Your People, My People

A Sermon offered by Laura on 10.13.19, Narrative Lectionary Year 2

Scriptures: Ruth 1:1-17, Mark 3:31-35

“I have five grandchildren, and none of them have my DNA.” Pete Wells, the former Stated Clerk of Eastern Oregon Presbytery, once used these words to introduce himself at General Assembly. El Rae, Pete’s wife, shared the story of this moment with me. She reflected that it marked a transformation in Pete’s picture of “family.” He’d been raised with a traditional sense of kinship as biological, but El Rae came to their marriage with a more expansive idea of what family could be. Years later, Pete had come to see how God can create “family” in less conventional ways.

In their family, El Rae says, “We have four children, two biological and two by circumstance.” Two adult women became “daughters by circumstance” when El Rae’s dear friend, their mother, died, not long after one of her daughters had given birth. El Rae immediately decided that the new baby would now be her grandchild, and that was that. She had the opportunity to nurture a child and a mother, and she took it. “I want people without biological grandchildren or people whose grandchildren live far away to see how God can give you grandchildren, right where you are now.”

I asked El Rae’s permission to tell this story, because to me, it resonates deeply with the story of Ruth. Ruth’s vow of companionship to Naomi is a true marvel of scripture, a blazing gem of fierce, impassioned loyalty whose words even now people speak to bind their lives together:

Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”

The surprise is that Ruth makes this vow to her mother-in-law, Naomi. There are enough “mother-in-law” jokes in our culture to recognize how remarkable this is. Ruth has no so-called “blood” ties to Naomi; and now that Ruth’s husband, Naomi’s son, has died, she has no further kinship obligations.

Even more surprising, Ruth makes her vow to a woman from an enemy tribe.  Ruth is a Moabite; Naomi is an Israelite. Overall, the scriptures depict the Moabites as “shameful, inhospitable, and dangerous.”[1] Genesis 19 tells us that the Moabites are distantly related to the Israelites, by way of Lot—and Lot’s daughters. (Ugh). Numbers tells us how the Moabites tried to curse the Israelites as they passed through Moab after escaping Egypt. And Deuteronomy 23:6 instructs the Israelites about the Moabites in these words: “You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.”

So it’s actually shocking that Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, made the decision for his family  to take refuge in Moab, of all places. We should anticipate things will not go well. Throughout this story, the names of places and characters emphasize ironies of fullness and emptiness. The family leaves Bethlehem, which means “the house of bread,” because of famine—no bread in this house. They migrate to Moab, a name which signifies the “descendents of a father;” but in Moab, all three potential fathers die with no descendants.[2] Places where fulfillment was sought turn out to be empty of hope.

Names of people in this story are also insightful, hinting at nuances of character. Elimelech means “my God is king,” though God seems absent, there’s no king in Israel, and Elimelech’s leadership fails his family. He leads them to a place where his sons, Mahlon and Chilyon, meet up with what their names signify: disease and destruction! Yet in his name there is a foreshadowing that kingship will ultimately result from his story.

Naomi’s name means “pleasant,” but her life, with famine, migration, the deaths of husband and sons, has been anything but. She renames herself Mara, “bitterness,” to better fit the “plot of her life as she reads it.” [3] Naomi’s daughter-in-law Orpah’s name means “back of the neck,” and that is what we see when this Moabite woman turns back to her biological family. Orpah takes Naomi’s advice, but Ruth “clings” to Naomi.

And Ruth? Ruth’s name means “friendship.” So let’s talk about friendship. What an amazing kind of relationship it is! It seems more fragile and tentative than what we think of as biological kinship. Our culture protects biological kinship with all sorts of policies and social norms, guarding its procreative potential;  but, as writer and pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler notes, friendship is non-procreative, a “fertility…that yields only flowers that never turn to fruit—beauty without production, without possession.”[4]

I think we take friendship somewhat for granted in our culture. In the United States, it’s not uncommon for children and parents to live states away from each other. Many of us grow up developing circles of friends with whom we spend much more time than our parents or siblings. We are less concerned about loyalty to blood relatives than most cultures throughout history.

But such an attitude was unthinkable in the Ancient Near East of Naomi’s and Jesus’ times. Children lived close to their parents, perhaps sharing a house and a business. Furthermore, as N.T. Wright notes, “for Jews, the close family bond was part of the God-given fabric of thinking and living. Loyalty to the family was the local and specific outworking of loyalty to Israel as the people of God.”[5] Recall again how God’s promise of blessing to Abraham is made manifest through plentiful ancestors—as many as the stars in the sky.

Jesus’ words in Mark would be heard as scandalous: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus challenges the family loyalty at the heart of Jewish identity, opening up a vision of a new kind of family, a people belonging to one another quite apart from conventional means, by way of his body and blood.  “I have called you friends,” Jesus says to those he has called away from their blood-kinship bonds to follow him in doing the will of God.

So it is that Melissa Florer-Bixler writes that “the friendship of Ruth and Naomi is the cipher through which I understand the church,” in “an elusive interconnectedness as an earthly body of Christ, not a constant and fixed institution.”[6] True church is experienced where God’s life sparks in companionship, “unexpected, unplanned, and uncalculated.”[7] Florer-Bixler continues,

“Church is often trust in that which I cannot control, the shared life of another without institutionally mandated promises or production…We grapple with the fragility of what is possible, that we will come in and out of each other’s lives, that we will find ourselves failing at overcoming our otherness and, perhaps, trying again. Along the way we may come to discover that this love grows and extends outward beyond our biological kinship, into a beloved who is strange and similar, all at the same time.”[8]

Ruth’s vow to Naomi sparkles with God’s life. It is a spontaneous outflow of grace in friendship’s loyalty and loving-kindness transcending, in that moment, differences of ethnicity, religion, and generations. Ruth’s story reveals the quality of hesed, a Hebrew word that is difficult to translate, synthesizing the meanings of faithfulness, kindness, mercy, and commitment to do what is right.[9]

Hesed begins in God’s covenant love with God’s people; but it is also attributed to human beings in scripture. Ruth’s vow exemplifies hesed, as she steps up to do right by Naomi, refusing to leave the older woman to journey alone. Later in this story, Boaz also exemplifies this quality as he steps up to right and kind action, taking Ruth, and with her, Naomi, under his wing as a kinsman-redeemer. Hesed is faithful love that enacts righteousness.

Ruth is the heroine of hesed, which is all the more significant because she’s a Moabite. While the book of Ruth is set in the chaotic times narrated in the book of Judges, scholars think it was written much later, in the days when Israel was returning to the Land of Promise. Ezra and Nehemiah tell the stories of these times, and the policies of separation from “the people of the land.” The people craved stability, certainty and clarity about their geography and identity.[10] A Moabite heroine, who reveals God’s covenant-love, who turns out to be the grandmother of King David, would be a provocative reminder that God’s friendship and faithfulness knows no conventional boundaries.

My friends, this is good news! In Jesus Christ, we are brought into what some have named the “Kin-dom” of God: a family which transcends DNA, which is drawn together in the powerful bond of God’s covenant-love. And there is a call, here, not so much to reject “blood” ties, but to experience the “expansiveness of friendship,”[11] by which we open our lives to others in unexpected, unplanned, and uncalculated ways.

I invite you to spend this week contemplating the treasures of your friendships, especially those you’ve experienced at church. How has God drawn you into unexpected kinship with brothers and sisters-in-Christ? How has God given you children and grandchildren who do not share your DNA? How might God be asking you to covenant-love, to hesed faithfulness which steps up to care with kindness and commitment?

May God bless you with insight and inspire you to action as you dwell in gratitude for  God’s faithfulness. In the name of the Triune community of overflowing love. Amen.





[4] Melissa Florer-Bixler, Fire by Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament, 172.

[5] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, 39.

[6] Melissa Florer-Bixler, Fire by Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament, 172.

[7] Florer-Bixler, as above.

[8] Florer-Bixler, as above.



[11] Florer-Bixler, as above.

Come and See: Sermon by Keith, 1.22.17

Scripture: John 1:35-42   

Let’s just say that the “philigopper” on your car breaks.  You go out one morning, put the key in, and nothing happens.  You open the hood and notice the philigopper is leaking gop, so you know this is serious.  Your car has always run like a dream, and besides regular maintenance, you have never had to go to a mechanic before.  But this isn’t a job for any regular mechanic; you need one that specializes in philigoppers, a philigoptimist.  You open the Yellow Pages or Google “philigoptimists” in La Grande, OR.”  Wow, there are six different philigoptimists in the area!  You know this will be an expensive job that is very detailed and time consuming and you want it done right.  What do you do next?

Well, I know what I would do; I’d start calling my friends.  I’d call some of you and ask you if ever had your philigopper go out on your car, and if so, who did the repairs.  (pretend to call one of the members of the church.)

There is an issue of trust in the midst of all of this.  If your friend tells you which shop took good care of him when their philigopper went out, you are more than likely to go to there, too.  If your friend says that the new movie showing at the theater is awesome, you have a better change of changing your schedule and go see it.  It even counts with restaurants.  We are making our plans to travel to Arizona for Spring Break and trying to decide if we are going to go through Nevada on the back roads or stick to the interstate through Utah.  We may have been swayed to go through Nevada because Linda Fratzke said there is this little restaurant in Wells that has awesome homemade food.  Our trust and friendship in Linda may have swayed how we travel in March.

But what about when comes to church?  Or even talking about God for that matter?  I’ll be the first to say that we live in era and part of the world that you are probably more likely to be asked about where you get your philigopper fixed than you are to have someone call you up and ask you about what church you go to.  In some ways, this seems almost counterintuitive.  Spirituality is at an all time high, people are looking for God, people are looking for answers to life’s questions, but for some reason people want to find that path on their own, as an individual without a community.  It’s like fixing your philigopper without a manual or help from someone else who’s worked on one before.  But on the flipside, it can be hard to talk about God, our faith, Jesus, and church.  If the phone did ring and a friend was asking you about who this Jesus fellow was, you might be apt to say, “Let me have you call my pastor.”  You know, call the expert, even though you have everything you need to talk about what Jesus is doing in your life.

I believe our scripture from the Gospel of John offers up to us what any of us can say, a simple invite to those times when we haven’t been asked about our faith, because I believe it goes beyond waiting for someone to ask us.  The invitation is to “Come and see.”   And I think the entire gospel is a “come and see” gospel.  Do you remember the very beginning of John, where the Word was God and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us?  God didn’t wait for our invite.  Jesus is God stepping across the cosmos right into our lives, right in front of us, inviting us to “come and see.”  Why would God want to do this?  Because God wants to be known by us and has become known by us in Jesus Christ.

It begins when John the Baptist sees Jesus walking by, points to him and says to his disciples, “Look, there he is—the Lamb of God!”  They follow Jesus and he says, “What are you looking for?”  A simple question with profound implications.  Everyone is looking for something: salvation, identity, love, to get out of church soon enough to get to their favorite lunch spot.  Some are looking for fulfillment, purpose, answers to life’s question.  Their reply may seem odd, “Where are you staying?”  But I think their question points us to a deeper meaning, they want to know if this guy is legit, if he really is the Lamb of God.  “Come and see,” is Jesus’ response.  Come and get to know me. Come and find out for yourself.  Ask questions.  See me at work.  Come to the conclusions on your own.  Live with me.  Be in relationship with me.  Simply, come and see.

Even the interaction between Philip and Nathanael shows how uncomplicated it is.  We don’t know their relationship, but they must have been friends for Philip to go share this good news.  Philip comes and tells Nathanael that the one scripture has promised is here!  And he is from Nazareth.  Now, Nathanael’s response can seem a little snooty, but it is a legitimate question.  “What good can come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael knew his scriptures and the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem, not Nazareth.  It seems like an unlikely place for the Christ to call home.  But do you see what Philip does?  He doesn’t try and convince or cajole.  He doesn’t even answer Nathanael’s question.  No, he invites Nathanael to join him on this faith journey and answer the question himself.  Here is a friend inviting his friend to come have an encounter with Jesus himself.  Come and see and have your own experience of and testimony to God who has come to him in Jesus Christ.

What does this mean for us?  Well friends, first and foremost, it means we invite our friends to come and see.  It isn’t our job to answer every question.  Like Philip, we must recognize that questions are an opportunity to help the people who are curious venture into the ranks of those who are willing to come and see.  Our job is not to think for people; it is only to invite them.  This means that those you are inviting to “come and see” are those who know you and trust you, whether family member, friend, or neighbor.  In this day and age when people are looking for authenticity in every aspect of their lives, an invitation from someone who they already know and trust will go further than anything anyone can offer.

But I also believe these “come and see” invitations are to be given to those who haven’t called you up to ask you about God.  God came across the room, so to speak, in Jesus Christ so he could live with us and we could live with him, to be in a new, whole relationship with him.  And in that relationship, God is inviting us to walk across the room to invite people to “come and see.”  I think Philip was excited to invite Nathanael into a relationship with Jesus.  And it is something we need to be excited about, too.  Now, I’m not saying stand on a street corner and scream Bible passages at people.  I’m not saying clobber your friends and family with Jesus.  What I’m saying is pray and be guided by the Holy Spirit.  Those times for invitations will come.

A couple years into our time as your pastors, I was asked, “If I invited someone to church, what would I be inviting them too?”  It’s a good question.  If you hadn’t noticed, we are a little older, we don’t have a praise band like a cool church should, we don’t have a bunch of programs.  But notice what God’s invitation, Jesus invitation, and Philip’s invitation is all about.  Or what that invitation isn’t all about.  It isn’t an invitation to accept a certain dogma or doctrine, a certain music style, or even an invite to a church.  It is an invite to a relationship with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.  To dwell in God and have God dwell in us.

So, what would you be inviting people too?  Let me answer that question with a story.  Do you all remember Autumn and her two daughters? A couple of months ago, she was trying to sell her house and she called us to see if we were able to help her with a couple of things now that she is hundreds of miles away.  When I thought we were almost done talking, she asked, “Keith, why isn’t your church full of people?  It should be packed.”  I went on to ask her what she was talking about.  She shared that when she had moved to La Grande to go back to school at EOU, she checked out a couple of the “big” churches and felt ignored by the people.  Yeah, they had all the programming for the every age and whatever style of music worship service that a person could want.  But they didn’t seem to want to get to know her and her daughters.  So she took a chance on First Pres, mostly because she liked the architecture.  But she was shocked when she got here.  Never had she felt so welcomed at a church.  She said, “The church loved on me and my daughters like we were family.”  She didn’t find a program, she didn’t find a praise band, she didn’t even find a small group for divorced moms like they had at one of the other churches she checked out.  She got a glimpse of God.  She found the love of Christ in and through you.

And Autumn hadn’t been invited by anyone.  Just think what would happen if we all invited a friend to come and see and experience Christ here?  Because Christ is here!  Ultimately, he is the one doing the inviting, because he wants to be found by you, by your friends, by your family.  “Come and see” calls the Christ.  And his invitation becomes ours. “Come and see” is our invitation to the world.  Join the journey and invite others on the journey as well, for in the quest itself, there is life to be found in the one who journeys with us.   Because along the way, he promises that we will get glimpses in and through him of what every person is looking for:  the very heart of God.  Amen.


Son of Abraham: Sermon by Laura, 11.6.16 Pentecost 25C

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

What a convergence of significant dates we have in these early weeks of November! In our congregation, as we’ve already mentioned, today is “Stewardship Commitment Sunday.” But I’m guessing other significant dates have captured more of your attention, anticipation, and anxiety. Cubs fans continue to celebrate Nov. 2nd’s historic win. Veterans Day is coming up on Nov. 11. And…what’s that you say? There’s an election in two days? How could we forget!

We’ll come back to that. But the date that was most significant for me this past week was Nov. 1, the Feast of All Saints. I now count my Dad, Ron Elly, among the members of the church triumphant. In honor of All Saints, I’d like to read you the words which, to me, are the heart of Dad’s testimony as a Christ-follower. Dad had scrawled these words, in all caps for emphasis, with blue ballpoint pen on a swatch of wide-ruled paper; stuck with tape to his bathroom mirror. He saw them every time he saw his own reflection: “I am a child of God, deserving of love and respect, and God will use me to change the world.”

Those words reflect the good news of the gospel, as we consider the familiar story of Zacchaeus, Jericho’s chief tax collector, short on stature if not on wealth. Zacchaeus is so eager to see Jesus that he scurries ahead of the crowds to climb a tree to for a better view. Stopping below that tree, Jesus calls Zacchaeus down, inviting himself to lodge at Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus is joyful to host Jesus, but onlookers grumble. Why would great rabbi like Jesus want to associate with a man like Zacchaeus—a tax collector who must be a “sinner?”

After all, tax collectors weren’t known for integrity. Business men who had bid on and won the privilege of collecting taxes for the Roman Empire, they regularly took an extra cut for themselves. A chief tax collector, like Zacchaeus, with other tax collectors working under him, had even more opportunity for “cooking the books, commodities speculation, side deals, graft, and extortion to defraud”[i] others. Fellow Jews viewed him as profiting from their distress, and collaboration with the Gentile occupiers made him a sinner, an outsider to the “official family of faith.”[ii]

But what does Jesus see in the man up in the tree? Does he see a sinner in need of repentance?

That’s the traditional interpretation of this story.

But there are a couple of ways the original Greek text can be understood. Most English versions translate Zacchaeus’ speech in future tense, so that he says,  “I will give half my money to the poor…I will pay back four times as much.” It sounds like Zacchaeus is so moved by Jesus’ personal attention that he repents the spot. But these verbs can also be read in what’s called the “customary present tense:” “I give to the poor…I pay back four times as much.” Zacchaeus is revealing that he is already, customarily, practicing righteous stewardship, despite what others assume about him.

I like this second reading. It turns the tables on my assumptions, as Jesus so often does. As one author notes, “maybe the story is not about a sinner who shocks us by repenting, but about the crowd that demonizes a person it doesn’t like with all sorts of false assumptions.”[iii]

Such a reading is consistent with Luke’s other stories.  There are unlikely heroes all over the place: a faithful Roman soldier, a “good” Samaritan, a healed Samaritan leper who returns to thank Jesus, and a tax collector praised in contrast to a Pharisee. Each of these stories overturns the expectations of religious insiders.

There’s also the “rich young ruler,” righteous in all the expected ways,  who walks away from Jesus, unable to bring himself to do as Jesus directs, to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow in Jesus’ way. At the end of that story, the disciples ask, “Who, then, can be saved?”

“This guy!” Zacchaeus’ story seems to respond. Here’s another rich man, about whom Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house.” But what does Jesus mean with that word “salvation”?

In one sense, it points to the very person of Jesus Christ, literally coming to dwell at Zacchaeus’ house. Childlike in his eager-tree-climbing—and remember, Jesus says we receive the kingdom like a little child—Zacchaeus receives Jesus with great joy. Named and accepted as a true son of Abraham, Zacchaeus is brought from outsider status back into the true family of faith. Jesus has sought, found, and saved Zacchaeus.

But the word “salvation” applies in a second way. Affirming Zacchaeus’ generosity, Jesus is recognizing that salvation had already arrived at Zacchaeus’ house,   because Zacchaeus had already committed himself to economic practices which tangibly bless other people.

“Salvation” is a big word.  It is more than a penitent sinner’s return to morality, more than a warm feeling of acceptance, more, even, than an “inward and spiritual grace leading to heavenly rest,” as one scholar puts it. Salvation also includes the outward actions we take to make a “practical and observable” difference in others’ lives.[iv]

All of this points us toward the challenge of discernment. Are we able to see and recognize the true sons and daughters of Abraham, bearing fruits of generosity, compassion, and graciousness wherever and whenever they may be found—or do we assume some people, “those people,” cannot possibly have any blessing to offer? Which of our prejudices obscures our vision from seeing God’s powerful Spirit at work, blessing the earth, through neighbors all around us?

What an important question in election season! And what a brutal season it has been! I’ve read that therapists are reporting record numbers of patients with over-the-top anxiety in the recent weeks of Election 2016. I get it—this election has drawn out an atmosphere of suspicion, fear, and dehumanizing rhetoric. New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, “If America were a marriage we’d need therapy…There has been so much bad communication over the past year: people talking in warring monologues past each other, ignoring the facts and using lazy stereotypes…to reduce complex individuals into simplistic categories…”

So I truly appreciated a meme on my Facebook feed this week. It was a picture of the two major presidential candidates, along with these words: “These people were both made in the image of God. Yes, both.” I appreciated that reminder, not because it helps me which one to vote for, but because it reconnects me with our basic Christian conviction, that every human being has value, no matter who they are, no matter what they have done or left undone, simply because God chose to create them. And God longs for God’s image, concealed beneath layers of damage and dust, to be revealed in each of us. God longs for God’s beloved children to recognize themselves—and each other.

All of us here have been sought, found, and saved by Christ. We are recipients of a salvation that way beyond a ticket to heaven after death. Christ transforms us from recipients to participants and agents of salvation, and sent into the world on God’s mission, empowered by the Holy Spirit of mercy and forgiveness, courageous compassion, and daring love. As my Dad reminded himself every day, we are children of God, deserving of love and respect, and God will use us to change the world.

But if this is true of each of us, it is also true for every other child of God, it is also true for every other human person created in God’s image, for whom Jesus gave himself so generously so that image might be restored in fullness.

In the days ahead, our invitation, is to ask the Holy Spirit to give us clear vision, that we might see past our assumptions and prejudices. We trust in a God who immeasurably greater than our culture’s politics. Holding fast to that faith, it is our special task to create spacious sanctuaries of listening acceptance, where neighbors and strangers are welcomed without fear.

Therefore, prepare yourself, church. Use your eyes and ears first, to see and to hear, and only then, use your mouths to proclaim all the ways that God is active.  Practice careful discernment.

Look at each person you encounter, in person or on the news, with the gaze of the Holy Spirit, and recognize saints, hidden and in plain sight, doing gracious acts in small and every day ways. There are always people bearing the fruits of salvation in unexpected ways, in unexpected places. Practice curiosity, not prejudice.

And on Stewardship Sunday, this Sunday after All Saints, let us commit ourselves to practicing generosity. Not just generosity in our economic practices, not just generosity in sharing our resources with others. But with a generosity of spirit, the kind of generosity God shows us, let us open our hearts to God’s children everywhere.

Let us be courageous in our relationships willing to be changed as we listen to people who are different from us. Let us be available to experience God’s love from unexpected sources. Let us be willing to “pay forward” all the little acts of kindness that actually keep this world alive, the daily acts of sharing made by those who are now among the “great cloud of witnesses,” who made, in one way or another, our life together in this place possible. Thanks be to God for their generous lives, and, in death, for the completion of  their joyous reunion in the family of God.

Alleluia! Amen.

[i] Christopher R. Hutson, “Exegetical Perspective” on Luke 19:1-10, in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 2. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 165.

[ii] D. Cameron Murchison, “Theological Commentary” on Luke 19:1-10 in in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 2. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 166.


[iv] Murchison, as above, 168

A New Imagination: Sermon by Laura, 9.1.13 Pentecost 15 Acts Sermon Series

Scripture: Acts 17

British author Sir Ken Robinson tells the story of a little girl at a drawing lesson. “She was six and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention, and in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated and she went over to her and she said, ‘What are you drawing?’ And the girl said, ‘I’m drawing a picture of God.’ And the teacher said, ‘But nobody knows what God looks like.’ And the girl said, ‘They will in a minute.’”[i]

Don’t you just love that little girl’s confident creativity? The marvelous, natural creativity of young children is often remarked upon. But alongside her gift of imagination, I want us to notice this child’s relationship with her teacher. Their conversation shows that the teacher made a form in which imagination can flourish, a classroom, where there is space, time, and tools for drawing–in which the child can manifest her freedom.

I’m using the word “freedom” here to signify the barrier-breaking power of creative imagination, inspiring newness and making the unknown known.  By “form,” I mean the structures, choices and commitments which ground imagination in a world of substance, of earth and flesh. Both the freedom to dream and the form to contain it are necessary for the child’s revelation of God, and for ours as well.

Today, we are wrapping up our sermon series on the book of Acts, and one of the greatest insights I’ve received from it is an awareness of the dynamic tension of freedom and form. We see it throughout the book, beginning with Pentecost, when the rag-tag band of Jesus’ disciples receive the amazing gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will free them, again and again, to a new imagination, guiding them to see and hear God’s will in Jesus Christ, gathering and sending out the creative community which becomes known as the church. Luke tells us the story, how God’s imagination, God’s dream, finds form and flesh in this community seeking and struggling to share the good news of new life in Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem and onward to all nations.

As the discipleship community grows, they confront obstacles within and without. There is the challenge of sustaining the community, supporting the ministry of the apostles but also caring justly for the needy in their midst. There is the pain of division, as the believers are rejected by the Jewish communities of their roots. Persecution forces some to flee Jerusalem, and they learned to share the message cross-culturally, welcoming Gentiles as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Time and again, the church bumps up against the brokenness of the world and the limits of previous understanding, but the Holy Spirit imagines a new way and sends them out. The faithfulness of the church is found on a Way fraught with dynamic tension,  as the dream of God marches always onward in forms previously unimagined.

And who could have imagined the way God’s Spirit takes form in Paul, the rabbi known for persecuting Jesus’ followers who becomes the preeminent apostle to the Gentiles? Not even Paul himself. In Chapter 17 we catch up to him when he seems to be bumping up against the limits of his own imagination. He’s been commissioned to the primary task of sharing the good news with Gentiles. But his pattern entering a new city is always to enter the synagogue first, arguing for three successive Sabbath days how the scriptures witness to Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah. But in Thessalonica, his practice angered some Jews so much, they not only incite a riot there, but follow him to Beroea. Sent away for his protection, Paul makes an unexpected visit to Athens. Forced out of his usual patterns in this legendary city, Paul at last finds his voice as apostle to the Gentiles.

Waiting for Silas and Timothy, Paul takes in the sights. Intellectuals, culture-makers and philosophers of the ancient world, no one could fault the Athenians for lacking imagination. Indeed, if the word “imagination” combines the words  “image” and “nation,”[ii] then Athens was exemplary, for it was a “nation” populated by every conceivable image of god. There was even one shrine honoring a god the Athenians could not conceive of, a shrine to “the unknown god.”

Paul’s monotheistic sensibilities are offended by the prolific graven images, and he begins conversations about them in the synagogues and the public forums. Eventually he finds himself sharing the good news of Jesus with philosophers, who bring him to the Areopagus, the preeminent council of Athenian elders, to explain his “strange ideas.” It is Paul’s first opportunity in Acts to speak to a completely Gentile audience of non-believers.

Now we might expect Paul to lambast the Athenians about their idolatry. But as he has wandered Athens and dialogued with its people, he has been learning about them. Paul’s come to recognize that the statues of Athens represent a restless and imaginative searching for the divine. And so he begins, carefully, respectfully, with common ground: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” he says, pointing to their “unknown god” as witness of their seeking.

Then, he begins to share a form to ground their imagination. He tells the story of scripture, as sensitively as he can for those who have never heard it. That unknown god they honor is the Creator of all peoples, who can never be fully captured in any human-conceived shrines or sculptures or ideas. But while God cannot be pinned down to just any form, God can be known by all peoples. This God is “not far from each of us,” Paul says, quoting one of their own philosopher-poets: “in him we live and move and have our being; for we too are his offspring.”

This is the good news of the Spirit, my friends. Imagination is the common heritage of all human beings, created as bearers of God’s image, a powerful gift for seeking God. But God is as near to all of us as the breath of life within us. Therefore we are called, as one author put it, “to rejoice and to discover, to dialogue and to enjoy the common life of the Spirit,” listening for her voice with all those who grope for the divine ground of all being.[iii]

It is good for us to dialogue, as Paul did, with people whose religious imaginations are radically different from ours, attuning ourselves to the Spirit in their midst. For the Spirit is free as the wind is free, to be present wherever and with whomever she chooses. Making use of the imaginative powers she gives us, we will encounter her in places we never expect. The Spirit of creation from chaos, the Spirit of resurrection, is always and everywhere breaking through the barriers to new life.

But Paul’s speech does not stop there, because even as we embrace creative freedom of the Spirit, we must also recognize how subject we are to confusion. The Spirit’s restlessness does not feel comfortable or secure, and we are always tempted to tie her down, fixing for ourselves objects of worship, centering our lives on the images, shrines, dogmas, and ideologies we ourselves create.

That’s why Paul calls the Athenians to repentance, boldly proclaiming the even better news, that God does not leave us restlessly searching, but has revealed the form of divine grace. The pattern of God’s gracious loving ways has been written and can be known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All our human longings to touch, to know, to experience divinity, all restless imaginings of God’s goodness, beauty and truth, find form in the man God raised from the dead and appointed to judge the world in righteousness. As Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

“No one knows what God looks like;” “They will in a minute.”

I’m curious to know what that little girl unveiled to her teacher that day. But there’s something I’d like to know even more.  How would you draw the image of God? For here’s the thing: we are each and all, like that little girl, called to use all our imagination and all our creativity, to reveal the image of God we are uniquely created to bear. The Spirit longs to reveal God’s goodness, beauty, and truth in us. Sometimes a fresh wind of the Spirit must first blow through and blow away the faulty imagery cluttering the landscape of our imagination, so that we may discern the true outlines of God’s image by looking to Jesus Christ, self-giving love incarnate, God’s dream in human form.

I believe we are in just such a time, when the winds of change are inviting us to a new freedom of imagination. We must pray for the discernment to shape forms of the faithful life which can reveal Christ to a new generation. Like Paul, our first task is to get to know the world we find ourselves in, to look deeply beneath its obvious idolatries and recognize the common life of the Spirit. And then we are called to hold onto the form of God’s dream with a conviction that is always ready for repentance, a faith always seeking new understanding.[iv]

Our country has been honoring the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which gave us the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream,” King declared, tracing the outlines of a world that had not yet come into being, a world where the idolatries of racial prejudice and discrimination had been cleared away to make room for the rights and dignity of all people. Let us remember that the nonviolent demonstration of that day, and the words of King’s speech were grounded in the form of a dream much older than 50 years.

It was the dream of the free and restless Spirit, spoken first through the prophets King quoted, saying, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”[v]

It is the same dream which called the church into being forming a people for powerful witness, the same dream which sent Paul to Athens, across the barriers between Jew and Gentile, to proclaim the nearness of God’s presence, the dream which still sends you and me, out from all our tiny, comfortable shrines to carry the reconciling love of Jesus Christ starting right here and marching onward to all the nations of the world until that appointed day when Christ comes again. Amen

[i] Sir Ken Robinson speaking in 2006 at TED (Technology-Entertainment-Design) on  the topic of creativity and schools. Speech can be found here:

[ii] I think I got this idea from Julia Cameron, but I can’t find the location in her books.

[iv] “faith seeking understanding” was the “motto” of St. Anselm of Canterbury

Antioch Christians: Sermon by Laura, 8.4.13, Acts Sermon Series

Texts: Acts 11:19-30; 13:1-5

How many of you know this finger-rhyme? If you do, join in with me:

“Here is the church, here is the steeple; Open the doors and see all the people.”

That’s what I learned as a child; Lucas recently showed me a second part:

“Close the doors and hear them pray; Open the doors and they all go away.”

I enjoyed that finger-rhyme as a child, but now that I’m an adult and a pastor, it raises questions for me. For one thing, what does it teach us about the church? Is the church a building with a steeple? A place with doors, where people gather inside? Well, yes—that’s often how we use the word “church” in our culture. But these days, steepled buildings like ours, constructed in an era quite different from the present, can seem antiquated to younger generations, who seldom walk through the doors, let alone check out what might be happening inside.  If the church is a building, it’s much too easy to go away and leave it behind when a different kind of building seems more relevant or fashionable.

But is the church a building? Not in the book of Acts. Actuallly, this finger-rhyme can only have come to us after the beginning of Christendom, when Christianity became an official state religion, and the church began to own property and establish buildings reserved for their gatherings. There’s no talk of buildings at all in Acts. The “church” in Acts is always the people.

But I like the second part of the finger rhyme. Reading Acts, two vital things the church does are praying and going-away. In fact, going away turns out to be one of the most essential things the church does to be church.

But let’s be clear: when church people go away in Acts, they never just leave a building to go back to their regular, week-a-day lives. They aren’t leaving one building to enter another.There’s no building, so they take the church with them wherever they go. They proclaim Jesus wherever they go.

That’s what happens in today’s reading. We finally hear what happened to some disciples who went away from the “mother church” in Jerusalem during the persecution following the stoning of Stephen. Some of them traveled north along the Mediterranean, to Phoenicia (what is now Lebanon) and the island of Cyprus. Others went to the third largest city in the Roman Empire, the city of Antioch, located in what is today Turkey.

Of course, there is “going away” and there is going away. Most of these folks “went away” from Jerusalem, but wherever they traveled, they remained among Jews. They stayed within their own culture, and spoke only to people like themselves. But some disciples who arrived in Antioch went much further: they made the leap across an ancient and hostile divide and began telling Gentiles about Jesus.

And don’t you just love how nonchalant the Bible is sometimes? Luke, the author of Acts, is marvelously low-key in narrating what is truly quite an enormous event for Christian faith.

“But some men of Cyprus and Cyrene, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.” That word “Hellenists” is a little unclear to us today—it refers to people who spoke Greek and followed Greek cultural norms. Sometimes Luke uses it to talk about Jews who natively spoke Greek, but in this case, most scholars agree that Luke is talking about Greek Greeks—full-on Gentiles—considered ritually impure by strict Jews, who would not socialize with them to avoid contamination.

But some of the disciples in Antioch found the courage to make the great leap over this cultural norm, sharing the gospel with Gentiles, and we will never know their names. I think that’s telling. They were probably not charismatic leaders, just regular people who were naturally sharing news, like sharing gossip with next-door neighbors. And there’s no plotting and planning from the mother church’s centralized evangelism committee, just little conversations here and there on the margins. Yet “the hand of the Lord was with them and a great number turned to the Lord.” And that’s how a church comes into being.

If we want to know what “church” is, we could do little better than to peer through the window Luke has given us to Antioch, the church which will eventually take Jerusalem’s place as the “center of gravity” for Christianity.[i] Indeed, Antioch is the place Jesus’ disciples are first given the name “Christians,” the first place where Jews and Gentiles together are called by the same name, identified not by their differences, but by the crucified and resurrected Messiah they together believe in and follow.

So what do we see happening at Antioch? We see that God gathers this church as the Holy Spirit moves people across social divides, sharing the good news that any and all who had been deemed “unclean” could now be “redeemed;” the good news that in Jesus Christ, forgiveness of sin is available to everyone, and people are empowered to turn from old, destructive ways to a new life of peace.

Then, as people respond to this message in great numbers, we see God working through the connectional church, as Barnabas, the “son of encouragement,” is sent up from Jerusalem. What a gift, for Barnabas is a man who knows the Holy Spirit well. Rejoicing in the new church, and recognizing the need for differently-gifted leaders, he brings Paul to Antioch. Thus we see God calling teachers, who dedicate themselves to forming others in the ways of faith and life in Christ.

A year of intensive study and learning passes, and then we see the Antioch church welcoming traveling prophets. Now, prophets always tend to bring disturbing news, but the Antioch church responds immediately to the news of famine, sending aid to people in need. Later we see the church worshipping, fasting, and praying; and then they are sending people out, laying hands on Paul and Barnabas, commissioning them to their Spirit-given task. Ultimately we see another “going away,” as Paul and Barnabas leave Antioch to preach and teach in Jesus’ name wherever God might lead them.

To sum up, at Antioch, we see the Holy Spirit calling out people from all walks of life to form a community, in which they learn and practice ways which cultivate them in being awake, open, and responsive to the purpose, presence and power of God. This is what it means to be “church.”

Did you know that the Greek word for “church,” ekklesia, literally means “called out?” Theologian Shirley Guthrie writes, “The church is a community of people who (along with the community of Israel) are called out of the world to be God’s people. The purpose of their coming together is twofold. First, it is to receive God’s judging, forgiving, renewing grace. Second, it is to be sent out again to be agents of God’s judgment, forgiveness, reconciliation, and renewal in the world.” [ii]

So I wonder, if at Antioch we see a Spirit-filled church of that time and place, how does our church, here and now in La Grande, Oregon, compare? Where do we see the Holy Spirit’s gifts and power in our midst?  Where do we long for the Spirit’s renewing graces? How do we go about the practices and disciplines which cultivate our availability to the calling of the Holy Spirit? Are we teaching and learning, worshipping, praying and fasting, and ultimately sending disciples of Jesus Christ into the world as agents of God’s amazing grace?

Rereading this passage, we are immediately faced with something I’d honestly rather skip over. It’s this little word that I believe in our time draws the focus of Christians in disproportionate ways. It’s the word “numbers,” as in: “great numbers of people became believers and turned to the Lord.” In this passage, that a great number of people are responsive to the message of Jesus is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s movement.

But we live in a culture in which numbers become the bedrock measure of success or failure. Churches in our time are constantly assessing our numbers, numbers of “members” and “pledging units” as well as our budget. And frankly, these numbers are critical for keeping our institutions viable as well as measuring the impact of our ministry. I’m not suggesting we ditch the numbers.

But the church is not numbers any more than it is just a building. The church is people. That’s why quantitative measurements of Christian ministry go awry if they are not also accompanied by qualitative awareness. What I mean is, what kind of numbers are we looking at? Are we looking at event attendance and becoming discouraged because we don’t see what we consider enough of some kind of demographic? That might be important, but only if we are also looking around naming and knowing the persons with whom each of us here is involved in vital relationships, relationships in which we share communion in the ways and name of Jesus Christ.

Further, Acts tells us that great numbers of people were entering into relationship with Jesus Christ because people were sharing Jesus with others, outside their normal social groups. The numbers were not a measure of how the church was bringing people “in here” so much as they tell us about people being reached “out there,” though those connections certainly brought together a community in which disciples could be more deeply formed. So, are we measuring numbers and telling stories of the people we are collectively touching with Jesus’ love out in our community and the world?

So numbers are important, but we need good numbers. And we need the depth of stories to help us understand what we measure in numbers. We will be working on developing a deeper awareness of our congregation as “church” over the next year. Our Session has initiated a process of Missional Discernment and is in the process of gathering a Guiding Team. The Guiding Team will be comprised of 8 or so folks not already serving as elders or deacons, who will gather for study and conversation, and eventually they will engage in a series of interviews with other congregants. The purpose of their work will be to help us all become more aware of what the Holy Spirit has done in this church, what the Spirit is continuing to do, and what the Spirit might be calling us out to do in the future. How is the Holy Spirit calling us to share Christ in the world?

Ultimately, Missional Discernment is about our congregation gaining a renewed vision of what it means to be a Spirit-filled people, open and responsive to the Spirit’s sending. I ask you to join your prayers to this purpose, that First Presbyterian Church, like that church so many years ago at Antioch, might continue for many generations onward in the Spirit-filled history of faithful people sent out to share the good news of new life in Jesus Christ.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

[i] The Interpreter’s Bible, p. 146.

[ii] Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994, 351-352.

“The Lord Has Been Gracious”: Sermon by Keith, 7.7.13 Acts Sermon Series

I stand before you today with fear and anxiety about this morning’s text about Ananias and Sapphira.  This text has been called a “Text of Terror.”  The three-year lectionary from which we usually preach from skips over it.  Up to this point in the book of Acts, everything has been about building up the community; from the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the teaching and fellowship and miracles of the apostles to Barnabas selling a field and giving the money to the community.  Up until now, things looked pretty good.  But now, we find the first serious problem, and it comes from within the community.   Let us hear these words of our Lord.  (Read text: Acts 5:1-11).

It starts with the sale of property.  Tradition tells us that Barnabas unselfishly held nothing back.  His generosity was huge, with the giving of the all the money from the sale of his property to the community.  And the apostles praised Barnabas’ action, lifting up his gift and how it would help all those in need and this early church community thrive.  But there were those who were jealous of the notoriety that Barnabas received and wanted to be lifted up in the eyes of the community.  Ananias and Sapphira had land they could sell, too, and they sold it of their own free will.  There was nothing that said to be part of this band of people who declared Jesus as their Lord and Savior that they had to sell anything, or that if they did, they had to give it all to the community.  There existed only the desire of one’s own heart to share the property they owned to help others who were in need.

Now, it not exactly clear what Ananias and Sapphira actually did.  From the Greek, they either said they were going to give the proceeds of the entire sale of their land to the church, kept a portion, and gave the rest to church with the understanding that that was all of it.  Or, they gave it all and then took a portion back.  Either way, in the eyes of the public, they were generous givers like Barnabas, but in the eyes of God, they were hypocrites.

As you go through the gospels, especially Luke’s gospel, one of the sins that Jesus stressed over and over was the sin of appearing to be something that you are not.  It’s like keeping the front yard immaculate for the world to see, but the back yard is filled with old broken down cars and rubble and the grass has grown three feet tall.  This couple wanted to appear to be ardent supports of the community.  But they were truly supporters of themselves.   And this was their undoing.  When confronted with their sin, the undeniable truth of the charge against them mixed with the unbearable shame of what they had done, they dropped dead.  There is nothing in the story to indicate that Peter intended that either of them die.  The sense of their own guilt, coming upon them with the force of a shock that was fatal is enough to explain how they die.

Now, the death of Ananias and Sapphira may seem cruel and violate the love and goodness that Jesus himself displayed.  But we can’t forget that from the beginning, seriousness of discipline is expressed at the heart of the Gospel.  In our baptismal vows are the questions of renouncing the ways of the world and turning with our entire being, heart, mind, soul and spirit, towards God in Christ.  When we attempt to live with one foot in world and one foot in the Kingdom of God, we can be torn apart.  And that is what happened to this couple.  They brought their undoing upon themselves by cutting themselves off from the group and from God by attempting to be something they were not.

But something else happens in this passage that we can miss if we get stuck on Ananias and Sapphira’s demise.  This is the first time that the author of the book of Acts uses the word ‘ekklesia,’ or church.  “And fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.”  From the birth of this community of believers who professed Jesus Christ as Lord at Pentecost to Barnabas selling his field for the sake of the community, we have this view that everything was perfect.  Maybe Ananias and Sapphira help us understand that things weren’t that perfect.  Maybe it takes having them on the pages of scripture to get all the pieces of the puzzle together and get a compete picture of what the church is, a community of the followers of Christ made up of real people who are subject to sins and temptations while at the same time attempting to be guided by the Holy Spirit moving in their midst.

We want a church where we have the Holy Spirit, the powerful worship, the fellowship and the teaching.  But to have those things, we also have to have the understanding of who we are.  The church is a community of people who know they are sinners.  It is here we do not try to cover up our sins and shortcomings.  God knows what we have done and it is here that we freely admit that we are not superior to the person sitting next to us nor better than the person who will never step foot in the church.  It is here we take responsibility for our sinfulness; it is here that we invite people to come into our backyards and see the piles of trash, and we don’t blame anyone else for creating those piles.  The theologian Charles Morrison says, “The church is the not a society of good people; it is a society of sinners.  It is the only organization in human society that takes sinners into its membership just because they are sinners.  It is the only organization that keeps on saying week after week, year after year, age after age: ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.’”

But it doesn’t stop with just the recognition that we are sinners.  We are a community of dissatisfied sinners.  We don’t like the fact that we have trash piled up in the backyard, we want to see it gone!  We are not happy with what our sin has done in our lives and the way things are in the world.  We look out and see that brokenness is real, and we don’t like it.  We take the brokenness of the world and our own sin seriously.  We do not come together to justify our present way of life or advertise our piety by just saying we are sinners.  We publically profess that we need to be forgiven for what we are, that we want to change, and need help in making the changes in our life.  Shirley Guthrie words it this way, “The people of God…are holy not because of what they have or what they are but because of what they are seeking to receive and become.”

But also, the church is gathered in the name of Jesus Christ.  We have this idolized view that the early church was perfect and that we can strive for that perfection, too.  Ananias and Sapphira give us a more accurate picture of what is really in the midst of the church, then and now.  And when we admit that, we stop pointing to ourselves but point to the one who is perfect.  Holiness, purity, and goodness are not found in the church and its members as such but in him whom they seek forgiveness, change, help, and new direction.  We can only point to Christ’s goodness, strength, purity, and wisdom.

And that means we are not a passively receiving community.  Christ forgives his church, but he also directs his church by the Holy Spirit.  We cannot be comfortable with only a confession of sin.   It is in and with him that we respond to our dissatisfaction we find in our own lives and in the world.  We start cleaning up the backyard.  But we do not do it alone.  God has given us each other and he has given us Christ.   If we are serious about wanting to change, we go out into the backyard with a shovel and start cleaning things up.  We go with Christ’s community for help and support.  But we also find that Christ is there, leading us, directing us, but most importantly, he’s already done the heavy lifting.

So, I still struggle with what to do Ananias and Sapphira, especially since I see so much of myself in them.  Earlier I said everything up to this reading that happened was for the building up of the community.  In the verses that immediately follow their story, we find that many dared not join the church, probably out of fear of what happened to this couple.  But the church still grew!  I wonder if I would have joined the church.  There are days I find myself at a deep level of shame for the things I’ve done and the things I’ve left undone.  And then I remember what Ananias’ name literally means.  It means, ‘the Lord has been gracious.’  And I know that I am dependent on his grace and mercy.  We all are.  And that dependence begins with the confession that the people of God are sinful and he only is holy.  But it also means that we get up and start moving, set out on the way that leaves our sinfulness behind and move toward his holiness with him.

In the name of the one who convicts us of our sin,

and in the name of the one who frees us of our sin,

and in the name of the one who moves us beyond our sin, Amen.