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Keeping Up

2019-04-29

 

“Get up; kill and eat!”

I have never seen a cross stitch made from this particular piece of Scripture; I doubt it makes many people’s lists of inspirational quotations.

But something significant happens in this very strange story. God is breaking the early church wide open.

Acts 10:1-17, 34-48

In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” 7When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.

9About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.13Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. 17Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate.

34Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Before I talk about the text, we should probably stop and get our bearings. Entering the month of May, we have 6 weeks left in our Narrative Lectionary journey. Here is the schedule:

May 5                                           Acts 10:1-17, 34-48

May 12                                         Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

May 19                                         Romans 1:1-17

May 26                                         Romans 5:1-11

June 2                                          Romans 6:1-14

June 9 (Pentecost)                    Romans 8:14-39

That is two weeks in The Book of Acts, followed by four weeks on Romans. Taken together, it is a series that leads us to ponder the central dilemma of the 1st generation of Christians: how do we keep up with a relentlessly inclusive God?

Last week we heard the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel—often called “The Great Commission”—in which the Risen Christ instructs the first Christians to “go make disciples of all the nations.” That word, “nations,” is εθνη –root of the English word “ethnic” and most likely meant to be the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word goyim. For Matthew’s Gospel, this is a move toward radical inclusivity. The Risen Christ charges the early church with opening its life to non-Jewish folks. It is time to find out just how much God loves the people who are not like us.

The next six weeks—Acts and then Romans—can be read as the story of the church struggling to keep up with the radical inclusivity of God.

The full name of the book is The Acts of the Apostles. Beginning with the 11 disciples in Jerusalem just after Easter, it tells the story of the church expanding out from Jerusalem into the entire known world (i.e., the Roman Empire). Along the way, it opens its life to Gentile (non-Jewish) believers.

This week’s text tells of a crucial turning point in that expansion.

Let’s meet the cast of characters:

The Apostle Peter. Leader of the early church. His stature—and impeccable Jewish credentials—are critical to this “only Nixon can go to China” story.

Cornelius. An officer in the Roman army and worshipper of the God of Israel. In 1st century Judaism, non-Jewish folks—so called “God-fearers”—could worship and keep some traditions but were not permitted to convert to Judaism. They were, in effect, second-class citizens.

God, the Great Matchmaker, wants to put these two together. In a very real sense, each one needs the other in order to become complete.

Peter’s vision—inviting him to slaughter and eat non-kosher animals—is God’s way of preparing him to welcome a Gentile into the church. The baptism of Cornelius and his household represents a hinge moment for the early. From now on, Christianity will not be defined by any one ethnic group. God is breaking things wide open and not one of us will be complete until we meet the stranger who holds the secret to who we are. For Peter, it was Cornelius; for Cornelius it was Peter.

I wonder who it might be for you?

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Plymouth Easter Gifts Support Our Just Peace Covenant

2019-04-08

Honoring the Plymouth Just Peace Covenant, the Easter Special Offering will be gifted to the following initiatives and non-profit organizations serving Des Moines Metro people, who are most in need and striving for social and/or economic justice.

The projects selected for this year’s gifts are:

Family Promise of Greater Des Moines – The funds will be used in operational costs of running the day center where homeless adults work to locate employment and permanent housing.

Genesis Youth Foundation – This initiative works to empower immigrant youth.  The biggest barrier to the youth participation is transportation. This gift, plus other donated funds, will purchase a van to transport the youth to the organization’s activities.

Creative Visions, Human Development Institute – The current kitchen, where the Sunday Meal Program prepares food, does not meet current safety codes. The gift would be used for commercial kitchen and hand washing sinks, plumbing and installation.

Children & Families of Iowa – CFI’s domestic shelter will use these funds for Client’s transportation costs to schools, medical appointments and job training.

Sleep in Heavenly Peace – The gift will purchase materials for making 20 bunkbeds for Des Moines area children who do not have beds.

Pastor’s Discretionary Fund – 10% of the Special Offerings will be allocated to Plymouth Pastor’s Discretionary Fund. These funds are directed to urgent needs of community members. Examples for Year 2018 assistance included rent assistance, utility cost, medicine, and bus/travel expense.

The Special offering collection will be taken during the Easter services. Or, your donation may be mailed or contribute online. Please ensure to notate your gift as the  “Easter Offering”.

 

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Blog

Holy Week at Plymouth Church

2019-04-08

 

I WILL be preaching on Palm Sunday and Easter. And on both Sundays I will continue to talk about the motto of Plymouth Church: We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve. 

I know I tend to repeat myself, but some things bear repeating. Holy Week is better experienced than explained What I hope you will do this year is come along on the journey.

PALM SATURDAY/PALM SUNDAY. Join us at 5:30 on Saturday the 13th, 9 and 11 on Sunday the 14th as we remember Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. 9:00 is Singing Church Sunday, our annual celebration of our Childrens’ Choir Program.

PALM SUNDAY PROCESSION FOR PEACE. It’s a parade with a purpose, as Christians from across our city gather to demonstrate for peace. This year’s procession departs Central Presbyterian Church (3829 Grand Ave), and concludes with a worship service right here at Plymouth!

MAUNDY THURSDAY. The all-church dinner begins at 6 pm. (Register here). Then join us at 7:30 in the sanctuary for a moving service of Communion and Tenebrae, featuring the music of the Chancel Choir.

GOOD FRIDAY worship is also in the sanctuary at 7:30. A service of preaching and music, featuring the Matins Choir.

WALK THE LABYRINTH in Waveland Hall from 4-7 on Good Friday and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The 32-foot by 32-foot canvass labyrinth offers a unique opportunity for mediation and prayer.

EASTER VIGIL begins when the Good Friday Service concludes, and continues until sunrise Sunday morning. Keep watch and pray as we wait for Easter to come. (Signs up are on a chart in the hallway outside of the sanctuary).

HOLY SATURDAY worship is at 5:30 in Waveland Hall. On the quietest day of the Christian year—when we remember that Jesus, in solidarity with us, has gone down to the dead—we sit with our grief and wait for what God has promised.

EASTER SUNDAY brings three opportunities for worship: At 6:30, our sunrise service in Waveland Hall is led by the 7th grade confirmation class. Then we gather in the sanctuary at 9:00 (with the Matins Choir) and 11:00 (with the Chancel Choir) and brass for festival worship.

And, like I said, I will be reflecting on the motto in my Palm Sunday and Easter sermons. All are welcome -this Holy Week at Plymouth Church!

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The Least of These? (Matthew 25:31-46)

2019-04-01

 

All through the season of Lent, I have been inviting the people of Plymouth to ponder our motto: We Agree to DifferWe resolve to Love. We Unite to Serve.  From now through Easter, I am preaching a series of sermons on the meaning of membership at Plymouth Church. Each sermon will have two texts: the Scripture lesson assigned by the Narrative Lectionary and the church motto of Plymouth Church.

 

So right now my plan looks like this:

March 10                              We Agree to Differ              Matthew 18:15-35 (Forgiveness)

March 17                              We Resolve to Love             Matthew 20:1-16 (Parable of the Workers)

March 31                              We Unite to Serve                Matthew 25:1-13 (Parable of Ten Foolish Bridesmaids)

April 14                                  Join the Crowd                   Matthew 21:1-17 (Palm Sunday)

April 21                                  With Fear and Great Joy    Matthew 28:1-10 (Easter)

 

The series with We agree to differ. (You can read that blog post here). Then we explored We resolve to love (Read that blog post here) and We unite to serve. (Read that blog post here). I will continue the series through Palm Sunday and Easter, so stay tuned.

 

I will not be preaching this weekend. (Instead, I will be traveling back from the Annual Meeting of the SW Conference of the United Church of Christ. Learn more here).

 

But I still have some thoughts! What will we do with “the least of these”?

 

Matthew 25:31-46

 

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

 

Yes, friends, it is the story of The Sheep and the Goats. (Immortalized by an American alternative-rock band).

 

To make sure we reckon with the weight of this story, we have to put it in context. In Matthew’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ very last bit of teaching –the next verse after this story concludes (26:1) begins Matthew’s account of the Last Supper. Matthew has given us all kinds of memorable and important teaching from Jesus. But this is the story he chooses to end on.

 

To get into it, I need to engage in a little self-plagiarism. We have to talk about apocalyptic as a literary genre.

 

There is a lot of apocalyptic literature in the Bible –the Book of Daniel and Revelation being notable examples.  Apocalyptic is one way of responding to the question of suffering. Rabbi Kushner famously pondered the problem of how to live “when bad things happen to good people.” In the Jewish and early Christian traditions,  the same question gets asked in a completely different way: “Why do good things happen to bad people?”, i.e., why do the wicked prosper, come into power and persecute the righteous?

 

The history of God’s people is one long story oppression and mistreatment by various empires, including the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. Matthew’s Gospel is written for a community recently traumatized by Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem.

 

At some point, a faithful person will probably wonder: “Why is the world like this? Why are the wicked calling the shots? Why do the righteous suffer?” Apocalyptic literature is an attempt to answer that question.

 

Apocalyptic literature portrays this world as under the power of evil. In the current arrangement, the wicked will rule over and persecute the righteous. BUT: this world is not the only one we’ve got. A new world is coming and, when it does, the world as we know it will be turned upside down. The wicked will be punished; the righteous will be vindicated. God will reign.

 

The apocalyptic outlook is decisive for the New Testament –from the letters of Paul (although there is some debate about that) to the preaching of Jesus (“thy kingdom come”) to the Book of Revelation.

 

The story of The Sheep and the Goats puts a peculiar twist on the genre. It is typically apocalyptic in portraying a cosmic scene of Final Judgement. History has ended and fates will be decided. However, instead of individuals, Matthew portrays entire nations being brought to the judgement. (The word ethnei means “nation”; it is the root of the English word “ethnic”).

 

And how are they judged? On their treatment of “the least of these members of my family.” (Greek: “the least of these my brothers”). God identifies with someone who is hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or imprisoned. And the nations are judged on their treatment of this suffering someone with whom God identifies.

 

As apocalyptic literature, this story offers an interesting answer to the question of suffering. It takes the suffering of the present moment and reimagines it as an opportunity to get on the right side of history.

 

That much is clear. But then the waters get murky.

 

Who are “the least of these”? We have at least two possibilities to consider:

 

  • There is a venerable tradition of interpreting this story as a claim that God identifies with the marginal, the poor, the suffering etc. And so every time we do right by the marginal, we are getting on the ride side of history. (The Rev. Dr. Jim Forbes, Senior Minister Emeritus of The Riverside Church, likes to say that “nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor”).

 

  • But there is another way to read this –one that I know has been preached at Plymouth Church. This reading leans more on “my brothers” and takes the “least of these” to be 1st century Christian missionaries. In this reading, God is treating the nations the way they treated God’s ambassadors.

 

Since I am not preaching, I don’t have to settle this debate. Instead, let me offer one further complication and then a concluding thought about how this story might relate to our motto.

 

The complication: Both interpretations of “the least of these” tend to see the marginal as “other people,” others upon whom the nations either act of fail to act. But if God identifies with a group of people—be it Christian missionaries or the marginal more generally—would it not behoove us to actually be those people? Or, failing that, to be in relationship with them?

 

Let me put it this way: All of our readings of this story seem to be based in our belief that we are being held accountable for our treatment of some group of people. But what if, to the original audience, the message is that the nations will be held accountable for the way they treat you.

 

Do you see how different that feels?

 

And what does this have to do with our motto? One danger of preaching five sermons on a church motto is that the whole thing can seem a little inward looking, a little self-involved. (“Let’s talk about ourselves! For five weeks!”). But this story reminds us that church is only of value to God to the extent that it addressed suffering in the world.

 

If we are taking some time to better understand the meaning of membership at Plymouth Church, let’s make sure it is for the sake of greater faithfulness to the things that matter most.