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“Sin’s Obscurity and God’s Purposes”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Romans 8:26-39
Genesis 29:15-28

 

Romans 8:26-39

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Genesis 29:15-28

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.


 

The fact is that almost any behavior can be justified using the Bible.  In the Bible, there is rape; there is murder; there is mob mentality; dismemberment; racial discrimination; genetic engineering; magic; divination; genocide; the stealing of land and possession; slavery; concubines; polygamy; royal, live versions of “The Bachelor,” stonings; rebellions; terrorist attacks; deceit; human trafficking; executions; child sacrifice; and even the sanctified killing of babies…

Now you may say, “Yes, but we know those things were wrong; they are only in there to teach us that they are wrong.”  And you may be correct.  But how do we know which is which?

 

In the Bible men are not to have long hair.  Pork is not to be eaten.  Women must have long hair and wear a head covering.  Women must separate themselves from community and isolate during their seven days of menstruation.  Animal sacrifices are to be brought.  Circumcision is a thing.  Animals are not to be cooked in their own milk…

The lists of do’s and don’ts are extraordinarily long.

And why?
Most of us would say we are now exempt from this long list of rules.
Why?
Because in Christ the old is gone and the new has come.
But this also does not mean we simply drop all the stories.  They still have value.
But it places a particular burden on the reader. 

And this burden is that of prayer, study, and discernment.

For without prayer, without the leading of the Spirit of God, our own minds and hearts can rationalize and excuse any plethora of behavior.

The Bible was used in support of slavery.  It was used in support of keeping women silent.  I has been used to justify slaughtering entire nations, burning “witches” at the stake, and it is probably still used my some today to justify polygamy.  After all, even this story of our beloved patriarch Jacob, we hear of how he takes two wives – both Leah and Rachel.  And though he did not ask for this, he nonetheless walked this path.  And this is a path so many of our Fathers in the faith walked.  Abraham had one wife, but he slept with his wife’s slave.  David had many lovers, including one he stole from one of his most loyal and honorable servants.  Solomon had many lovers.  …And these are only the examples we know about.

The responsibility of reading the Bible prayerfully – opening oneself up to God in a listening, in a conversation – is most imperative.

 

And then we must read it intelligently.  It is our responsibility to learn the cultures in which these passages were written.  Context absolutely matters when interpreting scripture.  We need to be able to take a step back from any one particular passage and begin to see the meta-narrative – the overarching themes, direction, point of it all.  We need to read enough of scripture that we can allow them to inform one another, to converse, to challenge, to be in tension.  Just like we are strengthened by those with whom we disagree, scripture is best heard in tension with other contrasting scriptures.  This is part of how we tease out and understand the deeper meaning.  For example, Paul says, “Women keep silent.”  But then he praises Eunice, who was a church leader.  Paul says, “Slaves remain as you are.”  But then he says, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, man or woman, slave or free.”

When heard together, these passages can be quite bewildering, but it can also lead us to dive deeper, to ask the questions.  And in the asking, in the seeking, God says we will find.

 

In my own seeking on these questions, I came to believe that Paul was both pastor and prophet.  He would, at once, see the end vision AND nurture the people on a path to get there.  The path and the end vision are not the same.  One is stark, the other gradual.  But in the end, both aim in the same direction.  Paul also believed Jesus would return within his lifetime, and so he encourages people to set down their own needs and to instead focus on God, compromise, lay down their own lives for the sake of others.  And while these instructions stand well on their own over the test of time, they also help us understand why Paul did not try navigating faster toward the final vision of equality, the final vision of family unity, the final vision of freedom.  He felt the time was short.  So he cut to the chase; “better to loose ones life and save ones soul.”

 We are called to read the scriptures with discernment.  Discernment is a coming together of everything:  prayer, listening, studying, comparing…

 

In our Old Testament scripture passage today, we witness deceit; polygamy; the possession, trading, and bargaining of men over women’s lives; and the possession and trading of enslaved persons.

Would you have wanted to be deceived as was Jacob?

Would you have wanted to be secretly switched out with your sister for a bridal night with her betrothed?  Unwanted, yet forced into the middle?

Would you have wanted to have your betrothed, given secretly to sleep with your sister, on your own wedding night?

Would you want to be the property of anyone, much less such a deceitful man, and then all of sudden given as property to his daughter?

 

None of this is good.

None of this is fair.

None of this is right.

 

And yet, God still speaks to us through it.

God meets us in the mess of the world – the messes we’ve made and those that have befallen us – and is present…in healing, in restoration, in mercy, in justice, in growth, in redemption.

And are we ready for the whole shebang at once?!?

Though I have long yearned and cried and prayed for God to make all things right.  If God did, then I too would be wiped out, for I too participate in societal sins – many of which I am not even aware of.

Will my children and my children’s children look back on me and condemn my depletion of this world’s fossil fuels, the littering of our oceans, the cutting down of our forests, the wiping out of entire species?…

Will my children or my children’s children look back on me and condemn how long it took me to realize that I am gay?  The fact that my lack of self-awareness took a toll on my former husband?  The fact that it took me so long to speak God’s words to me, those words spoken into my theoretical questions from Seminary 20 years ago about whether or not it was right to be gay.  Those words God spoke into my heart saying, “I have made people this way.  And it is pleasing in my sight.”  Will they look on my silence on the matter for so long …with indictment?

Will my children’s children be able to tolerate the abuse I bore?  Will they have compassion on the slowness of my own empowerment?  Will they shake their heads at how I silenced myself, made excuses for my abuser, put my own needs last, discredited my own emotions, failed to listen to my own heart and soul,…for so very long?

Will my children or my children’s children look back at the trash I created, at the possessions I owned, at the chemicals I used on this earth?

Will they look back on the segregation I tolerated, the privileges I received?

Will they look back on my ignorance to my own state and sins?

Will they look back and be able to see in hindsight all my flaws?

 

They probably will.

 

God is walking us all toward a more just and whole world.  Our rates of growth vary.  Some of us walk.  Some of us run.  And some of us lie down and refuse to move.

God loves us and all of creation.  And this love comes through in our continued awakenings, openness, growth, and change.  This love comes through in discipline, in turning us around, sometimes gently and sometimes most abruptly.  God gives us vision of the end AND paths to get there.  God has compassion on us, in our becoming.  God loves us, just as we are.  AND God is calling us to lay down the sins and weights that cling so closely and to run this race set before us – with intelligence, energy, and love that covers all things!

 

Thanks be to God for working all things together for the good of all those who love God and are called to be part of God’s purposes in the world.

Thanks be to God for not giving up on us – for correcting us as a parent who loves her child and running like the father of the prodigal son, welcoming his wayward son back home with great joy and gladness.

Thanks be.

 

May we fulfill the purposes God is working in our lives.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

 PRAYERS 

                                                                                     Psalm 126
O Lord God,
May those who sow with tears
Reap with joy.

Thomas a Kempis (Germany, 1380-1471)
Make that possible to us, O Lord, by grace, which appears impossible to us by nature.

Martin Luther (Germany, 1483-1546)
O God, we believe this life is not a state of being righteous, but rather, of growth in righteousness; not a state of being healthy, but a period of healing; not a state of being, but becoming, not a state of rest, but of exercise and activity.  We are not yet what we shall be, but we grow towards it; the process is not yet finished, but is still going on; this life is not the end, it is the way to a better.  All does not yet shine with glory; nevertheless, all is being purified.

9th century Latin Hymn
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight

Emmanuel, you have come to us.  You dwell among us.  You make all things new.
Come, O come, Emmanuel!
And hear our prayers…

 

“Family”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Matthew 28:16-20
2 Corinthians 13:11-13

 

Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

 

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.


 
Second Corinthians concludes with the passage we just read, and in it, most of Paul’s exhortations to the Christians in Corinth pertain to their relationships with one another.

I was most struck by the phrase interpreted here as “agree with one another.”  That caught me off guard.  For as much as Paul has emphasized the many different gifts, I thought he, of all people, would value the benefits of having folks in the congregation who do not all agree on everything.  And this question caused me to look further back to the Greek words behind our English interpretation of this section of scripture.

 

Not surprisingly, this search opened up a wealth of meaning, far beyond our narrow interpretations; for interpretations are not frequently a one-to-one relationship.  In other words, usually a word from another language is best described with many words, and not just one.  So in translations, the actual meanings get narrowed – simply out of the desire to not encumber the message with too many words.  But that also leaves us with the need to visit the original words from time to time, in order to more truly grasp the intended message of the writer.

So in this passage, if we add back in some of the breadth of Paul’s statement, we hear something more like this:

Finally brothers and sisters in the faith,
rejoice and be glad.
Mend, restore, complete.
Be knit together; be made complete.
Be restored; be made perfect.
Encourage and be encouraged.
Comfort and be comforted.
Exhort and be exhorted.
Commune, one with another.
Be like-minded.  Be together, the same, equal.
Make peace.  Be at peace.
And the God of love and peace will be with you.

Greet/welcome/embrace one another with a holy kiss.

All the saints greet you.

And in reading this expanded meaning, I find myself moved.

As you listen to these expanded verses once more together, what sticks in your mind?  Is there a word, an image, a thought?  If so I encourage you to write that down.  This is one way we listen for God’s word to us while reading scripture.

 

Re-read expanded translation. 

 

The word that comes to mind for me is FAMILY.

The word family doesn’t even occur in this passage, but all of Paul’s exhortations to the community speak of family to me.  Within family we have differences and disagreements.  We are kin, yet we are not the same.  And at the same time, we are all very much the same, and no one is better than another.

As family, we are knit together.  We are bonded, one to another.  We affect and impact one another.  Our interactions matter.  Our unity matters.  Our divisions matter.  Our actions and inactions matter.

Within family, we have responsibility – both to give and to receive.  We have responsibility to the whole, to one another.  And we have a part to play in whether the family promotes peace or discord, encouragement or discouragement, comfort or grief and anxiety, a true sharing of life or isolation.  And Paul is be speaking to this family of faith in Corinth, these brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

And so when it comes to the question of “agreeing,” I believe Paul is simply trying to re-orient their thinking.  This church has been dividing into camps based leadership styles, power, and authority.  Their actions during communion are causing division.  And Paul is exhorting them to remember they are one and the same.  They pull the same plow.  They are on the same team.  They are indeed brothers and sisters, members of the same family.  The grief of one is the grief of all.  The blessing of one is the blessing of all.  Therefore, they are to be like-minded.  They are to pull the plow to reap the harvest, as one, together, in the same direction.

And Paul’s wisdom takes this a step further.

Most of us have our comfort zones.  We like to give.  We like to help.  We like to fix.  We like to comfort.  We like to show up.  …But Paul doesn’t simply say, “Give, help, fix, comfort, connect.”  Paul encourages mutual affection and intention.  They are not only to give but to receive, to help but to be helped, to comfort but to be comforted, to show up but also to allow others to show up for us.

And when it comes to responsibility, some of us prefer to merely attend to us and ours.  It is our first responsibility, but Paul again takes it further, calling out their responsibility to one another.  They are not only to be at peace but to make peace, to be restored but to restore, to be complete but to make things complete.

Our calling and responsibilities – as one body, one family, one church, one faith –

Are both to give
And to receive.

 

So in these mere 3 verses closing Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he encourages them to BE FAMILY, one to another.

 

We all know families by blood, but not by bond.

We know families by portrait, but not by shared experience.

We know families who hide their enmity behind hollow kind words.

We know families who exhaust themselves fighting one another, and never lift one another up.

 

WE are called to be different.
To truly connect
To truly do our part to make peace, one with another
To truly bear the common burden and pull the same plow.

For we are kin.
We are all alike, children of the Most High God.

 

Are we each doing our part,
to make peace,
to be restored,
to be made whole,
to make disciples and reap the harvest of the Living Christ?

Together? 

 

We are one family.
Thanks be to God. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“My Refuge and My Fortress, My God in Whom I Trust”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 91:1-6, 9
1 Peter 4:12-14 and 5:6-11

 

Psalm 91:1-6, 9

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,

 

1 Peter 4:12-14 and 5:6-11

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.


 

This passage from 1 Peter feels strangely relevant. The world of today is vastly different from the world into which these words were written, but still we hear God speaking through the text and into our own stories.

Right now, many of us are working through incredible anxiety.  And it’s not that kind of anxiety of an imagined threat.  The threat is real.  Covid-19 is real.  300,000 people in the world dead from a virus only half a year old (in humans) is real.

The writer of 1 Peter gives this advice:

1 – Humble yourselves

2 – Casts your anxieties on God

3 – Discipline yourselves

4 – Resist the devil

 

Humility doesn’t feel at all relevant to our situation today, but on closer inspection, I see its wisdom.

That December when we discovered bed bugs in our home, I hit a new low.  Already overcoming obstacles, already beating the odds, already working overtime, already emotionally and physically exhausted, the life-altering presence of one itty-bitty bug rocked my world.  All my clothing & all fabrics and linens had to be washed, dried, and bagged.  The closest washer and dryers were a block away.  All furniture was to be moved 4 feet away from every wall.  But alas, the rooms were too small for that!  The pest company came to treat and then surprised me with the instruction as they left that I should remain in this state of upheaval for another 2 weeks.  If I was still getting bit after that, they would return for another treatment.  And two weeks after that…the same.  What I thought was a one day upheaval became a two week upheaval became a 4 week upheaval became a 6 week upheaval.  I caught sixty some bugs within that time, as they kept multiplying, and I learned how to catch them in the dead of night.

I lived with the uncertainty of not knowing where they’d come from.  It made me suspicious of everything & everyone & everywhere I’d been.  I lived with the anxiety of somehow carrying them to another person, place, or household.  How did they even operate?  What was the science?  How did I even make an informed decision?  And I lived with the complication of living out of bags for a month and a half – my furniture and rooms all discombobulated, a pile of bags of clothes in the living room floor…at Christmas.

It was my first Christmas in my new apartment, and I longed for it to feel like home.  I knew nothing makes a place a home like shared memories with family and friends, so my family had plans to come and celebrate Christmas at our place.  And then this happened.  And all our plans were to the wind.  I couldn’t even trust passing a gift to family or friends, without fear I’d also pass them the plague.

 

And in a Covid-19 context, I am surprised how similar the experiences are:  our routines are upheaved, our ways of being are being re-written, we cannot gather with others for fear of passing on illness or catching it ourselves, we cannot even shop for new clothes in a store, and our calendars and plans are all suspended indefinitely.

But of course, this time it is on a much grander scale.

And the stakes are higher:  I’ve not heard of anyone dying of bed bugs (though it certainly could be possible).

 

But that moment in which I felt I touched bottom – was through a long night of losing my dinner in the bathroom.  And in touching the bottom, I was able to push off and back upward, toward the light.  In that moment I reflected on how often I’d been this sick:  it had been rare.  I realized that my health was a gracious gift of God.  My health was a gift I’d never before paid much attention to.  I’d taken it for granted.  I realized that things could get MUCH worse than bed bugs.  I realized that things could be much more grave than a stomach illness.  And I was humbled, lying on the bathroom floor.  Every gift of God that I had enjoyed was truly a gift.  I’d not deserved them.  I wasn’t entitled to them.  And instead of complaining and bemoaning my situation, I started to give thanks.

Like Job, I’d felt very self-righteous.  I’d not done anything to deserve these plagues.  It wasn’t fair.  But in the dark despair of a lonely night, stuck in the bathroom, I humbled myself and began to give thanks.

Humility is indeed crucial.  And in this season of struggle, discomfort, and suffering, humility IS relevant.

 

Next the writer encourages us to cast our anxieties on God.

And this, my friends, is something I struggle to do.  Can I do my best in a moment – with what resources I have, with what knowledge I have, and leave the results to God?  Can I trust God with my deepest fears, hopes, and desires?  Can I wake from a fitful sleep of nightmares and turn to God in prayer, in resting, in stillness?

The writer of 1 Peter knows well that we are not equipped or expected to shoulder the weight of the worries of our lives or of the world on our shoulders.  That is GOD’s job.  And so he encourages us to cast our cares on God, because God cares for us.  We are loved with a unstopping, relentless, fierce, and steadfast love.  We are loved by Almighty God.  Can we not trust this One with all that matters most?  Can we cast our anxieties on God?

 

Third, the writer instructs the followers to be disciplined, to keep alert.  Temptation, fear, fear-mongering, lies, myths of scarcity, doubts of God’s love for us all come and stand tall around us, sometimes blocking out the sun entirely, especially when we feed them.  And so we must discipline our mind.  We must discipline our bodies.  God has given us wisdom, education, resources, data, skill, and so much more for the business of survival and prospering.  So let us do our part, let us discipline ourselves, and then may we cast our cares upon the God who cares for us.

 

Finally, we are instructed to resist the devil.  These temptations and fears come to steal, kill, and destroy.  They quench life.  They rob us of peace and of freedom and joy.  We are called to resist, standing steadfast in our faith – standing on God’s promises and in God’s presence, believing God’s word over our own fears.  Scripture declares, “Resist the devil, and he will flee.”  When we resist, when we stand firm, when we keep our eyes fixed and our minds set on God’s words to us, we renew our strength; waiting on the Lord, we mount up with wings, as eagles!

 

And so I find this instruction of 1 Peter quite helpful.  Our God is not apart from all that we are going through.  Our God is not far from the sufferings of this world.  Our God is near to the broken-hearted.  Our God hears the cries of the sick and the dying.

This whole world and everything in it belongs to our God, and nature itself obeys the command of our God.

While we cannot yet discern the path forward,…
While threat and risk emerge on all sides,…
Our God walks with us, in the joys and the pains.

So may we humble ourselves.
May we cast our cares upon God, who cares for us.
May we remain disciplined and alert.
And may we resist the devil and all our temptations,
That God’s words might reign in our minds and God’s peace in our hearts.

 

You are dear and dearly loved.
Rest in that love. 

 

“Connecting the Dots”

Rev. Katherine Todd
1 Peter 3:13-22
Acts 17:22-34

 

1 Peter 3:13-22

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

 

Acts 17:22-34

 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

“Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.


 

I appreciate this passage about Paul’s time in Athens.

He went through the city and was distressed to see so very many idols through-out the city.

I imagine most of us would want to leave as quickly as possible or would be likely to condemn and to judge the people.  After all, they were partaking in and passing on lies as truth; for idols are anything other than God, that we lift up in the place of God.  And these human-made infatuations are not worthy of our love and devotion.  They cannot protect us and do not care.  They are not worthy of our lives.

But I love Paul’s response:  when asked to speak about the gospel he had been arguing in the temple and the marketplace, he begins by connecting his experience of Jesus Christ with their own experiences and belief in “an unknown god.”  For rather than outright despising the people or fleeing from them, he dug in, wandering the streets and reading inscriptions on their idols and statues.  He had found an altar dedicated to “the unknown god.”  How marvelous!

 

First of all, this shows great humility, as in truth, to all of us, God is mysterious and a great bit unknown and not understood.  Paul grounds his message in their own experience and belief.  It is wise and helpful to the people because it gives them a way to understand and themselves explore Paul’s message, rather than outright reject it.

Furthermore, though Paul is distressed by the presence of so many idols, he chooses to see the glass half full, rather than half-empty.  In other words, he recognizes in this plethora of idolatry, their seeking for God.  He recognizes this search as something holy and beautiful.  He praises their search, for in speaking of people through-out time he says, “…that they would search for God, and perhaps grope for him and find him.”

Paul has acknowledged the people’s own sacred searching for God.  And he comes as one to close the gap, between their searching and their finding.  Paul would fulfill God’s call on his life to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in their midst!

And Paul goes yet another step further, connecting the dots for the people:  he connects the words of one of their poets Aratus, to the gospel message.  In Aratus’ poem invoking Zeus, he says, “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  And rather than allow any open distress at this misguided sentiment, Paul again recognizes these words as true – not of Zeus, but of God Almighty, as known and seen in the person of Jesus Christ.

 

You see the people HAD been seeking for God, groping for God.  They had recognized that God was far more and far bigger than they could even grasp or understand.  And they knew that their own lives were tied in some way to God, who enables all of life.

And though they did not know the name of Jesus, though the gospel had not yet been preached among them, many among them had indeed been seeking God, the unknown god, for whom they had no name…  And scripture assures us that when we seek, we shall find, if we seek with all our hearts.

 

Through-out time, God has been known and seen through the things God has made.  Paul wrote this.  And he was onto something.  Indeed, truth is truth, no matter the time or place.  God is God, no matter the time or place.  And even though folks had fallen short in their understanding of God, they had also hit the mark in moments, just as we all do.  They had understood bits about God, and Paul recognized this work of God among them.

Through many well-intentioned mission outreaches to other cultures and lands, we have slowly learned – by standing on the shoulders of those who have come before – both healthy and unhealthy ways of sharing the gospel.  There has been much remorse over the years at the way we stripped other cultures of their story, trying to replace their stories with our story.  While some actions and traditions of cultures are most clearly evil, many others are good and of God, for God has been seeking them out, from the beginning of time.  And to truly honor and respect another people, is to humble ourselves and to endeavor to see the world through their eyes.  In doing so, we become better equipped to respect and honor their stories, naming God’s presence in their histories and acknowledging their holy efforts to seek out and find the Almighty. 

 

And this is precisely what we see, modeled here by Paul.  Paul can only connect the dots for the people – between the God they have sought and the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth – by taking the time to learn their culture.  And he already had the benefit of having one foot in both worlds; he was both a Roman citizen and a Jewish leader.  Paul was uniquely equipped to help folks connect the dots, and he took this calling and responsibility seriously.

Most of us are likely indebted to him for having heard the good news of Jesus Christ at all!  Paul worked hard to operate within culture, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of that culture; encouraging people by example, to live less and less according to the ways of the world, and more and more into the Kingdom of God in their midst.  But Paul’s ability to do both – to conform and challenge, to respect and inform, to proclaim the good news and to humble himself – these tools made his work mightily more effective. 

 

Today in America, we live in post-Christendom.  There was a time when Christianity here was the norm.  That is no longer the case.  Today, spirituality is common but religion is largely mistrusted.  And folks have various and valid reasons for their caution to embrace institutionalized religion.  After all, for all the good it has done, the institution of the church also has a history of grappling for power, wielding scripture as a weapon, and reducing Christ’s words to mere guilt and threat – missing the power and point of Christ’s coming in the first place.

And just as Paul did, we can respect folks’ reasons for caution, while inspiring and inviting folks into the fellowship of Christ’s body here on earth.  We can be in the world while not being of the world.  We can get to know and understand our own secular cultures, while also pushing the boundaries of culture, toward a more just and loving community – the Kindom of God.

In the same way that Paul’s great outreach in Athens yielded some who received the good news with joy, and others who scoffed and walked away, we too will meet with similar results.  But may we press on in courage and faith, for only God will know the impact our life and witness, our words and our actions, our loving and our serving.  And one day, along with all the saints who have gone before, may we too hear the voice of our Lord saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!  Enter into the joy of your God.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Sheer Annoyance, and What God Does”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 16:16-24
Acts 16:25-34

 

Acts 16:16-34

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to youa way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “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 crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailercalled for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul replied, “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.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.


 

This scripture passage is so interesting.  Why is it included?  What does God have for us in it?

We hear a story of Paul and Silas and the believers.  On their way to a place of prayer, they happened upon this girl enslaved, who brought a great deal of money to her owners because she had a spirit of divination.  Nowadays, we’d probably talk about this differently.  We’d perhaps call this a gift or possibly premonition.  But then, the disciples and apostles attributed many, varied talents and abilities to spirits.  They themselves had the Spirit of God in them.  Others had other spirits.  We hear often of those possessed by spirits that caused them great distress or bodily harm.  Not all spirits were of God, and there was only one Holy Spirit, given by Christ.  So it was clear to them that the spirit in the girl was not of Christ.  But we do not hear any concern for the girl’s well-being or her deliverance from spirit possession or slavery.  No, those very valid concerns to us were not as concerning to the disciples for whatever reason.

 

Slaves were in fact common everywhere.  And Paul in particular was of the conviction that Christ would return imminently.  Thus, everyone was to make do and be at peace in whatever life circumstance they found themselves.  Something bigger was at play.  GOD was in their midst.  Salvation was at hand!  And there wasn’t much time.  Everyone needed to make the most of the time, for the time of salvation was upon them!

Paul was not out to change the social order.

 

Did he believe that slavery was right?

I don’t think so.  He famously entreats the Galatians with this instruction:

for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

The Galatians are to stop making distinctions among themselves, even those as basic as gender.  For Christ overcomes all social order.  Christ makes us all family, all Abrahams offspring, all heirs according to the promise of salvation.  Power and privilege are upheaved.

But Paul also writes in his letter to the Corinthians:

However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.

Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters,there remain with God.”

 

 

Historically, this passage was used, among others, to justify slavery.  It’s ironic, since Paul also instructs the believers not to become slaves of human masters.  But both of these readings miss the main point.  The main point for Paul was that everyone should stay as they were.  There was no time for pursuing human goals and interests.  No time for marrying even.  Be content as you are, Paul entreats.

 

And so this question of slavery in Paul remains a bit of a mystery, but after studying this matter for some time, I am convinced that Paul was both Pastor and Prophet.  Paul both cast a vision of what life in Christ truly means – which was no more slavery and distinctions of power and authority – AND yet Paul instructed the churches in how to follow, there and then, in the circumstances in which they found themselves, in their day – “remain as you are,” he entreats.

 

While some of Paul’s words are very vision casting, others are very situationally specific – responding to a very specific circumstance, in a certain day and time.  I find it wise to distinguish between these two different approaches of Paul first – so that I read them in the way they were intended to be read.  I don’t want to miss the forest for the trees!

So in this story of Paul of Silas and the girl with the spirit of divination, I am not too concerned that Paul didn’t address this matter of slavery.  While it would be morally reprehensible in our day, it was a very common situation and in a time when Paul believed they had no more time.  Paul was being true to his own belief-system:  he wasn’t trying to upset the normal social order; there was no time for that.  Rather, he was out to spread the good news as rapidly and effectively and widely as he could.  And thanks be to God that he did, because it is very well likely that you and I are here today in large part because of Paul.

 

The greater mystery to me in this situation is why Paul or Silas or the other believers didn’t simply set the girl free from this spirit, as they’d done and Jesus had done so many other times.  Perhaps it was because the girl wasn’t in imminent or physical harm from the spirit.  Perhaps it was because the girl was satisfied with her life and abilities.  Perhaps it was because the girl was enslaved, and they didn’t want to upset her owners.  We don’t know why they didn’t start out by casting out the spirit inside this girl.

 

One possibility is that they were making every effort NOT to come off as dissidents of society.  In 1 Peter, we are instructed to submit to all human power and institutions.  And in Paul and Silas’ actions, we see two men submitting to the local authorities, above and beyond any would ever be expected to.  The chains fall off these men and all the prisoners in an earthquake during the night, but miraculously all the prisoners stay.  This is so unexpected, the reason seems clear:  it is Paul and Silas.  They have fully and completely submitted to the governing authority and they appear to have successfully prevailed on all the other prisoners to do the same.

Their submission to authority speaks volumes to their credit in this ancient world, and I believe this was very intentional and strategic.  It was their living in this extraordinary way that they distinguished themselves as people of integrity.  In this fashion they demonstrated their trustworthiness and love.  THIS is what wins over the hearts of the jailer and his whole household.

Christianity in its beginning could have surely been squashed.  Had it set itself up as opposed to the social order or the governing authorities, it surely would have been quenched.  Then how many generations upon generations would not have heard?  Would we have followed in their footsteps to indeed set the prisoners free…if they had boldly begun upheaving all social order at the start?  We do not know.  But the likelihood is that we would not be here.

And is this way of being – of delaying justice in order to achieve another goal – best for all Christians in all times?  I do not think so.  Is it best to always be in a position of obedience to authority?  I would say certainly not, though it is sometimes honorable.  Are we all called to remain as we are – making the most of our present circumstances?  While it is certainly in our best interest to find peace and joy in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in, I think God’s call is to DO justice – not just preach it.  There are times when we are called to FIND the joy in the midst of injustice and oppression.  Certainly those in Nazi prison camps needed this kind of peace and glimmer of joy in a situation they could not change.  However justice and love compels us to act to change our social order.  And we follow in Christ’s footsteps when we follow a call to social justice.

 

I guess all this is to say it boils down to God’s call in your life.  God’s call to you is unique, and I believe there is no better path for us than to follow – be in finding contentment where we are or speaking out and working hard that justice may cover the earth.  For most of us, God is calling us to both these things.

 

As for the girl with the spirit of divination, I am inclined to believe that the disciples reticence to address the girl’s slavery or her spirit of divination was due to these commitments not to challenge the social order but to submit to authority and thus spread the Word of God as unobstructed and effectively as possible.

 

SO WHY DOES PAUL then eventually do it anyway?

Is it because he changes his mind about not meddling in the affairs of society?

No.  Scripture is very clear that Paul’s casting out of the spirit was NOT a decision at all.  Rather it was a reaction.  Paul was fed up!  He was tired of their girl following them around, saying they were slaves of God.  He was “very much annoyed.”

Paul.

And this makes me smile.

Paul was annoyed. 

 

For any of you wanted comfort and confirmation that God can use even you – YOU with your irritability, your pickiness, your neediness, your deep sadness, your checkered past…YOU.

God can use you.

Now Paul & Silas go through the ringer on this one.  Their action was treated as theft – because the girl could no longer be profited on by her owners.  And the two men were beaten severely with rods and chained in the innermost cell, in stocks.

But true to their beliefs and living what they preached, they made the most of the time:  they sang hymns and songs to God.  And all those jailed around them listened to them.

And they must have made quite an impression in that short time, because when the earthquake leaves all the chains open and all the prisoners free, Paul and Silas have somehow won their trust and respect enough that no one chooses to flee.  They all stay.

Paul and Silas thus minister to their fellow prisoners.  They minister to the jailer who owes his own life to them for staying and not running away (after all, the jailer would have likely been executed himself, if everyone escaped under his watch!).  And then the Jailer’s own household is all saved.

 

Through this act of annoyance, God is still glorified.  God still works good. 

 

We do not hear any more about the girl set free from the spirit.  It is hard to know.  Was her life better after that?  Was it worse?

All we can hope is that her life was made better and that perhaps she got her freedom.  But we do not know.

There is so much we do not know.

 

But what I do take away from this is God’s ability to use all of us – even our possible mistakes and missteps and mere humanity – for God’s glory, that many more may hear and know God through us.

And so Lord, let it be!

Let it be that through us, many more may hear and see, know and believe, receive and experience your unbreaking, never-giving-up love for us all and all creation.

 

And Lord, we ask that you will heal our land.  Heal our hearts.  Heal our social order.  Help us follow you faithfully.  Keep our eyes fixed on you.  Help us make good use of the time that is now – doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with you, our Lord and our God.

Amen.