Saturday, January 1, 2022

What can we say May 22? Easter 6

    Acts 16:9-15. Again, a New Testament reading serving as the Old Testament? The Acts 16 narrative is a seamless whole, so as it’s segmented, I’ll start on it here, and continue next week. A fabulous, powerful, preachable narrative if there ever was one.

   They “set sail from Troas” – conjuring up images of ancient Troy, not just a prehistoric, legendary battle, but stories that inspired the New Testament culture, stories of nobility, heroic acts, fabulous love, immense passion. This is where Paul hears the call to Europe – and launches out. The itinerary might make us yawn, but ancient people’s jaws would drop: what? You took a “straight course to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis”? Unheard of, given the unpredictable winds and waves. The clear intimation is that God was in this, enabling Paul to arrive in record time! The implication is that the Spirit (the “wind”!) is engineering this.

   Philippi was a “little Italy,” where Roman veterans had been resettled as part of the reward for battle. I wonder if they had something akin to Memorial Day, when they thought of their comrades who had died in the battles they had survived? Can a sermon touch on this without glorifying war and country unduly? Perhaps just envisioning the ongoing grief and memorializing that surely happened in Philippi might show we understand.

   They go “down to the river to pray” (think Alison Krauss and O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Rivers, and prayer? Howard Thurman wrote these lovely words: “As a child I was accustomed to spend many hours alone in my rowboat, fishing along the river, where there was no sound save the lapping of the waves against the boat. There were times when it seemed as if the earth and the river and the sky and I were one beat of the same pulse. It was a time of watching and waiting for what I did not know – yet I always knew. There would come a moment when beyond the single pulse beat there was a sense of Presence which seemed always to speak to me. My response to this Presence always had the quality of personal communion. There was no voice. There was no image. There was no vision. There was God.”

    There was no synagogue for them to attend on the Sabbath – and so, failing to find a quorum of Jews for worship, they come upon some women including Lydia. She is “a worshipper of God” – which we’d size up as someone not needing conversion! The Greek term indicates she was a God-fearer, interested in Judaism, even prayerful, but not a fully observant member of the community.

   She’s fascinating. A “dealer in purple cloth,” which the wealthy purchased – and so was she at least relatively affluent? Willie Jennings rightly points out that “Here is power put to good use,” as Lydia’s house becomes the church in Philippi (verse 40)! Find stories of wealthy women who’ve made the Kingdom of God happen.

   “The Lord opened her heart” – reminding us clergy that at the end of the day the work of preaching is in the Lord’s hands, not ours. What’s intriguing about this new church in Philippi is its shattering of social convention. Looking ahead (essential in this coherent narrative!), as Jennings writes, “Much of the concrete work of discipleship can be located between these two women,” the businesswoman and the slave girl. People going to the wrong side of town, diverse peeps eating together, doing ministry to the needy together (could we even think of Lydia’s house as the outreach center?): this must have provoked whispers, raised eyebrows, even harsh words.

   No need to give your people a thrashing – but who comes to church? Who doesn’t? Who comes to your home? Who doesn’t? Isn’t Christianity holier, nobler, and more itself when we bridge gaps, when we shatter isolation and segregation? Lillian Smith, in Killers of the Dream, dreamed about our overcoming of division by musing, “If we could realize our talent for bridging chasms.” Or as Jennings puts it, Lydia “draws the new order of discipleship into the economic order” – it’s a “reordering of economies, both civic and domestic.”

   For the rest of the dramatic narrative in Acts 16, click here for next week’s blog!

   John 14:23-29. Whether I preach it or not, I want to ponder, pray, and reflect on Jesus’ remarkable, hopeful words in verse 25: “I am still with you.” Thanks be to God for that! Good cause then to be among those “who love me and keep my word.” It’s aspirational, of course. How good of Jesus to provide the Holy Spirit – the Advocate! Notice the Spirit isn’t a fleeting mood or an emotional rush. The Spirit is the one who reveals the full meaning of Jesus’ words and life.

   So it’s not just “comfort,” probably the #1 reason people give for why they come to church, what they’re looking for. The real Spirit empowers for work, courage, witness, facing hostility, and bringing peace – “not as the world gives.” Or doesn’t! Raymond Brown, noting Jesus plays on the common Hebrew greeting, Shalom: “It’s not the thoughtless salutation of ordinary men – it is the gift of salvation.” This peace “has nothing to do with the absence of warfare, nor with an end to psychological tension, not with a sentimental feeling of well-being.” It’s salvation, an all-encompassing reality. I wonder in preaching if it’s worth clarifying all this. Maybe. Better if I can paint a picture, or share a story. From your own community, or life preferably?

   Back to Jesus’ “I am still with you,” let me share these words I wrote on the hymn “Abide with Me” in my new book, Unrevealed Until Its Season. Fitting for this text, I think:

   Some hymns are associated in our minds, by habit or by common use, with particular situations. “Abide With Me” gets sung at funerals. And understandably. Henry Francis Lyte wrote the words when his health was deteriorating rapidly back in 1847. He probably wrote it, or most of it, on the day he surrendered his pastoral work in England to travel to Italy to recuperate. He never arrived, dying along the way in France. And William H. Monk, who wrote the elegiac tune for it did so shortly after his three year old daughter had died. Sorrow, love and a glimmer of hope glow from the embers of this hymn.


   And yet it can and should be a hymn for the living. Lyte probably was thinking of that moment when the risen Jesus had caught up with the two forlorn disciples on the road to Emmaus. When they came to their village they asked him, “Stay with us,” or “Abide with us, for it is evening; the day is far spent” (Luke 24:29). In that moment, it wasn’t a lonely soul asking Jesus to stay. It was a fellowship of three. The Bible didn’t know much if anything about the Holy Trinity, but we do. God is eternally a fellowship of three, abiding, staying, loving, sharing. I love the Rublev icon, which depicts Father, Son and Holy Spirit sitting around a table together. That’s God, this fellowship of three. And just as the Emmaus story invites you, the reader, to join the threesome of Jesus and the other two, so God’s holy club around that table invites you to pull up a chair on that open fourth side of the table.


   The image of Jesus staying, lingering, abiding is a constant in John’s Gospel. Jesus saw two of John’s disciples and stayed with them just before he saw Nathaniel standing under a fig tree (John 1:35-48). Jesus lingered mid-day with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). During Holy Week, as in all his visits to Jerusalem, he stayed at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (John 12:1-8). On Holy Wednesday, we don’t know what Jesus did all day. Probably he just abided at home with his three friends. Then at the last supper, Jesus invited his friends to “abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4). They overheard his prayer, including that he abides in the Father and the Father abides in him (John 17:21). He was nearing his end. But the abiding is for them, for the rest of their lives, for the life of the church.


   Every day, dusk and darkness remind us that our mortal lives are brief. “Fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens.” Indeed, “other helpers fail.” And so faith is turning to God, “help of the helpless.” Loss and death are not merely my own, but the death of others I’ve loved, others I’ve never known, nameless victims of evil, not to mention the death of dreams and illusions, heartbreak, aging – and even transitions like graduation or retirement that we celebrate, and yet are losses. In the thick of all this change, loss and unwelcomed newness, the hymn teaches us to look to God, “O Thou who changest not.”


   Indeed: “I need thy presence every passing hour.” Isaac Bashevis Singer wryly wrote that “I only pray when I am in trouble. But I am in trouble all the time.” Jesus told us to become like children, and if this means anything at all it reminds us that we are as dependent upon God as little children are upon their parents; a toddler doesn’t fancy herself to be independent, and delights in dependence, as we might as we ask God to abide with us. Incidentally, “abide” can also mean “tolerate” or “bear,” as in “I cannot abide his behavior.” Grace is that God abides us, abiding with us.


   The final stanza is haunting. “Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes.” What is the first thing you see after birth? Most likely, your mother, who bore you in agony and gave you life. What is the last thing you see? We hope it might be family, our children perhaps. The hymn asks to see the cross. The death of our Lord. God become one with us in our mortality. What comfort, what profound company we keep in the hour of death. God is with us, always but most shimmeringly then. The cross is gloom, but we pray that it “shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.” Have you pondered the cross, not merely as an erect piece of wood on which Christ dangled, but as a compass, as a roadsign, pointing not left or right or north or south, but upward, toward God?

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