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.

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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.