the end goal and focus, rather than the means by which we love and are loved. Martha was so focused on getting her tasks done correctly, that she missed the fact that God was sitting in her living room, while she was in the kitchen. She was distracted. And anxious. And it made her lose sight of the one thing that really mattered. Busyness robs us of being really being present with each other. It keeps us from appreciating each other and simply dwelling in the company of God and our loved ones, like Mary.

I know you’re busy—I don’t want to give you one more thing to do. But I’m going to. Can we be attentive to the presence of the holy in our lives? No matter what we find ourselves doing, can we pay attention to God’s presence and purpose in all of our varied activities and responsibilities?

Instead of running from one thing to the next, or even planning the next thing while we’re still doing the first one, can we treat each of our tasks, no matter how simple, no matter how mundane, as if we are setting a table for God? Because God is present in every moment of our lives. God is always there, if we’re able to stop and pay attention.

What is it that God has given you to do? Each of us is blessed each of us with tasks and callings as varied as we are. They are a gift, a chance to serve and honor each other in love. And God is present in each of them. Sometimes we are all anxious and worried about many things. It’s part of being human. But hear the gift and invitation of Jesus: dwell with me. Be refreshed and renewed by God’s presence, so that we might serve in love. Amen.

And the Word became flesh…

Merry Christmas! That’s right, it’s Christmas in July. This week at St. Paul’s, we began an eight-week series on our beautiful stained-glass windows. Our windows move around the sanctuary in chronological order of Jesus’ life (or as best as they could guess in 1880). So the first window up was the nativity window. I had a lot of fun writing a Christmas-esque sermon in the middle of summer, apart from all the stress and pressure of late December. What about you? Do you find new or different meaning when thinking about Christmas in July?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Christmas Eve in my family was always crazy busy. In fact, it still is with Tim and my having six different services between us. But growing up was a whole different kind of crazy. My family was very involved in church, so Christmas Eve meant responsibilities. My brother and I would be acolytes or playing in the instrumental ensemble. My dad was in the choir, my mom always helped with the cookie and punch reception.

And beyond church, my parents had to navigate two families that required attention. My dad’s gathered on Christmas Eve, everyone opening presents and having dinner before going to Midnight Mass. We were always late to that gathering because our church service started at 7:00.

And when we’d finally get home after midnight, my parents still had more to do to make Christmas morning perfect for my brother and me. They’d wrap presents, make sure everything was ready to go, and of course set the coffee maker up, because Vince and I would definitely not sleep past six.

I know my family is not unique in the amount of obligations surrounding Christmas. The competing pulls on our time, the pressure to make sure everything is perfect, the desire to be in multiple places at once. It’s why when I thought to do this stained-glass sermon series, this was the window I was most excited about. It’s a chance to ponder what Christmas means without all the stress and busy-ness. It’s a chance for me to preach on Christmas without also having to organize three services and twelve different acolytes! Maybe we’ll see Christmas in a new light when we think about it the summer.

And really, why shouldn’t we celebrate Christmas in the summer? The date of Christmas is pretty arbitrary actually. It’s possible Jesus was born on December 25th, but we’ll just never know for sure. The Eastern Orthodox church celebrates the birth of Christ on January 6th—the Feast of the Epiphany.

In any case, midwinter does work well for Christmas, because we celebrate Christ as the Sun (S-U-N) of Righteousness. Jesus, the prologue in John says, is the light coming into the world. A light shining in the darkness. And at least for Christians in the Northern Hemisphere, Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year, just after the winter solstice. The days are short, and the night darkness is long. But in the middle of that darkness, we declare that the darkness will not last forever. We celebrate Christ as God’s light coming into the world.

The incarnation, God’s becoming human in Jesus, could be described as God looking upon the darkness of our world—upon the hurt and suffering, the hate and meanness—God seeing that bleakness, and choosing to enter into it. Choosing to join us, as one of us, in love and solidarity. In light shining among us.

And what does light do? Well, one thing light does is reveal. We turn on the light to see what is actually in front of us. The light of the incarnation reveals to us who God is. Jesus tells us who God is. In Jesus we see revealed that God heals and forgives. God embraces outcasts and prays for those who hurt him. God understands betrayal and denial, suffering and pain, humiliation and death. Jesus tells us that God knows that—both as individuals and as a world—we need a Savior; and Jesus is that Savior. In Jesus we see revealed that God brings victory over despair, defeat, destruction, and death. In Jesus we see that God shares that victory with us.

As much as it reveals about God, the light of the incarnation also reveals who we are. God became human. Our humanity matters to God. Our fears and our happiness, our griefs and our joys—they matter to God. God entered in to a physical body. With everything that comes with it: pain, tiredness, joy, excitement. Our bodies matter to God.

By joining our humanity, by entering a body, Jesus made bodies holy. We often struggle with that. Our bodies can be frustrating to us. We’re often made to feel ashamed of our bodies if they don’t meet certain cultural standards. Our bodies can fail us. They break sometimes. They can limit what we’d like to do. But a body was once a dwelling place for God incarnate, so let us not forget that our bodies are beautiful, holy things.

All of our bodies. Jesus came, not in a strong body, but a weak one. A helpless baby, depending on others for everything. Weak bodies, dependent bodies, children’s bodies, are holy to God. Jesus came, not in a rich body, but in a poor one. Born in a stable, surrounded by the working poor and outcasts. Poor bodies are holy to God. Homeless bodies are holy to God. When he was just a baby, Jesus had to flee to Egypt, to escape Herod’s massacre. Refugee bodies are holy to God.

Living in the light of the incarnation means that these bodies matter. Worshipping a God who was poor, who was oppressed, who died an unjust death means that we cannot be indifferent to the flesh and blood bodies of the poor and oppressed in our midst. The bodies of war victims matter to God. The bodies of children in cages matter to God. The bodies of homeless men, women, and children in our city matter to God.

And what’s more, God wanted them to matter. God choose to enter a body, to become human. The creator of the universe willingly choose to take on our broken humanity in Jesus. Because of that, Christ is present in each of us, in our very humanity.

Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth century monk and mystic, once wrote: “What good is it to me if Christ was born 2,000 years ago if he is not also born in me? We are all called to be mothers of God for God is always needing to be born.” God is always needing to be born.

Christmas happens once a year, but God’s presence in the world is needed every day. We are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born. We are called to birth God’s love and grace in our lives. To testify to God’s presence in our lives and in the world. To be signs of that presence, shining in the darkness. Like Mary, we too are filled by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God is present in us. Every week as we share in communion we take Christ’s very body into ourselves and we are transformed into the body of Christ as the church.

Let us bear Christ to the world. Let us testify to what Christmas means to us, every day of the year. God has come to dwell with us, to make all things new. God dwells with us; God dwells in us. To strengthen and uplift, to love and forgive. May we be formed as the body of Christ, broken open for the sake of a world in need of healing, justice, and love. Amen.

Discipleship: Not for the Faint of Heart

Yesterday was a special day at St. Paul’s–we had a pulpit swap with our partner congregation Mediator Lutheran, Philadelphia. So I preached this sermon at Mediator, and Pastor Regina Goodrich preached at St. Paul’s. We used the same texts, though: Luke 9, and Galatians 5. I wonder if the Spirit led us in similar or different ways?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

My dad, before he went to seminary at age sixty to become a pastor, was a financial advisor. Growing up, I always thought it was just a fancy way to say he sold insurance. He did more than sell insurance, but selling—whether it was insurance, investment options, plans of action—selling was a large part of his job. And he was really good at it.

He often jokes that sales skills transferred surprisingly well to ministry. Because selling was just listening to people, he told me. It was making clients feel important and heard. Making them feel like their needs, their concerns, their questions, mattered. I think that my dad was probably so good at it, because he wasn’t just making his clients feel important, they actually were important to him. The things his clients were worried about mattered to him and he genuinely wanted to be of service to them. To be a good salesman, he told me, people need to know you care.

Can I just say, Jesus would make a terrible salesman? At least Jesus from this reading from Gospel of Luke would. I have to be honest, I don’t really like Jesus in this reading. He doesn’t seem to care about the people and their feelings, like, at all. He’s abrupt, insensitive, dismissive. And he’s doing a terrible job of marketing this whole discipleship thing.

Based on what Jesus has to say, who would ever want to come and be a part of this? According to him, following Jesus might make you unwanted in certain places. Following Jesus might mean you’re looked down on and have no place to call home. Following Jesus might challenge your relationships. Following Jesus might re-order your priorities.

If the Evangelism Team suggested putting that on the church sign, or on the flyers handed out in the neighborhood, I think we’d be looking for a new evangelism team. Come join us, no one will like you and you have to leave your family and friends behind.

And the things that these would-be disciples have asked Jesus for time to do, they don’t seem like unreasonable things at all. To bury one’s father? Surely Jesus isn’t against honoring our parents. There’s a commandment about that. To simply say goodbye to one’s family before leaving, possibly forever? Why would Jesus be so harsh?

But Jesus isn’t about a nice sales pitch. He’s not going to sugarcoat what following him means with taglines and glossy images of happy children. He wants these people to know: discipleship isn’t something to be taken lightly. Real discipleship has real consequences.

If we’re looking for a way of life that’s gentle and nice, Jesus’ way isn’t it. If we’re looking for a God who will respect our priorities; show deference to our social, cultural and economic boundaries; and keep our lives simple and clean, Jesus is not that God. If we want a spirituality that is comfortable rather than costly, and reliable instead of transformative, we should walk away now. Discipleship is not for the faint of heart.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, he’s trying to get this point across. Living as Christians in the world isn’t always the easy thing to do. To live in Christ is to live by the Spirit, and not by the flesh. Which is to say, to live for one another, instead of for ourselves.

Paul gives a long list of the works of the flesh—they’re almost all things that hurt the community, things that hurt our neighbors: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger. Even the ones that seem individual like idolatry and drunkenness—we know these hurt more than just ourselves. By contrast, the works of the Spirit build up the community instead of tearing it down. This is how we are meant to live in Christ.

In short, Paul is saying that following Jesus means your life is going to look different than if you didn’t follow him. Following Jesus means that you will value different things than if you didn’t. And I thought about my own life and wondered, is this true for me? Is it true for you?

Does Jesus make a noticeable difference in our lives? Does the grace, mercy, and love of God made incarnate in Jesus trump our plans and shape our lives, or do we instead shape our faith to fit the lives we’ve already planned?

How are our lives different as followers of Jesus than what they might have been otherwise? I once heard the question posed this way: if you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

Do we look at images of children being kept in tents with not even the bare minimum of care and turn our heads? Or do we speak up on behalf of the powerless and vulnerable? Do we respond to those with whom we disagree with anger and condemnation, like James and John? Or do we respond in love and kindness—which isn’t the same thing as agreeing?

Do we tear each other down with enmity and quarrels and factions? Or do we seek the best for our neighbors? Do we let ourselves be ruled by selfish desires? Or do we think of how our actions affect others? Would someone observing our actions think we lived by the way of the flesh or by the way of the Spirit?

When I take an honest look at myself, my answer would have to be, “both.” Sometimes God’s love is the driving force in my life, and sometimes I let it take a backseat to other cares and concerns. I think most of us would answer similarly. We all fall short of the ideal of discipleship laid out here, both by Jesus and by Paul. It’s good to be honest about that. Because if we don’t take an honest look at where we’ve gone wrong, we’ll never grow.

So, none of us is the perfect disciple. Even the actual disciples weren’t the perfect disciples. And honesty demands that we admit we’ll never actually achieve perfection. And we can either use that as an excuse to give up and stop trying, or we can hear the call of Jesus, bidding us to come and follow.

In the chilling words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jesus bids each of us to “come and die.” Those of us who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. In our baptisms, we are drowned to self, and God raises us to new life. Life lived for each other and for the community.

Christ has set us free. Free from the selfish desires that threaten to consume and overtake us. Free from commodifying ourselves and others. Free from living only for the sake of ourselves. But Christ has set us free that we might be bound to one another in love. Free to live in the Spirit. Free to take on one another’s burdens and cares. Free to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Every day Christ sets us free. We are constantly needing to be reborn, released from our a life of selfishness and raised to a life of discipleship. Our journey as disciples is not something we ever finish. But we do not journey alone. Follow me, Christ says. Follow him in the way of the Spirit. We never walk alone. For Christ walks with us. Amen.

Going Beyond

Vacation Bible School is always a great time, and sometimes it helps me look at familiar Bible texts in new ways! I love the story of the Gerasene demoniac, found in Luke 8, but this year’s VBS theme made me see it with fresh eyes.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

We just wrapped up another fantastic and exciting week of Vacation Bible School: this year we had eighty kids and over thirty different youth and adult helpers go To Mars and Beyond! A little behind the scenes info: choosing a VBS theme is always a balance of which programs manage to pair the coolest themes with good Bible stories and lessons for the kids. I was drawn to Mars and Beyond because it seemed like a really neat theme—but I did wonder what Bible stories possibly had anything to do with outer space.

It turns out our Bible stories didn’t have anything to do with outer space, but instead they had everything to do with going beyond. We went beyond what we thought was possible with God’s help. We went beyond with faith with Daniel in the lion’s den. We went beyond with boldness with Queen Esther speaking up for her people. We went beyond with kindness with the Good Samaritan. We went beyond with thankfulness with the healing of ten lepers. And we went beyond with hope on the road to Emmaus.

God’s power at work within us let us go beyond what we thought was possible. As I looked at our Bible readings for this morning, I realized that they too are all about going beyond. Going beyond the labels that are given to us. Going beyond the things that limit us, with God’s power.

First we have the demon-possessed man in Gerasene. If we’re honest, I think we sometimes don’t know what to do with stories like this one in the Bible. Stories of demon possession and evil spirits. We conceptualize things so much differently than people did in Jesus’ time. We don’t think of illness, or mental illness, the same way. We don’t think of demons as physical things able to speak and answer questions. So these stories don’t always resonate the way I think they did with their first hearers.

But, for all the things that are weird about them, all of the demons that Jesus confronts have three things in common. First, they cause self-destructive behavior in the victim. Second, the victim feels trapped in his or her condition. And third, they separate the victim from normal life with their family and community. Although they might look different on the surface, when we dig deeper, these demons in the Bible start to sound painfully familiar. Don’t many of us suffer from the same kind of snares and burdens? Addiction, depression, mental illness, self-doubt, anxiety. These are real things that plague us, that try to control us, even if we might not name them demons.

Perhaps the most painful similarity is that when Jesus asks this demon-possessed man his name, the response comes from the demons: Legion, for we are many. This man, who must have had another name, although we never learn it, this man who wanders the tombs, cries out, cannot be restrained, this man has no identity left besides what ails him. He has come to be completely defined by his illness.

It’s the most hurtful thing about him, this thing that has robbed him of his life, his family, his joy. This thing has become his name. It’s devastating. And yet we do it all the time, to ourselves and to others. Homeless. Addict. Drunk. Crazy. Handicapped. Sick. Depressed. Failure.

The things that we struggle with, the things that we’re embarrassed about, the things wish we could change—these things have a way of defining us. And we often define others in the same way.

And even when this man’s demons are gone—he’s still defined by them. Did you notice? Even after Jesus has healed him, he still referred to as “the man who had the demons…the man who had been healed.” He’s still defined by those around him by what his situation used to be, even though it has changed. His demons are gone, but it’s unclear who he is without them. It’s unclear how he fits in.

The people are terrified…they want Jesus to leave. They’ve gotten comfortable with the dysfunction. They’ve gotten comfortable with the man being possessed and tormented. He might have been suffering, but at least everyone understood their role. This man was dangerous and lived out in the tombs, among the dead. Through healing him, Jesus has done a dangerous thing. Because now the people have to figure out where he belongs. Who is he, now that he is no longer crazy demon guy?

He begs Jesus to be able to go with him and the disciples. But Jesus says no. He must stay, return to the village that cast him out and let everyone know what Jesus has done. With his very life, he is to testify to what God can do. God sees beyond the broken systems to the people searching for wholeness and healing.  God sees beyond the names we give ourselves and others.

That is what our reading from Galatians is all about. It’s about God seeing beyond labels, seeing beyond what other people see when they look at us. Even seeing beyond what we see in ourselves. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, Paul writes, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Those were the most important categories in Paul’s time, but if we wanted to update this a little bit: there is no longer male or female, there is no longer gay or straight, there is no longer cis or trans, there is no longer immigrant and native-born, there is no longer white or black, there is no longer handicapped or able-bodied. For all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Being one in Christ doesn’t mean that what’s unique about us goes away. It doesn’t mean that we cease to be any of those things. All of those things are part of the beautiful diversity of God’s creation. They are part of who God made us to be, and they should be celebrated. Being one in Christ means all of these identities are secondary to our identity in Christ. For in Christ Jesus, we are all children of God. In the midst of our wonderful diversity, we all share a common identity.

God goes beyond labels, God goes beyond the surface, to see and know us as we truly are. To love us as we truly are. What is your name? Jesus asked the demon-afflicted man. What is your name? God doesn’t call us by our pain, by our hurt, by our past mistakes or insecurities. God sees beyond those labels and invites us to see beyond them, too. God calls us by our own names and loves us as children of God. This week, let’s go beyond…let’s see beyond with God to see ourselves and each other as we truly are: God’s children. Amen.

Native Languages

It’s Pentecost again! Fifty days after Easter Sunday, we celebrate the Day of Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples. Read the story in Acts 2:1-21. (And if you read in your head, you don’t even have to pronounce all those place names!) I was really struck this year by the phrase “native language.” Maybe it’s because I was recently struggling to speak a non-native language. What languages are needed by the church today?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever been somewhere you don’t speak the language? At all? I felt that way when Tim and I were recently in France. I have four years of high school French, so I could communicate well enough. But I always needed to ask folks to slow down when talking to me and only use a very basic vocabulary. Of course, almost everyone we met spoke English very well, so we didn’t have any problems.

But on the streets or in crowded places, all of the conversations and words that I couldn’t understand just kind of faded together into a constant background hum of noise. Almost like a white noise machine. I was aware the sound was there, but nothing really stood out at all.

And then, when we were on a crowded subway platform, I heard it. Someone speaking English. And not just English, but a very American English. They were actually pretty far away from us, but the words cut through all the noise. My ears, my head, my attention, all turned toward this sound, unconsciously. Even though it was a couple being quite loudly confused about how the Metro worked, it sounded familiar and comforting to me.

Just imagine the Parthians, Mesopotamians, Cappadocians, Medes, Elomites, and all those other difficult words that Linda had to say. Imagine them as immigrants or visitors in Jerusalem, on this day of Pentecost. And suddenly, out of all the background noise of language that isn’t theirs, they hear clear as day, their mother tongue being spoken for perhaps the first time in years! Did each receive that homing beacon tuning the ear to its signal? Did they have the sense of comfort, and familiarity, and home?

Sometimes, we call Pentecost the birthday of the church. It’s the day the Holy Spirit falls upon the disciples and enables them to speak in many different languages. In a sense it is the birth of the church. It is the gift that Jesus promised, the gift that would sustain and uplift the disciples, the gift that would bind them in one, the gift that would be their helper and advocate. It is the beginning of something new for this group of Jesus-followers.

But this gift, this birthday present of the Holy Spirit, while it’s given to the church, it’s meant for those outside the church. It’s a spiritual gift given, not for the benefit of the disciples, but for the benefit of those outsiders listening in. The disciples could all speak the same language already—they didn’t need to speak in many different languages. But the people outside the building needed them to. And the Holy Spirit made sure that they could.

That’s where I see the real gift of Pentecost. Not the ability just to speak many languages, but the ability to speak the language the people outside the church need us to speak. What is the native language of those outside this building? What languages does the church need to speak?

We have confirmation today. I’ve spent many hours over the past two years with Katie, Alexa, Connor, and Chase—and let me tell you, sometimes they’ve had to help me learn to speak a new language. I’ve picked up some new slang words and learned a lot about how to communicate with just emojis and memes. Luckily for all of us, we already have these great young people in the church who can help us speak this language.

What other languages do we need? Maybe it’s the language of science. Or the language of music. Or the language of business. Maybe it’s a particular spiritual dialect, a language of the heart that speaks deeply into people’s lives. Can we ask the Holy Spirit to gift us with such native languages? Can we be willing to learn from those in church who already speak them?

To try to speak another language can be a scary thing. The first place we went in France was a restaurant, and I stared mutely at the waiter for so long that he just started speaking English. It probably only lasted ten seconds, but in my head were dozens of thoughts. I was trying to conjugate, to remember the polite form of address, I could hear my high school French teacher correcting my pronunciation. I was so paralyzed by worrying about making a mistake that I didn’t say anything at all.

It’s scary to speak another language. It means going outside of your comfort zone, making yourself a learner. And that’s just to speak another, actual language. To speak across barriers of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, culture, or politics is to challenge stereotypes and risk ridicule. It’s an incredibly brave thing to do. Are we willing to take the risk and put ourselves out there? To proclaim the faith that is in us, in whatever language the Spirit enables us to speak?

If we say we celebrate the birthday of the church today, we celebrate an incredibly special gift that has been given to us. Entrusted to us, really. The Holy Spirit is a gift of God given freely: to love us and comfort us, to help us and heal us. But, like all the best gifts, it is a gift that is meant to be shared. A gift that can’t be fully experienced unless it is shared.

At the end of the Affirmation of Baptism rite, we will rejoice with our confirmands, saying that “together we will proclaim the good news to all the world.” I don’t know exactly what languages we’re going to need to speak to do that. I don’t know all the vocabulary we’ll need to learn. I can’t promise that it won’t be confusing at times. But I can promise that we won’t be doing it alone. Never alone. We’ll do it together, and wherever we go God’s Holy Spirit will go with us. Leading and guiding us. Giving us new words to speak and new dialects to try out. So that all of God’s children might hear the good news of God in Christ in their own native language. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Servants of the Most High God

Our reading from Acts this week is a great story. A lot of the book of Acts recounts the travels and journeys of the Apostles–mostly Peter in the beginning and then slowly focusing more on Paul. Today’s reading, from Acts 16, is one of the more exciting stories: a healing, an angry mob, a prison break, and finally a baptism. Which part is the most exciting for you?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Everybody loves a good prison break story, right? It’s usually someone we can root for, someone who shouldn’t be in prison in the first place: Edmund Dantes in the Count of Monte Cristo, or Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. We come to appreciate them as the underdogs, wrongfully imprisoned, and their journeys to freedom are ones that we cheer.

Edmund Dantes must sneak out of prison by posing as a corpse. Andy Dufresne digs his way into the sewers and must crawl a hundred yards through muck and dirt to be reborn on the outside. They are dramatic stories of release and rebirth and freedom.

We have all the makings of a great prison break story today. Paul and Silas are in jail, accused by a xenophobic mob on trumped up, racially motivated charges. Paul had healed the unnamed slave girl, mostly because she was annoying him with her truth. Her owners are upset because now they can’t make money off of the spirit that had plagued her life.

But they don’t accuse Paul of stealing from them. No, instead, they accuse him of spreading insurrection. Of being a threat to their society and order. The mob quickly forms, spurred on by their racism against these Jewish men. And Paul and Silas are jailed without trial, placed in the most secure cell of the prison.

Then there’s this dramatic moment, they are praying and singing hymns, and there’s an earthquake and their shackles are gone. This is the moment the whole story has been leading up to; we’re ready for our heroes to bust out of this place, saved by God’s miraculous actions. And that’s when our great prison break story becomes a really lame prison break story. Because, even though everyone’s bonds are released, they don’t escape. They don’t escape! Their chains are gone, but they stay in prison.

In fact, they even call out to the jailor, who is ready to end his own life because his culture demands that he do so because of this great shame. They reassure him, this man in charge of keeping them in bondage, that they are all present and accounted for. No one needs to die for this.

It’s a prison break story without the prison break. It’s a story of liberation that doesn’t focus on physical freedom. Paul and Silas end up free at the end of this story, but so do others. Because this story isn’t just a story about breaking out of an actual, physical prison. It’s a story about freedom of all kinds. Paul and Silas weren’t the only ones who needed to be set free.

There’s actually three liberating moments—and Paul and Silas might have the least exciting one. The first is the slave girl. She is doubly bound. She is a slave, her freedom is taken from her by her owners. But she is also bound by this “spirit of divination.” A demonic spirit is making use of her body, just as her owners are making use of her.

And she is haunting Paul and Silas as they are seeking the place of prayer. Paul, it says annoyed, although the word could also be translated “deeply grieved,” commands the spirit to leave her in the name of Jesus. And it does. It’s worth noting that this moment of liberation is only half-liberation. The girl is freed from the spirit, but remains a slave. We don’t know what happens to her after this.

And then there’s the jailor. Although he holds others in captivity, he too is in need of freedom. When that earthquake comes and opens the prison doors, he is so distraught at his failure in his job that he is prepared to end his life. He is so bound by the systems of honor and shame, by his fear, that he cannot see another way forward.

When Paul announces that everyone is still there, the jailor’s relief is palpable. “What must I do to be saved?” He asks. His liberation comes as he receives God’s Spirit and blessing in baptism that very night. He is freed from thinking his job is his worth. He is freed to see those he held captive as humans worthy of welcome and care.

What is it that you need liberation from? I was trying to get into the story this week, and wondered what it would be like to have someone follow me around and announce my intentions everywhere I went. And then I wondered, what would the girl with the spirit say if she followed me around. When she follows Paul and Silas, she tells the truth: these men are servants of the Most High God. Is that what the spirit would see in me and my actions? In you?

Would it say that we are servants of the Most High God, which we certainly hope to be? Or would it say other truths? These people are servants of their schedules, their busy-ness, their need to be productive. These people are servants of their political ideology, their self-centeredness, their consumerist ways.

What are you in bondage to? What rules your decisions and choices? Some of our bonds are external—they are things that we do not choose for ourselves anymore than the girl chose to be a slave. They are the institutions, the racism and sexism and homophobia that we might not create but that we are caught up in. Other bonds come from within us. Our own prejudices, our fears and shame, hurtful patterns that we keep returning to.

There’s a lot of questions in our story today: what happened to the slave girl? What kind of salvation was the jailor seeking? But the one I keep coming back to—why would Paul and Silas stay in prison, once God has miraculously released them? Why didn’t they take the opportunity to get out of there? To leave Philippi and its xenophobic mob behind?

Even though they were bound physically, they knew what true freedom was. And the jailor needed it. True freedom, ironically, is found in knowing to whom we belong. The Most High God. In baptism, God claims us as daughters and sons, and frees us from the bonds of sin and death. We are freed from ever having to prove ourselves; we are freed to love and serve our neighbor resting securely in God’s love and grace.

“These men are servants of the Most High God!” the spirit declared, speaking truth on that street in Philippi. The truth today, in this room—these people are children of the Most High God! This is most certainly true. My prayer is that we believe this truth, that our lives shine forth with this truth. These people are children of the Most High God. Amen.