Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sermon, "Voices from Prison: Paul and Silas," Acts 16:16-40

Sermon 7/15/18
Acts 16:16-40


Voices from Prison: Paul and Silas

Of the many folks we hear about who end up in prison in the Bible, the apostle Paul probably spends the most time there. As I mentioned last week, some of the epistles in the Bible, the letters, are letters that were written by Paul while in prison. Philippians, Philemon, and Colossians were all written by Paul while he was in prison, although we’re not always sure which of Paul’s multiple times in prison is the setting for each letter. It’s not surprising that he ends up in jail so frequently. He’s a Jewish man, preaching about this person Jesus Christ, and wherever he goes, he’s sharing a message that is in stark contrast to those who hear him. Many of his fellow Jewish leaders don’t appreciate his understanding of Judaism and how he speaks about Jesus as someone who both fulfills and transcends the law, and the Gentiles - the non-Jews to whom Paul preached most often don’t understand his or appreciate his Jewish identity or why because of Jesus they should become a part of this faith tradition. Everywhere, people find Paul’s words or practices upsetting, and so everywhere, he’s getting into trouble with the authorities in town, sometimes beaten, sometimes being called on to defend himself, sometimes ending up in prison. Eventually, although we don’t know Paul’s fate specifically, it is believed Paul was beheaded by the Emperor of Rome, Nero, famous for his persecution of religious minorities, including Christians. 

I knew, then, that I wanted to include Paul in this series on Voices from Prison, since I believe his experiences in prison shape his faith and his understanding of the freedom we experience in Christ significantly. His letters are littered with the language of captive, imprisoned, and freedom, and he both calls himself a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and speaks about how Christ sets us free. So what does Paul experience in prison that shapes his understanding of faith? Today we turn to a reading from the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke, the gospel-writer, to delve into one of Paul’s trips to prison.  

The beginning of chapter 16 of Acts tells us that Paul and Silas and a group of other disciples in the early church are visiting Philippi to share the gospel there. Philippi is the community to whom Paul writes the letter that we know in our Bible as Philippians. At the beginning of the chapter, they meet a woman named Lydia, a business woman, a cloth dealer, and she and her whole household are baptized after learning about Jesus. Lydia urges the missionaries to stay at her home - she’s a woman of some wealth and can provide for everyone - and she persuades them. When our text for today begins, the apostles are using her house as a home-base, and from there each day heading out to preach and share the gospel with others. As they’re doing this each day, they encounter a girl who is a slave who brings her owners a lot of money by telling people’s fortunes, because, we read, she has a “spirit of divination.” When she sees Paul and the others, she starts to follow them and yell out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She does this every day. Like many who have what the scriptures call “unclean spirit” or are in some way “possessed by spirits,” she’s not saying anything that’s not true. But her following Paul and the gang around also doesn’t seem to be helping them find the nice introduction to talking about Jesus that they’re hoping for. Paul, Acts tells us, is “very much annoyed.” And so prompted apparently by his annoyance rather than a desire to heal the girl, Paul orders the spirit to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ. And it does. 
And suddenly, this slave girl has lost her money-making capacity for her owners. It doesn’t sit well with them. They seize Paul and Silas, drag them to the local magistrates, and accuse them: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowds join in with the accusations, and the local authorities have them stripped, beaten and flogged, and thrown in prison. The prison guard puts them in the innermost cell and fastens their feet in stocks. Prisons in biblical times were not nice places at all. “Prison time” wasn’t a typical sentence - prison was merely a holding place for those awaiting trial, and sometimes release, but often another punishment, or execution. Prisons were overcrowded. They were dark, and the inner cells, which Acts is careful to note to us is where Paul and Silas are held, would usually be entirely dark. Chains to bind prisoners were heavy, iron chains, which were particularly painful to bodies that had just been beaten and flogged. Hygiene was pretty lacking. Food was minimal - most prisoners had to rely on visitors to sustain them with food and drink of any substance. Many prisoners would be kept together in one cell. It’s a dreadful situation.* 

          Somehow, though, Paul and Silas find the strength to spend their time in prison praying and singing hymns. It’s midnight, and the text says that other prisoners are listening to them. Imagine them all in the stifling darkness, but Paul and Silas are lifting up words of hope. Suddenly, there’s an earthquake. The quaking causes the doors of the prison to be opened, and the chains of all the prisoners to fall off. The jailer wakes, sees the chaos, and gets ready to take his own life, despairing at the complete failure of his job. But Paul and Silas have not escaped - and neither have any other prisoners, for whatever reasons they might have been there. Paul speaks to prevent the jailer from hurting himself, and the jailer rushes in with lights, falls down before Paul and Silas, and asks what he must do to be saved. Apparently, he knows enough about what Paul and Silas have been arrested for to know they seem to have some compelling message to share. 

           Paul and Silas tell the jailer about Jesus. They share the good news of God’s grace not just with him, but with the whole household. And the jailer and his family decide to be baptized and to become Jesus-followers without delay. They feed Paul and Silas, and care for their wounds, and keep them in the house instead of the prison. When morning comes, the authorities send word to release Paul and Silas, and send them away. You’d think they’d rejoice at this news, but Paul instead responds: “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” He wants some accountability for the way they’ve been treated, for what we might call the lack of due process they’ve endured. Paul’s status as a Roman citizen gives him special rights, and his words grab the attention of the authorities, who indeed come and apologize. Still, they want Paul and Silas out of town now. So Paul and Silas are officially freed. They say their farewells to Lydia and the other Christians there, and leave town. 

There are so many layers of imprisonment and freedom in this passage. It’s about more than just Paul and Silas. First, there’s the slave girl. She is not free - she is a slave, and she’s bound up by this spirit that has especially made her a pawn of her masters. Something makes her call out to Paul and Silas day after day, shouting for anyone who will listen that these people have a message of salvation. Notice that we don’t hear anything else about her after Paul releases her from the spirit. We only know that Paul’s actions in her left her owners very, very angry. Paul didn’t seem to be motivated in healing her by a desire to help her, did he? He just wanted her to be quiet, I think! But Paul’s actions, though they free her from a spirit that apparently consumed her life, did nothing to free her from her slavery. Instead, they make her worthless to her owners. I’ve heard people use the phrase “freedom isn’t free.” We talk about this when we’re weighing the costs of “freedom,” and noting that rarely does what we name freedom come without some kind of price. Freedom has consequences. Paul acts on this girl’s life and bestows on her one kind of freedom. It is not for her benefit, unfortunately. Sometimes, when we’re “freeing” others with whatever actions we think are best, we’re not thinking about the consequences. When it comes to working to fight against injustice, against harm to others, against oppression, against wrongdoing, how can we make sure that what we think of as a gift of freedom to others is actually setting them free? I hope Paul had a chance to think of that slave girl, and wonder how her life unfolded after his actions. 

There is, of course, the imprisonment and freedom of Paul and Silas. They’re beaten and bound and in prison, and yet they possess within themselves a well of faith that they draw on that leaves them seeming free, even though they are in physical chains. Their trust in God leaves them with a deep contentment. They seem free from worry about their fate. I don’t mean to say that they don’t care if they live or die. I believe Paul had many plans about all the people with whom he wanted to share the gospel. I mean that he’s not anxious for the future. He’s with God when he’s in prison or out of prison. He’s a disciple of Jesus in prison or out of prison. There’s no external forces that seem to shake Paul and Silas’s faith. They’re singing and praying in prison. Even when the doors are unlocked for them by the earthquake, and their chains are loosened, they don’t rush to escape. This, I think, is the freedom in Christ that Paul talks about. His faith makes him secure in whatever he experiences. I just finished reading Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown last week, and she returns in her book again and again to a statement from Dr. Maya Angelou from a 1973 TV interview. Angelou said, “You are only free when you realize that you belong no place - you belong every place - no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” (5) I love that. I think Paul and Silas embody that. They belong to Christ - to no place, and every place. The cost of their freedom in Christ is high. Eventually, Paul pays with his life. But the reward is great. Paul wouldn’t trade his experiences for anything, after experiencing new life in Christ, after accepting God’s unwavering, unconditional love and grace. 

And then there is the jailer. He’s the one that seems to have the most freedom in this story. He’s no slave girl, and he’s not locked up like Paul and Silas. And yet, when the earthquake happens, we immediately see how bound this man is. He exists in a system that makes it seem like taking his own life is the only possible solution. He exists in a system that would apparently punish him for the escape of prisoners even though it would have been due to circumstances completely beyond his control. He seems free, but he’s bound, chained to this punitive system that means his life can come crashing down around him with one unexpected earthquake. He has power, but he knows his power is tenuous and can be snatched away at any second. He should be calm and in control, but it is Paul and Silas who have to comfort him. Power and status, wealth and position - these things give us the illusion of freedom. But the hidden costs are deeply soul-crushing, meaning this man, this jailer feels his life is worthless without his position. How easily we can become chained by these external things that promise to give us value, promise us freedom, and leave us feeling more bound than ever! 

         When we talk about freedom, I want us to ask ourselves two questions: Free from what and free for what? Christ offers us new life, and sets us free. But I want us to know what we’re being set free from. What is binding you up? What has you chained? What has your soul imprisoned? What are you so reliant on that if it came crashing down you’d think your life was no longer of value? Christ sets us free from sin, free from the power of that which seeks to separate us from God, free from the endless quest to earn the love that God has already offered us. How does your faith make it so external chains can’t prevent you from singing hymns and witnessing to your faith, because you know who you are, who you serve, who loves you? How can Jesus set you free? 

         And what will Jesus set you free for? In our traditional United Methodist communion liturgy, there’s a prayer of confession that precedes the sharing of communion, one that you’ll find adaptations of in many Christian traditions. I invite you to share in it with me (UMH page 12): “Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” I am so struck by this phrase: Free us for joyful obedience. Paul and Silas were free to serve God with their whole hearts and their whole lives. We are too. We’re free to joyfully follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We’re free to do God’s will, follow God’s way, embrace God’s love, love our neighbors, and hear - with compassion, not annoyance - the cries of the needy. We’re free in a way that gives life - true, abundant life.  The price is high. The reward is great. In Christ Jesus, we have been set free. Let’s live like people who know it. Amen. 


*Insights and information on first-century prisons found here: Derrick G. Jeter, 
https://www.insight.org/resources/article-library/individual/doing-time-in-a-first-century-prison, and here in these class note: Simón Apablazam, https://www.scribd.com/doc/14354155/Life-in-Prison-in-1ad

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Sung Communion for the Season after Pentecost/Ordinary Time: Blessed Assurance

A Sung Communion for the Season after Pentecost/Ordinary Time:
Blessed Assurance TUNE: ASSURANCE (UMH #369)
Lift up your hearts, friends, time to give thanks!
Time now to gather, our voices to raise!
Called to the table, hearts turned to God,  
Come to meet Christ here, come now to praise.

Refrain: This is God’s table; come find your place.
Table of blessing, table of grace.
This is God’s table, this is God’s gift.
We are invited; come to the feast!

In God’s own image, we come to life.
God offers to us abundance and grace.
But we sought rather for power, success,
Losing our way and losing our place.

*Prophets and poets, judges and kings,
God working through them, a message to bring.
We did not listen, we would not hear.
We closed our hearts to all God would share.

Refrain: This is God’s table; come find your place.
Table of blessing, table of grace.
This is God’s table, this is God’s gift.
We are invited; come to the feast!

So God sent Christ in the fullness of time
God-come-among-us, human, divine
Christ lived among us, he shared the good news:
God’s kin-dom for all, God’s kin-dom for you.

Refrain: This is our story, this is our song,
praising our Savior all the day long;
this is our story, this is our song,
praising our Savior all the day long.

During the supper, Jesus took bread
Thanking and sharing, disciples he fed.
“This is my body, given for you.
Eat and remember when this you do."
After the supper, Christ shared the cup
‘This is my life - it’s poured out for you.
Sign of forgiveness, sign of God’s love,
Given to all: God’s promise made new.”    


Refrain: This is God’s table; come find your place.
Table of blessing, table of grace.
This is God’s table, this is God’s gift.
We are invited; come to the feast!

Blessed assurance! Jesus is mine!
O, what a foretaste of glory divine!
We come to the table, gift from above,
filled with God’s goodness, lost in God’s love.

Refrain: This is our story, this is our song,
praising our Savior all the day long;
this is our story, this is our song,
praising our Savior all the day long.




*Rather than a strict verse/refrain alternation, this liturgy occasionally uses a repeated verse before returning to the refrain. All refrains are marked. 

Text: Beth Quick, 2018 Incorporating phrases and refrain from “Blessed Assurance” by Fanny J. Crosby.

Creative Commons License
A Sung Communion Liturgy for the Season after Pentecost/Ordinary Time: Blessed Assurance by Rev. Dr. Beth Quick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


Sunday, July 08, 2018

Sermon, "Voices from Prison: John the Baptist," Matthew 11:2-15, Mark 6:14-29

Sermon 7/8/18
Matthew 11:2-15, Mark 6:14-29


Voices from Prison: John the Baptist


We almost didn’t hear about John the Baptist today. Last week, as I started thinking about Jeremiah, and about this whole sermon series really, I realized that most - not quite all but most - of the people who we read about who are detained, jailed, or imprisoned in the Bible are people whose law-breaking included some form of speaking up, speaking a truth, speaking out that was not allowed, or seriously not appreciated by the leaders of the day. Remember, Jeremiah was imprisoned multiple times for saying things that the King didn’t want to hear - namely that the war would fail and the King himself would be captured. Well, John the Baptist also ends up in jail for speaking out in ways that the King does not want to hear, and I was worried I would have two sermons in a row on the very same themes. But as I started digging in more to the text last week, I felt the real message I wanted to share was about God’s redemption and our struggle to accept it for ourselves and others.
That leaves us free to talk about John this week, thankfully, and spend time with one of I think the most fascinating figures in the Bible. We have two texts today that focus on John and his time in prison. In our first reading, we find John in prison already, and Matthew tells us that he has heard “what the Messiah was doing.” What Jesus had been doing was teaching, sharing parables, healing, and sending out disciples to do the same, announcing the good news: God’s reign was at hand, here on earth right now. So John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Remember, when John was doing his own preaching, when he kept talking about this coming Messiah, he kept describing someone very different than Jesus seems to be. John talked about the wrath to come. He described a Messiah arriving with a winnowing fork, ready to separate good and bad, tossing what wasn’t needed into the fire. And then Jesus arrived showing compassion at every turn, spending time eating with them, visiting in their homes, showering people with love. John needs to ask: Are you really the one? Or is someone else, someone with a little more fire and brimstone going to come along soon? I think this question is critically important for John. He’s in prison. He can’t do the preaching and calling for repentance that he had been doing. But if Jesus is the Messiah, as John hoped, then it is ok. His task is complete: he prepared the way. If Jesus is not the Messiah, then being in jail is not something John can endure, because his work would not yet be done.
Instead of answering directly, Jesus describes the results of what he’s been up to. He says to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus’ words are practically lifted from the prophet Isaiah describing a messiah, and so John can be comforted: Jesus is the one, even if he has not arrived quite as John was expecting.
Once John’s disciples leave, Jesus talks about John to the crowds. He calls John a prophet, likening him to Elijah, a most-revered prophet. John is more than a prophet, Jesus says. He’s the one who announced the way of God’s salvation in the Messiah. No one is greater than John. But, Jesus says, “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” What a verse - powerful and confusing! See, John marks the transition from one time to the next. All the prophets were setting the stage for the arrival of God’s reign on earth. But with Jesus, God’s reign on earth is here, and what we can do knowing that we live in God’s kin-dom right now is even more wonderful than the work of the prophets.
Then, in our reading from Mark, we hear how John ended up in prison in a flashback scene. King Herod is hearing reports about Jesus, and some of the reports suggest that Jesus is really John the Baptist, back from the dead. Indeed, Herod, who ordered John’s execution, believes this too. John was in prison for very publicly criticizing the king: Herod had married his brother’s wife, Herodias, after Herodias divorced him. This was not allowed according to the law of Moses, and for someone as important as the King to blatantly disregard the law was setting a very bad example, and just further illustrated how Herod was nothing more than a pawn for the occupying Roman government, not a spiritual leader for Israel. If it hadn’t been this particular bold speech, though, something else John said or did would have landed him in prison. John stirred people up, and the leaders didn’t want anyone causing unrest, anything that might challenge their power and authority.
Still, Mark tells us that Herod is taken with John. Herodias wants him put to death, but Herod protects him. Herod knows that John is righteous and holy. He’s confused by the ways John calls him and others to repent and change their ways. A man who is as ostensibly successful as Herod feels like they’re doing everything right, and to be told in fact they need to change everything is not welcome news. But, Mark tells us, he likes to listen to John nonetheless. Then an opportunity comes for Herodias to get rid of John at last. At his birthday banquet, his stepdaughter comes and dances for the guests, and in thanks, Herod promises her whatever she wants. Working with her mother, she seizes the opportunity, and asks for the head of John the Baptist. Herod, we read, is grieved, seeing too late the trap that’s been set. But, he’s made an oath in public, and he can’t - won’t - refuse it. A guard goes to the prison, and beheads John.
Do you think John believed, given his time in prison, and whatever moments he had to reflect on his impending execution, that raising his voice was worth it? That he would have spoken out still, given the chance to do it again? Why do you think John felt so compelled to speak things that had such potential dangerous consequences? Are there issues or events or people who would inspire you to speak up or speak out in ways that might be dangerous? Risky? Maybe your words might not land you in prison, but they could still have consequences, for your friendships, your job, your standing in the community. When is speaking up worth it?
It is risky still sometimes, speaking up and speaking out. We take warranted pride in in this country in the right to free speech. This 4th of July week we might be thinking about the law-breakers whose acts of protest and stirring words laid the foundation for the revolution that formed our nation! Their words and actions had big consequences, didn’t they? We prize free speech. But, we also have a history that shows there are limits on just how that speech can be delivered. Thankfully hate speech can have consequences - sometimes limits are needed. But I’m thinking of protest actions - from our quest for independence, to movements for women’s rights and Civil Rights, to people today who are marching to bring attention to causes for justice.
Throughout the course of history there’s been a tradition of prophets and political prisoners speaking from prison - writing letters, sharing messages. We’ll be hearing about the apostle Paul next week, and some of our scriptures in the Bible are letters that Paul wrote while in prison. I find Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail to be one of the most powerful pieces of writing there is. You’ll notice in your bulletin worksheet a link so that you can read the whole thing. King was writing particularly to white clergymen in Birmingham, because they had refused to support his cause in the Civil Rights movement. They agreed, in theory, with his quest for equal rights, but they didn’t like his techniques. They didn’t feel like King needed to break the law, or encourage others to do so, to achieve their aims. If they were just more patient, they argued, change would eventually come without all the “upset.” King responded with this letter.
He writes, in part: My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely” … I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against "outsiders coming in." … I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns … so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town... Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…
Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." …
I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws … I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all." …
And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." … So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?” (https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html)
Prophets, it seems, are not fans of lukewarm responses to injustice. John the Baptist was definitely an extremist for the cause of Jesus. Are we? I ask us again: What issue or event or person would inspire you to speak up or speak out? What is it, who is it that is so important that you would break some rules, or at least push at some boundaries, suffer some consequences? As we look at John the Baptist, speaking boldly to share the message of Jesus, I’d like to suggest some guidelines that might help us discern when God is calling us toward risk-taking action.
Sometimes, we know it is time to speak up when we see injustice because God won’t leave us alone! When you find that you’ve seen the suffering of others, and you just can’t get the images, the stories out of your head, God may be urging you to speak and act. When God answers your prayers by putting before you again and again ways that you might get involved in advocacy and action, when you find your heart stirred, when you feel yourself responding with that gut-churning compassion that always moved Jesus to action, God may be urging you to speak and act.   
Sometimes, we know it is time to speak up and take action when we realize that we might have a unique platform. When our voices can amplify voices of people who aren’t being heard, we might have a responsibility to take risky actions and speak up against injustice. I think about our United Methodist history, when women were first given the right to be seated as delegates to General Conference, our highest decision-making body. Before they won that right, men had to speak up for the rights of women, because women had no rights to a voice there. The men who were delegates had a platform that the women did not, and so the responsibility to speak up for what was right was on them. How can you use your voice to amplify the voice of others?

Sometimes, we know it is time to speak up and take action when the risk to us for speaking up is discomfort, or being disliked, but the risk to others when we don’t speak is life-threatening. Is our discomfort when we have to speak up boldly more important than ending injustice? No. I’ve told you before that I’m a conflict avoider. I struggle with this. I want everyone to get along, and let’s be honest: I want everyone to like me too. But does that mean I shouldn’t say things that might be hard to speak or hard to hear? My discomfort is less important than the suffering of others. We know it is time to speak when by speaking up we’re embodying the commandments to love God and neighbor. As much as Jesus recognized John the Baptist as the greatest of prophets, we who find our place in the reign of God have more potential power, more potential greatness, when we’re workers in embodying God’s reign on earth. With our place in God’s heart secure, how can we but speak up for truth and justice? Friends, let us be bold. Let us use the power, the voice God has given us. Let us speak the values of extreme love we know to be true through our life-saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Maybe there will be consequences. There always are, when we speak and act, and when we stay silent and still. But Jesus, the one we waited for, has come, and is with us always. Let speak and act in his name. Amen.   

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Festival of Homiletics: Anna Carter Florence

Here it is, the last post of reflections from the Festival of Homiletics! On Friday morning, we got to hear both a lecture and a sermon from Anna Carter Florence. She's been one of my favorites at the Festival since the first time I heard her speak about pastors and plagiarism. She was booked in a room that was too small for the crowd that was there to hear her, and from then on, she was given bigger spaces. Two years ago, she preached at the opening worship service at the Festival, an Easter Sunday service for all of us preachers who never get to attend Easter worship, and I found myself crying during the opening processional, unaware of just how much I needed to be in a resurrection service I wasn't leading myself. 

Carter Florence's lecture was titled, "The Book of Esther and a Truth for the World.” She spoke about her class called "Rehearsing Scripture" (see book on these themes here). Each semester, the class would spend time with one text, one story. And this particular semester, the focus was Esther. She talked about how enriched their experience of the text was after celebrating Purim with a Jewish congregation. She said, "We knew Esther was about parody and reversal, we just didn’t know what it would be like to reenact that, pushing the limits in the sanctuary." But "this is what we do when we read about a genocide that almost happened but didn’t." She continued, "Esther means: I am hiding. My students knew all this, but they were tossed in the deep end after practicing in the shallow end. And the experience helped them asked new questions, like why are identity questions so often at the root of violence? Does hiding who we are perpetuate/allow violence for others? Does pushing against the sacred help us figure out what is sacred?" 

Carter Florence talked about "play for the sake of justice" and described four "Roadmarkers" that make for the epiphany of scripture, drawing on her theatre background: 

1) Performance/rehearsing scripture is subjunctive. It happens in “as if” mode. What if we rehearse the text as if we are soldiers, as if we are teens, if we read it with a real congregation? Subjunctive is the first roadmarker: rehearse possibilities. Change one variable. See what transpires. 
2) Performance/reading of scripture is liminal. Plays at edges. Pushes limits. Takes us past limits of acceptable/believable/possible. What is more unbelievable? Margaritas in the sanctuary (as she and her class experienced with the congregation celebrating Purim), or ignoring genocide? 
3) Performance (reading scripture) is duplicitous. It isn’t the real world as we know it, but is more real than the reality we live. We expect theatre, but why does it seem to hold more truth than our every day lives? 
4) It is dangerous. Real lives are affected. Real change happens when we rehearse scripture. 

She also shared with us "rehearsal practices" for rehearsing scripture: 

Staying in the scene – walk into the text and keep listening. Don’t break character. Don’t interrupt once it starts. We would sometimes make the mistake in acting as though we were only one in a scene, not part of an ensemble. Stay in it to find something true to say together. Rehearsal reveals things about the script, but also about ourselves. Scripture is much better at reading us than we are at reading it. Requires great compassion and love for one another.
Switching roles - Rehearsing scripture is the first place where we learn to switch roles in our sacred stories. Think of how many different roles Sunday School kids get to play in the Christmas pageant over the years! Each time shows us something new. Every text is worth an annual pageant. 
Pushing the limits - Rehearsal is time for careful pressing against boundaries and limits. We can’t change play or cast or hurt or violate. But we can suspend judgment. It only happens in rehearsal or set aside space. Do it like Max in Where the Wild Things Are - he has adventures and then goes home for supper. Can we tolerate dissonance without shutting down, or questions without calling others heretics? If answer is yes, you can move forward. 
“What if? questions about scripture can change the reading faster than anything else. (Sticking to script while changing the one variable!) One very effective what is question to ask: “What if we read this text as an underground community of believers?” Slaves, Christians in communist countries, Jews in Nazi Germany, original readers of text. We take our free and open reading of scripture for granted sometimes. Descendants of slaves and descendants of Pharaoh have important things to wrestle with. 

***
Carter Florence preached her sermon, "Blessings for Latter Days" on Job 42:1-17. This sermon was transcendent, and my notes in no way do it justice. I tried to describe to colleagues after what she said and did a terrible job. So note below I include a link to where you can purchase his sermon.  

Job Scholars conclude, “Those speech cycles (from Job's terrible friends) are insufferable by design. It’s what the author of Job was going for in those chapters. Job is the puzzle that can’t be solved.” 

Carter Florence said, "What words say and what they do are very different matters. It is one things to expect galling speech to make you mad – it is another thing for it to happen. The point of Job perhaps is not inspiring us, but infuriating us, so that we can’t stand one more word of terrible teaching about suffering." 

"If you’re going to be a talking theologian, you better be a walking theologian, all the way to the White House."

How the author chooses to tell the story is as important as story itself, Carter Florence said. Chapter after chapter of tiresome speeches. Chapter after chapter of Job-splaining! His friends telling Job how to feel. 

One outcome of a function-driven reading of Job: we pool our rage, and throw it at Job’s friends. We could critique them/the book of Job and call it a day. But, Carter Florence says, that's too easy. It protects us from our own story. We have to play this script – some days as Job but we are often Job’s friends. Searching for words and failing. We must speak, speaking is inadequate. 

She had her students participate in a Worst Words of Consolation Ever Contest! What were the worst things people ever said when you to you to "comfort" you when you were broken and grieving? Results? Everything collected was a paraphrase of what Job’s friends uttered. 

The message we/others/the world seems to speak to suffering: "If you are not ________ enough, you deserve _______, it’s God’s will so accept it." 31 chapters, weeks, years, centuries, this Author of Job wants us to FEEL IT, how it enrages us, wants us to feel it. Job’s voice refuses to accept their view of the world. They DO NOT get to name his experience, and they DO NOT get to come in between him and God. 

Political preaching: It's lament. It's dispute. It's embodied preaching that is unafraid to name truth and experience for yourself. "Political preaching feels like freedom and restored order." 

You can purchase a recording of Carter Florence's sermon here. (Scroll to the bottom.) I have never purchased a recording before myself, but I think I will have to with this one!

I didn't take notes, but you can also find the excellent remarks from Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren here

Monday, July 02, 2018

Festival of Homiletics: William H. Lamar IV and Yvette Flunder


Nearly done, really, with my Festival of Homiletics notes. Second to last set. Some brief notes from two more speakers: William H. Lamar IV, and Yvette Flunder. 

William H. Lamar IV is the pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in DC, host church for the Festival. (The church was wonderfully hospitable to us, by the way. They went out of their way to welcome a huge crowd to their space all week.) 

Lamar preached a sermon titled “Seers,” based on Leviticus 25:8-12, 18-24 and Revelation 21:1-5, 21-22.

He said, "Preachers are here because we’re thirsty, hungry, and thirsty, hungry people keep showing up at our churches." His grandfather told him, "Before you preach, I pray that you have heard something and seen something. If you ain't heard nothing and you ain’t seen nothing, you got nothing. Then say nothing. Get someone else to preach. But if you’ve seen and heard, God will give you power." The scriptures tell us that God is not about "all new things, but all things new." 

Too often instead of reflecting God’s glory, he said,  "we have refracted God’s glory." We’ve taken and bent it and sent it in a different direction than God wants. We're meant, called to reflect God's glory. 

***
Bishop Yvette Flunder, Presiding Bishop of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, and pastor at City of Refuge United Church of Christ gave a lecture titled, “The Second Book of Acts.” 

She said, "I believe we are writing the Second Book of Acts right now with our lives. It’s probably time for us to gather in is a few more epistles. An extended canon." 

She spoke about her struggle with Paul's imagery that we are "grafted on" to God's covenant: “I have a real problem with the idea of being a contingency plan. I am not an afterthought. I am the apple of God’s eye.” 

"What are the acts of the apostles currently?" she asked. "The future needs to hear from our present. What is cultural and what is theological? When do we abdicate theology/God to remain culturally comfortable?" 

She made me laugh when talking about Paul - we're of the same mind perhaps. She said, “Bless his heart. I released Paul, and allowed him to be a human being,” and talked about whether we can give him room to grow in his theology throughout his writing. 

Speaking on Acts 21:17-36:
"What do we do, like Paul, for the aroma, for the cultures, for the smells we like, the practices, etc.? To what degree are we defending things by custom/tradition that we no longer believe? So what do we now believe?"

"We sanctify bad stuff with time," Flunder said, when it really started out bad and stayed bad." 

She said we have a habit of writing our books of order when something negative happens, and then we are so burdened down that we can’t do the will of God. 

She said that our institutions don’t know how to sway like trees in an earthquake. They’re like the buildings – they crack. Their facades, the unneeded and unnecessary things fall off. We need to "stop building monuments on the will of God – our facades are in danger. Sometimes we go wrong way because we are told it is the only way. But God has a better way." 

Flunder concluded, "Let’s start gathering (new) Epistles!"