Word of the Week

A sermon preached on Acts 15:36-41 at University Christian Church, Hyattsville, MD 

We love reading, watching or singing along to love stories, don’t we?

Maybe this is this why our reality show line up is full of finding love elements of their programing...

Big Brother, 90 Day Fiancé, Married by Mom and Dad, Say Yes to the Dress, anyone?

And let us not forget the show running now for 15 years, The Bachelor.

The Bachelor has proven to the be a franchise built upon viewers being sucked into to following an unrealistic 6-week journey across the world by a bachelor or bachelorette to “find love” but also to follow the journey of those who go home in defeat. When a contestant does not receive a rose “and is sent home” a limo or a back SUV appears and whisks him or her off to the airport. But this is not before a camera crew gets in the car with the sullen contestant.

And what follows? Viewers at home see all the emotions including pure sadness.

(Grown men bawling and young women with their mascara dripping down their face and their eye lashes falling off. And we all wonder do they realize millions are watching?)

And the Nielsen Ratings say about The Bachelor/ The Bachelorette that the more dramatic the break-up the more we are watching.

Bottom line: if this reality show has any mirror to reflect back what we find worth giving our time and energy toward, it is a good break-up story.

And so, then, listen closely church. What we have before us this morning is a good, a very good break-up story. A pair that may thought were a ministry match made in heaven has a falling out.

Our lesson from this morning is taken from the Acts of the Apostles. We know that after Jesus ascended into heaven, charging the disciples (and all those to come) with the great commission:

“Go ye therefore into all the world and preach the gospel. . .” and they had work to do!

And as the days of the lives of the apostles go, by time we reach chapter 9, we encounter a huge shift in the narration.

Saul, a known persecutor of followers of Christ and member of the Pharisee religious order, meets Jesus literally on the road to Damascus. What follows is one of the most dramatic conversions—Saul, the person you’d least expect to find himself on team Jesus—goes there, all there. Saul commits his life to service in telling others about Jesus.

But as you might imagine, so many have a hard time accepting him in the Christian way. I mean, Saul (who changes his name to Paul) says he’s a changed man?  No way.

But not Barnabas.

Barnabas, a leader in the early Christian movement in Jerusalem, a leader whose name meant literally “Son of Encouragement” believed in Paul.

He trusted the testimony of Paul.

He blessed the change in Paul.

And he stood up for Paul when Paul sought out support from the gathering of believers in Jerusalem.

As the men go their separate ways, Paul back to this hometown of Tarsus and Barnabas as a leader in the church in Antioch, the two can’t be kept from one another for very long.  In Acts 11, we read of Barnabas calling for Paul asking him to come with him to Antioch. The church needs a strong preacher and Barnabas thinks that Paul would be just the person for the job. Together, Paul and Barnabas did ministry together in Antioch for one year, scripture tells us.

And a couple of chapters over, we read of that the good times continue to roll.

The church in Antioch commissions Paul and Barnabas to take the first major missionary journey.

When I traveled to the Middle East on an interfaith delegation of clergy several years ago, our guide told us something about traveling companions that I have never forgotten.

Aziz said us that you never truly know someone until you travel with them.

Any maybe if you’ve taken any road trips with friends or family this summer you’d agree. For there’s nothing like being trapped in a car (even with headphones) with the same people for hours on end or sharing a one room hotel room to make you feel like you're ready for your own bed again.

I have to think the same was true for Paul and Barnabas. Trapped together in a boat, in side-by-side tents, and walking side-by-side for weeks, they knew one another. They preached together. They taught together. They organized together.

As a preacher/ teacher/ organizer who has also worked throughout my ministry with those who also preach/ teach/ organize, I have to tell you that this kind of work when done together, when done together with the blessing of the Spirit, can be a heart-knitting, a soul-binding season of life like none other. When you do this kind of work with people, you can’t imagine ever-growing a part.

BUT, Acts 15, verse 36 tells us of the conflict brewing below the service of this partnership made in heaven between Paul and Barnabas.

Paul is ready for round 2 telling Barnabas that he wants to “return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they were doing”

But Paul says no. Barnabas wants to take John Mark. Paul doesn't believe John Mark is a good choice.

The two simply do not see eye to eye.

The great break-up is underway.

Whether it was over personal differences (about John Mark’s readiness for service) as Acts narrates it. Or if it is over theological differences as Paul highlights in his own voice in the letter to the church of Galatians—we aren’t fully sure.

The point is that the two had a “sharp disagreement” a phrase that in the original Greek signifies a passionate or even bitter exchange.

And if you’ve had a sharp disagreement anytime in your life (and I’m sure you have) you know that you just don’t move forward too easily after having one.

Paul and Barnabas were no different. They don’t get back together. Never in scripture do they get back together. 

When I first chose to study and preach on this passage this Sunday several weeks ago, I thought about the great mystery of relationships in this crazy world of ours. How someone can walk in our lives as a friend and become a dear one, even a “best” and then one day, say “see ya” with all the complications that follow.

I thought of all of the broken partnerships in our world. Long term dating relationships that end with rivers of tears. Marriages of 5, 10, 15 or 35 years that find their conclusion in the word divorce with blame slung around with never-ending speed.  No one gets back together.

I thought of how in the Christian church we so tightly hold on to words like “reconciliation” and “unity” and “peace-making.” But here in this portion of scripture we get none of that. No reconciliation. No unity. No peace.

I believe there’s so much wisdom this text offers us WHEN splits happen in our friendships, our partnerships or even our churches.

For like Paul and Barnabas—when we find ourselves in a “sharp disagreement” with another person, institution or group sometimes the healthiest, most life-giving and fruit-bearing ministry we can do going forward is to SEPARATE from those who do not understand why we do what we do.

But on a morning like this. On a weekend like this. When Charlottesville happened . . . this sermon has to go a different direction than I might have planned to end it.

When hate filled the streets of a city in a state right next door to us . . .

When flags of regimes, we long thought were dead were raised in supremacy of a race killing at least 3 and injuring dozens more . . .

When marchers, many who will fill the pews this morning at churches with the same word “Christian” on the door as is on ours, rallied to say that brown lives and black lives did not matter . . .

When the highest leader in our land did not call out racism for the evil that it is . . .

It seems right to say this morning to have a family meeting. Come close church. It's important to remind one another that there comes a point when we cannot be silent.

For as Christian people, we believe with all our hearts, don’t we that we are ALL God’s children. No matter where we were born. No matter what the color of our skin is. No matter who we choose to love. We are ALL CHILDREN OF GOD.  And with this true, there’s no room in our faith tradition, or in this community, or in our country for hate for anyone. There just isn’t.

Those people marching with Nazi t-shirts on aren’t our people. 

I know, friends, we don’t like rocking the boat, especially when it comes to our closest friends and family whom we respect and have long-standing relationships with. We don’t like being seen as partisan or even judgmental.

I know friends, we believe in the prayer of Jesus in John 17 when Jesus prayed with all his might that “all of us may be one” . . .

BUT in the spirit of our text this morning (knowing that breaking-up can be one of the most spiritual things we do—even with members of our own tribe), we must break-up from hate.

We must break-up from any voices that don’t call acts like this weekend what they are: sin.

We must not idolize false unity, just for the sake of unity.

We must stand firm—knowing that our calling to strengthen others might just be to strengthen ourselves for the days that lie ahead . . . days when Charlottesville is not just somewhere out there.  But here. Right here. In Washington DC. In Hyattsville. In our own backyard.

Elie Wisel, survivor of the Holocaust said this about silence (or another word for what I like to call the refusal to break-up):

“I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

So, what will we do?

Will we be a part of an institutional break-up from hate, from racism, from anything that keeps the message of belovedness away from ANY person?

Will we have that courage to be ok to separate, as now the time that time has for sure come?

Or will we be silent?

I hope not. Pray not this day.

Let us boldly break-up.

God-Is-LoveThroughout my life, on my best days and worst days alike, there has been one abiding truth that I've always known and clung to: God is love.

Nothing that can separate us from this love. No height, nor depth, no nothing! And the love of God is not just for a select few. It is for all people.

Then, if we've experienced this love, it is our job to share it with others without discrimination. We are called to love as God loves.

No matter where a person is born, no matter the color of their skin, no matter the language they speak, no matter if we call them an enemy or a friend, we are to love.

Though none of us lives into this calling with perfection, it's what I believe the pastoral life is all about. We are asked to model love in healthy ways as God has loved us.

But this living "God is love" is not always easy. Here's one example:

Recently, I entered conversation with a church to be their interim pastor. As I got to know the search committee selected to represent the congregation, I observed their love for God, each other, and their church. I was very interested in how my calling could be lived out in this place. I gladly accepted their offer to serve among them when it came.

However, it became clear from the first moments of my work, that the interim time in this church broke open issues deep below the surface that no one saw coming. A storm erupted among some members of the church.

But, thanks to the loving community around me, I didn't panic. I preached my first sermon about love in fact. I knew that my showing up could speak volumes about giving God's love a chance. I awaited how the story would unfold with hope.

But then, this week, it became clear that:

1. I was/ would not be given as chance to minister because I am a woman.

2. I was/ would not be given a chance to minister because it is my personal belief that all are welcome in God family, even those who are gay.

It is my abiding belief that love can not be forced upon a person or a group of people. It's either accepted or its not. And, church shouldn't be a place where newcomers feel either emotionally or physically unsafe. Love shouldn't hurt. So, sadly, I knew I needed to leave this context much sooner than I hoped.

So my friends who long for the coming of God's kingdom on earth, this is what this experience has reminded me of all over again: we've got a lot of work to do. A lot. 

Christians should be known by our love, not our exclusion. No one should be unwelcome in church. No one.

Jesus loves little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow black and white they are precious in his sight. Jesus love all the children of the world! 

All are welcome in the family of God. It's such great news that we've got to share. 

And we must share it. People need to hear it. People are longing to hear it. People's lives could be changed if they knew. And I want to be part of ministry is a beacon of love for all people. All people. 

Here's the message, I'll keep preaching the rest of my days. Let us love God and love one another.

As the old hymn goes, they'll know we are Christians by our love.

We must keep a open chair for the stranger or for any who find their way to our congregations. Always. 

So, I'm wondering, would someone visiting your church know that God is love? And if they wouldn't, what are you and I going to do to be the change?

For those who have journeyed to the life beyond after watching what would be their last film,

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those who simply wanted a night out of enjoyment at a movie theater and find themselves in the most bewildering shock of their lives as memories of confusion continue to play in their minds,

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those who will continue to support, treat, help and love on those now in physical, emotional and spiritual pain in Aurora and for the long days of pain to come,

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those who have lost a daughter, a son, a brother, a sister, a friend, a teacher, a lover, a neighbor to this unexplainable event who are now planning funerals they never believed they'd attend,

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For all those around the globe who woke up this day with the people of Aurora on their minds, wondering how they could believe in a God anymore who could let this kind of death, injury and heartache happen.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those who will use this moment in time to push their own political agendas that are rooted in ego rather than love,

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those teens and young adults who feel lost, alone, and no mattering to anyone who are considering "copying" this horendous act in an effort to be seen on the evening news,

Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer.

For all people of faith who have been touch by this senseless event-- as residents of Aurora, over the Internet, through their television screens, or through word of mouth-- may you grow our compassion muscles so that we live less in isolation and more in abiding communion with You and one another.

Lord, in mercy hear our prayer.

Do what you can only do O God. Come close. Bring your Spirit. Teach us again how to be human beings that love each other.  AMEN

It seems right on the eve of 9/11 to begin doing some thinking about forgiveness.  Where are we as a nation? Ten years later as a country, have we forgiven our enemies or are we still fixated on making wrongs right? Are we any more free than we were ten years ago? Or are we in bondage to fear, hate and terror?

Watch any 9/11 news program or look at our defense budget, and you will have your answer: there is much work of forgiveness yet to be done.

Tomorrow at Washington Plaza, we'll be doing some conversing with the gospel lectionary for the day taken from Matthew 18: 21-35. It's a passage that calls into question our normal human response to being wronged: retribution. Instead Jesus invites us into a way of life where we simply have no interest in keeping score.

One of my favorite teachers on the topic of forgiveness is Bishop Desmund Tutu. Coming from a scenario in his homeland of South Africa where he had every "right" to hate those who oppressed him and his fellow black citizens, Bishop Tutu choose a different way. He chose to forgive so that the pain of the past did not destroy what could be his future.

Watch this short clip and I look forward to seeing many of you tomorrow.