“If You Can’t Take the Heat…” Acts 6:26-39

“If you can’t take the heat……

            That’s how the old phrase goes, but as we have started looking at the events of bearing witness to Jesus, we have a little different picture.

            Last week we looked at how the Disciples appointed seven trusted elders to do the work of waiting tables, and of caring for the distribution of food to the poor and the widows.   It was “kitchen duty” if you will.  “It’s not right for us to neglect the word…” the disciples had said.

            What is curious in Acts is how little you hear from the disciples though.   The crowd in Jerusalem fall silent, and except for Peter are never heard of again.

            Who do we hear about?   Well it’s all the people who were supposed to just stay in the Kitchen!

           We met Stephen, who took up the task and added to it, becoming one who proclaimed Christ to the Hellenists.    He was stoned to death for stepping outside the bounds of the kitchen.

            This week we hear about another of the group, Philip, who finds himself suddenly on the receiving end of God’s messenger.   An angel has him by the ear, and directs him out of the kitchen and out of Jerusalem where has this encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch along the stretch of road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.

            It seems that in the case of the proclaiming the resurrection, the heat isn’t found in the Kitchen!   It comes in stepping out of the kitchen.  That is what these “appointed ones” feel compelled to do!   They are not content just waiting tables.   But more than just being content, really they find themselves thrust into all kinds of situations they never thought they would end up in when they first agreed to help out.

It was the disciples who heard Jesus give the promise that they “would be his witnesses to Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

            It appears that the Holy Spirit has an expansion of Jesus’ promise in mind.

            Now, it’s impossible to look at this story without addressing a few awkward but interesting details of the story.

            We have here an Ethiopian in command of a chariot.  Not only is he black, from a far flung corner of the Roman Empire and highly educated, there is something else that becomes the signature mark of uniqueness, mainly that he is a eunuch. 

That’s what he is referred to repeatedly in the story, “the eunuch” so let’s just get the awkward part of the story out of the way.  This situation makes him a valuable person in that he can be trusted around women, particularly the sensitive royal type for whom it is very important that any births that should take place be the ones intended to pass on royal lineage and rights to the throne.  

            But, he is also someone who does not fit in anywhere.

            He cannot be a Jew, although he worships in Jerusalem and reads the Hebrew Scriptures, his awkward status as eunuch keeps him isolated, an outsider from virtually everyone. 

            This is where the story gets interesting, the more you look at it from the perspective of Philip getting out of the kitchen.

            You will note that Philip has this encounter with an angel, a voice that tells him where to go.

            The angel tells him to go to this road.    Once he gets there, this spirit tells him to approach the chariot.

            Like the last two weeks the rest of the story unfolds in the midst of the conversation between Philip and the Eunuch.   Did you notice what is conspicuously absent from this point on?

            Well, if an Angel is going to show you the road, and the voice of the Spirit is going to get you into the chariot, wouldn’t you expect that Angel or voice of the spirit to show up and clinch the deal now?
            But that’s not what happens!   Philip is very much on his own here.   “Do you understand what you are reading?”  he asks.

“How can I unless someone guides me?”  I can just see Philip thinking to himself, “wow, Holy Spirit talking to me, this is what Spirit must want, can’t wait to hear what that Spirit voice has to say next.  So he jumps into the chariot, the passage is read, the question is asked, “About whom ….does the prophet say this, about himself or someone else? 

            Silence!

            Any time now Holy Spirit.

            Bumping along, waiting for the word from above… the definitive word here….what you want to me say to this high ranking, African eunuch official…..

            Any time now Angel….

            Silence.

            Now you understand the kitchen comment.   The heat is on here, God has positioned Philip the dishwasher into the seat of the rich and powerful, and you would think God would give him something to say….. but God doesn’t.

            And so, Philip has to fall back on the same thing that you and I have to fall back on.   He has to use scripture, and he has to interpret it himself in the light of the resurrected Jesus!

            That was awkward!

            It was certainly nothing Philip had prepared for or had a chance to “bone up on” just for this occasion.  He doesn’t have the advantage of knowing ahead of time which scripture passage the Eunuch is going to be interested in, he just has to shoot from the hip here in the light of Jesus.

            Oh, and not only does he have to do that, he has to make a decision about a deeply controversial action on the fly.

            After hearing about Jesus, as they are bouncing around on the road, the Eunuch looks over and sees some water and asks, “what is to prevent me from being baptized?”

            Baptism, which marks entry into the community, for this one who is outside, what is to prevent it?

            I can imagine Philip again taking a little breath, looking up, listening, thinking to himself, “now would be a good time God, to give me a little direction, a little hint, maybe send someone more qualified to answer this kind of question?”

            Silence.

            You mean, I’m going to have to make this call on my own?  A kitchen hand has to decide of God’s grace is big enough to include a Eunuch, an African, a rich and powerful nobleman?

            Yes, that’s pretty much the way it is. 

            And so… gulp… they stop, they head to the water, the deed is done…. And then the Spirit shows up and whisks Philip out of the scene somehow, and the Ethiopian?   Well he’s left with his bible and an opportunity to read scripture again and see if he can now make out what it means in the light of Jesus who has entered his story.

            The more I read this, the more I am convinced that what we are really comfortable doing is not what the Holy Spirit has in mind for us to continue doing.

            I like it in the kitchen, you see.

            It’s a place of endless creativity where I can do my own thing, fancy or plain, and if I mess it up no one really needs to know about it but me.

            I like it in the kitchen, it’s the place where friends congregate, gather, exchange some friendly gossip and generally feel at ease because we only invite good and close friends to our kitchen.  

            In the kitchen we can be casual, comfortable, and not really have to make a lot of decisions on our own. There is always an authority to consult, either a cookbook, a trusted expert chef, or grandma.   We don’t have to be on our own.

            I would imagine that when the disciples first asked Stephen, and Philip, and all the rest for kitchen duty, this is exactly what they had in mind.

            “Sure, I can serve my church that way, no problem.  I like it in the kitchen.”

            But here is the thing, God is in the habit of moving those who like to hang around in the kitchen out in the world, so that the Word can be proclaimed in Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

            If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen?

            No, just plain get out of the kitchen!

            That’s what God has in mind for you.  That’s where the Holy Spirit will lead and guide you, and when you get out there, don’t expect any direct whispers from God as to what to do next.

            As the baptized, you have had the Holy Scriptures placed into your hands.

            As the forgiven, you have the words to speak, to begin a conversation that allows people to inquire of how YOU find comfort, hope, and peace in this world.

            You don’t have to “cook up” any fresh ideas, any new fads, any great gimmicks to tell people about the Risen Lord.   You do have to use the gifts entrusted to you to the best of your ability, and if this story reveals anything about that it is that God and the Holy Spirit trusts those who are moved by the Spirit deeply to complete the task they find themselves placed into.

            Much as you might like to hang out in the kitchen, following Jesus puts you out in the world, and that is where you will find Jesus, in the ones you meet along the way, and the ones who ask, “hey, what is to prevent me from being part of this?”

            May you have the wisdom of Philip in that moment.

A “Real” Church Acts 6:1-7:2a; 7:44-60

So, last week we walked the road to Emmaus.   We ended up talking about “My Church”, how to lay claim to this experience of a Jesus who appears to meet us now in the midst of conversation.

One way to start that conversation, according to Pastor Rob Moss, is to get used to talking about “My Church.”  Of course, a few of you might have felt a little uneasy about the “My Church” thing and for good reason.  Getting too possessive about something usually also opens up the possibility for comparison, and conflict.”

In fact, that is a pretty good lead into the reading for today, because what the Acts story of Stephen reveals to us is that there seems to be built into this thing called “church” the potential for conflict and division.

            Here we have this rather uncomfortable story about political intrigue in the first century church!

The Jerusalem church is flourishing we are told, adding members day by day in that cosmopolitan stewpot of Jerusalem in the first century.   All kinds of different cultures, allegiences and histories are mixing and melding together and sorting out their identity, and do you know what happens when you do that?

Conflict happens!

            So you have all these Greek speaking cultures flooding into Jerusalem like immigrants, the Hellenists as they are called, and they are trying to find or claim their place amongst the established Hebrew indigenous cultures. 

What begins as a functional problem, how to distribute food among the poor, escalates into a theological problem.  

We are not told exactly what Stephen preached, only the allegations against him, and the intrigue that follows where he is falsely accused on trumped up charges, and brought to the temple authorities.

He delivers an impassioned defense, judged over by the High Priest in the Temple.  Now, if you know the story of Jesus, you know that the High Priest and the Council haven’t exactly had a track record of choosing the wisest course of action. 

It is no surprise therefore, that their judgment is one that prefers that one man die for the sake of keeping the peace

You or I might have wanted to sweep the unpleasant stories about the church under the rug, wouldn’t we?

That is ever our temptation, to make the church some kind of ideal community, a utopia on earth where all find comfort, refuge, shelter, love, and nothing else.   We want to put a steeple on the Magic Kingdom.  The church is supposed to be like this all the time.   A place where dreams come true, hurts are healed, and the broken are mended.  

Surely that is a part of what the church is about.   Stephen and his teaching, the feeding of the widows, the earnest attempt to address the complaints, all those are signs of Church wanting to aspire to its Lord.

But things don’t always turn out the way we expect them to, even in the conversation with and over Jesus!  

Here’s the thing about Jesus being in conversation with us and with this world.   It doesn’t always go as expected!.  

The conversation does not go well for Stephen, even though Luke is clear that he is blameless, the rocks still fly, and there are those who are willing and not innocent bystanders to the event.  Saul of Tarsus watches it all and serves as coat keeper, without lifting a finger from his position of authority as Pharisee and keeper of the law.  

It is a curious thing, that the religious leaders in Jerusalem who had no law by which they could put the blasphemer Jesus to death, now finds a provision for stoning Stephen.

How can this be?   We shake our heads in dismay. 

Sometimes we do the same thing when the church disappoints us.  We shake our heads and say, “this isn’t the way it should be!   If we were all Christians, we wouldn’t be fighting over things, would we?”

I think Luke is trying to make a compelling argument that part and parcel of living with a resurrected Lord who is in conversation with us is that there will be disagreements!   Look it happened all the way back there.  It happened on the road to Emmaus as they disagreed with each other and Jesus about the events in Jerusalem.

It happened in Jerusalem, even when the church was doing really good and important ministry, there were disagreements about theology, and the nuts and bolts of administration, and about the course of action and who should have authority and the final say in things.   There was jealously, and envy, and intrigue and outright lies, and in the end an uncertain outcome for the accused that did not go out as we might have expected for a “good Christian” story!

            Which bring us back now again to this phrase “My Church.”   

            Pastor Moss’ next direction to his congregation is that after you get used to just saying “My Church” you bump it up a notch, by completing a simple sentence.   A Really simple sentence like, “My Church is_____.”   Fill in the blank.

            I’m pretty sure what we would want to put in the blank is all the positive stuff, right?  My church is involved in a food pantry.  My church is feeding the homeless.  My church has a great choir.  My church is a great place to worship.  Etc., etc. etc.

            But I wonder if we would dare to fill in that blank just a bit differently, and include more than just the positives?    My church is involved in a food pantry, and I’m not sure what all they do there or how to get involved?   My church is feeding the homeless, but we sure have a hard time getting people to sign up to do that!   My church has a great choir but it’s getting older and shrinking.   My church is a great place to worship but we sure are split about how we worship.

My church is contentious, we have strong personalities that vie for resources, control, and influence.  My church is opinionated.   My church is …….well you get the picture.

            If what we were interested in was presenting a pretty picture, we would leave those comments off.

            But it looks to me like Luke is telling us to do something different, for the sake of the church itself.

            The story of Stephen has to be told.   This is who we are, this is what we are capable of doing when the voice of Jesus is forgotten, or shut out, or actively resisted.

            Luke you see is not much interested in a Disneyland version of church.   He insists on a “real” church for really good reasons.

            It is in this “real” church that Jesus engages in conversations with us that matter.  

            It is in this church that contains the best and the worst of us, that God continues to work, laying the groundwork for lives that will unfold in unexpected ways.

            No one laying their coats on the ground at the feet of Saul would have expected what God would do with that scalawag and threat-breather.

            This is why we have to include all the “My Church Is…” possibilities.   God is not in the habit of working with plaster saints or phonies.

            God is in the habit of engaging in real conversations over things that matter intensely to you and to me, and helping us work though them, and even when we are dead wrong and make mistakes that cost lives still chooses to work with and through us.

            That’s the nature of this world, and of this church that is in this world and in a continuing conversation with Jesus.  

So let’s get used to this “next step in the “My Church” exercise.

My church is after all, if you have been reading the headlines, a church where a Bishop can preside wonderfully over the Eucharist, work diligently for immigration reform, to address the needs of the poor, and still end up killing the innocent because of his own drunken driving.  

            My church is a church where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the needs of all are considered, and where the needs of others are sometimes forgotten, ignored or belittled.  We surprise and disappoint all the time.

            Yes, I’m sorry to have to tell you that my church is a real church.

            It is a church of, as Luther used to put it, Simul, Justis et Peccator… filled with wonderful saint who are at the same time wretched sinners.

            Or, rather, I am not sorry to tell you that.   Because from the book of Acts forward it is clear that what this resurrected Lord does is work in such churches, and in such churches plaster saints are not what you will find, but rather real people, and that means there is room for you and for me as well. 

My Church is not a perfect place.  

It is a place where Grace has the final say, and where forgiveness is freely offered, sometimes to the least deserving, because that is what the conversation with Jesus presses you toward, and makes you proclaim.

It is a real church.   Amen

“Heartburn” Luke 24:13-35

           What is needed these days is a good case of heartburn.   

           That may not be what you came expecting to hear today.   For those who have experienced the discomfort and pain of a slice of pizza eaten too late in the evening, or a bowl of greasy chili that lasted much longer than desired, you probably don’t want to hear about heartburn at all.   Who wants to be reminded of that?  Pass the Tums!

            But of course, that’s not the kind of heartburn I’m talking about, nor the kind that we find in this Gospel.  

            As these two saddened disciples make their way home from Jerusalem to Emmaus, they encounter Jesus along the way.   He comes to them in the form of a stranger and fellow traveler.  They cannot immediately recognize this stranger as Jesus, and we’re not sure why.  Maybe the resurrected body looks different.  Or, maybe in grief and pain, they just aren’t looking at him and aren’t really paying attention to much of anything.

             You know how that goes.   Distracted by your own thoughts, your own problems and concerns, you are sort of blank to the presence and comments of others, staring down at your own feet instead of paying attention to the world around you.

            At any rate, the encounter with Jesus stirs something inside them, and that stirring comes, we are told, as he begins to open to them the scriptures.  He begins to give them insight into what God has been up to all along.  

            The stranger walking with them takes them back to Moses, to the call to be a covenant people, and how God in Moses provided for them, led them, and helped the people in their time of slavery and wandering make their way to a new place, to a promised land.

          He takes them back the prophets.  He reminds them of to the prophet’s call for justice and mercy and for God’s people to live up to what God had called them to be, a blessing; a light to the nations.

            This stranger along the way to Emmaus takes them back to the promise of Messiah.  God’s promise that one, descended of David, would come to fulfill the promises, to enter into this world, and to lead people once more into God’s ways.

            And all along the way, we are told, as these two walk with this stranger, who is really Jesus, and as they listen to him opening the scriptures, they are feeling this “heart burn.”

            Maybe what Jesus said along the way did make them a bit queasy.  The word of God has the potential to do that, to remind us of what we have left undone, what we’ve neglected, what we’ve forgotten.

           That is the funny thing about heartburn, you know.  If you get it every time you eat a particular food, you’d think you’d learn not to eat that.  But, as in real life, we are tempted.  Maybe this time it will be different.  Maybe this time I’ll get by with it.   And so we taste, we do what we know we shouldn’t, and then when the heartburn comes, we are then reminded of what we should have remembered along.

            Maybe it is like that with these two, as Jesus opens the scriptures to them.  Maybe there is this queasy feeling that we should have remembered that all along!

            But mostly, we assume, what they feel welling up inside of them is a new sense of hope, and new understanding of what God has wanted of God’s people all along.  At very least, what they begin to feel is an urge to think of something else besides their own troubles.  They begin to notice something else besides their own feet.  For, by the time they get to their destination for the night, they are ready now to offer hospitality again.  They are ready to invite this stranger, who is Jesus, in for dinner, and ready to give him a place to stay for the night.  They are ready to do what Jesus had taught his disciples to do, what God has been urging his people to do throughout the centuries.  They are ready to care for someone else, and to put their own needs in second place.

           It is in extending that invitation to this stranger, who is indeed Jesus, that they at last recognize him.  He is made known to them at their table, in the breaking of the bread together, and it is then that they recognize that good “heartburn.”

            How is your heartburn?    We all meet an awful lot of people in daily life who really do want to have a vibrant faith.  They want to believe in something, or have the kind of faith that will sustain them in the tough times and will bring them joy in their daily life. But there is a kind of scrambled and broken understanding of the scriptures, or the church.   We often assume everyone has heard these stories, or that they will find their way into our doors, or be drawn in by the right message, or the right advertising or the right program offering.

          There are people in our communities who have a bad case of the wrong kind of heartburn.   They view what goes on here like acid reflux, and I can’t really blame them.  Some have sampled the church only to have it come back up on them, leaving a bad taste in their mouth. 

           Maybe it was because they felt judged and were found wanting.

           Maybe because our own close relationships seemed to shut them out and ignore them.

            Maybe because our language, or our liturgy, which are good gifts to us seemed strange and out of touch to them because we don’t take time to nurture folks into them.

           Maybe they came and expected something different here, a place with no conflict, no animosity or difference of opinion, and were confused by how “real” our lives seemed.  “You guys fight too?  I thought I could get away from all that here!

           The wrong kind of heartburn is found.

           What people need is a “good” case of “heartburn”, like the kind that Jesus gives to those two on the road to Emmaus, but in order for them to get it, we need to change a few things in our approach.

          Point number one you learn from Jesus here.    Before the scriptures can be opened to you, you have to know their story.  You have to be able to see what God has been up to with all this fussing with us throughout history.    

         Jesus, the stranger here on the road to Emmaus is connecting the dots for these two disciples who already know the stories.  And, as the dots are connected their consciences are quickened, their hearts are warmed, and their spirits are lifted, but you have to know the stories to get there!

        Point number 2, You and I are the keepers of these stories now.  We are the ones who are called upon to tell them, to know them, and to share them in such a way that Jesus can come and meet and warm the heart.

        How is your heartburn?  

        Are you spending the time you need to know the scriptures so that Jesus, in the guise of a stranger and in the power of the Holy Spirit can open those scriptures to you, to give you hope and life along the way?     Are you spending the time you need to let these stories soak into you in such a way that they exude out of your life and into the lives of those whom you meet along the way?

          Point number three, you have to be able to get the conversation started.   

          Jesus walks up to those two and initiates the conversation.   “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”  Jesus asks.   He may already know what they are talking about, but that becomes the entry point for opening the scriptures, and for making a connection that leads to burning hearts and opened hearts.

            I have shared a little bit about a colleague and friend out in Colorado, Pastor Rob Moss, who has told his church they are through with being a “welcoming church.”  A welcoming church is way too passive, we sit hoping that someone will find us, someone will walk in, that someone will discover what we have to offer, when all along what Jesus had been training his disciples to do was to go out!   

               Instead of being a “welcoming church”, Pastor Moss is encouraging his congregation to become an “inviting church,” which is really a much more an Emmaus kind of experience, but that means that you have to learn how to strike up a conversation, something we are not very good at most of the time.

            So Pastor Moss has broken up this “inviting church” challenge into bite sized chunks with a little “step along the way” suggestion that I think mirrors the Emmaus approach.  

         In the first month Pastor Moss is inviting people to simply get used to using the phrase “my church.”   Pastor Moss writes in his blog:   “We ask people to use the phrase “my church” in a conversation with one person each week.  Really simple.  “Just go two blocks past my church.”   “No, I can’t go camping this weekend; I’ve already made plans to be at my church.”   Yes, I saw the sunset last night, the view from my church was amazing!”   Just one person, one time each week during the month.

            He’s even equipped people with convenient conversation starters, by giving out, or selling to his parishioners shopping bags, mugs, trinkets, all so that when folks comment on them, a person can say, “Oh, I got this at my church.”

            It is such a little thing, but here is what he is doing.   He is making God’s Story a part of your story.   You have ownership in this.   It makes its way into the heart, for the more you claim connection with your church, the more you open up the possibility of speaking well of it and being able to engage in a conversation that warms the heart!  

             It’s not “the church”

             It’s not “that church” 

             It’s not “a church on Vivion”

             It’s “my Church”   Which is not to say we are possessive so much as we have ownership in this walk.   Just get used to saying that in a conversation, so that when you engage in daily conversation you have a context, a story that is your own from which to speak. 

         You will have a story that allows you to “connect the dots” with what God has done for you, and with you, and with this place.   It is a story that you claim as your own, where Jesus has met you and weekly broken bread with you, and where you too can find your heart strangely warmed.

         You need, we all need, a good case of heartburn around here, so that the stranger who is Jesus unrecognized, whom we meet every day, may make himself known to us.

         We need a good case of heartburn, so that we can be Christ to one who is wandering and looking down at his or her own feet with no place else to look but down.