In recent years I’ve used these Sundays in the summer to preach extensively from a single book of the Bible, or in one case, two letters of Paul because each of them was short.
Usually that goes well, although I’ve discovered that we never really know what we’re getting into when we dive into the depths of scripture. Preaching from Jeremiah for ten Sundays seemed unwise to many when I began that series three years ago. I mean, Jeremiah is not usually considered “summer fare.” But it proved to be a fruitful exploration. On the other hand, shortly after I began to preach from Paul’s brief letter to the Colossians, I realized how little I cared for any of it. That presented some challenges.
This summer I will take several Sundays to move through a significant portion of the Acts of the Apostles—that stylized and idealized story of the early church in the years after the resurrection. It seems especially good for these weeks because here we have accounts of travels to foreign countries, world capitals, and exotic destinations. We will hear of Mediterranean cruises and trips through the countryside. So, if you’re having a staycation this summer, you can see worship each Sunday as a chance to get away.
I’ll keep it light.
O.K.—I’ll try to keep it light.
We’ll start with a few postcards from what is often called Paul’s first missionary journey—leaving Antioch and sailing to Cyprus, then to Perga and Pamphylia, and finally, as we heard this morning, arriving inland at Lystra, a Roman colony.
That account of Paul and Barnabas in the city of Lystra is one of my favorite Bible stories. It reminds me that when we act from our convictions, when we do good, we might find ourselves in unexpected and unusual and even laughable situations.
But before we pack up and leave for Lystra, some contemporary context.
A few years ago, a poll asked what words or phrases best describe Christianity. The top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “anti-homosexual.” That was the first word that came to mind for 91% of people who didn’t belong to a church and for 80% of those who did. “Judgmental” and “hypocritical” came in near the top as well.
Around the same time a growing number of congregations started the “NALT” movement—We’re Not All Like That, they announced. Like this congregation—we are Open and Affirming. We welcome all people to full participation and leadership in this congregation.
But how do you get this across to people so that they might gladly walk through our doors rather than avoid us?
With her permission, I want to share with you the experience that Megan Carnes had at the Pride Fest last weekend.
You know that we had a booth at the Pride Fest over on the Ped Mall. Thanks again to everyone who helped out with that. Megan signed up to help.
She and James even made a poster. It read: “God made you with love.” And then in rainbow letters beneath that, it announced: “FREE HUGS!” Megan’s plan was to take the sign to our church booth, where she would hug passers-by while she talked to them about the fact that, say, our denomination ordained our first openly-gay minister in 1972. She and James took the sign downtown, watched part of the Pride parade, and then realized that they didn’t know where our church booth was.
But they did see another church group. It wasn’t from a local church, however. And the people in that group didn’t like what was happening on the Ped Mall. They stood on one of the main corners downtown and wielded eight-foot-tall banners that mentioned Sodom and Gomorrah and gay people burning, and, well, frankly, hatred.
So, Megan, being Megan, grabbed her sign, walked right up to this group, turned her back to them, and raised her poster. (She claims that this wasn’t as brave as it seems. There were three police officers standing around this group. But a lot of us probably wouldn’t have found the courage that she showed.)
There she stood.
The haters said nothing to her.
And the police said nothing to her.
And at first, the festival goers didn’t know what to make of her, as there she was, standing in front of those angry people, with her little sign about God.
But then people started to ask her for hugs. And she ended up standing there for two hours, outlasting the people with the big signs who finally went away. What did Paul say in another context: Love is patient. Love endures.
And during that time, she hugged some fifty people.
She started to say, “God bless you” to the hugees.
And at first people didn’t say much in return.
But over time people started blessing her back. “God bless you,” they said. “It means a lot that you’re here.”
As Megan says, she doesn’t want to make herself the star of this show. She just happened to have a sign. And, by what may well have been the grace of God, she happened to find a place to use that sign, while in the company of police officers.
But we need to listen—and listen carefully—when she says: “People will be looking at us. And God help me, I want to get to the point where, in times like this, they start looking for us. A mother took three of her children up to me and asked me to hug each one. I can only gather that she wanted to show them that good churches exist. “God bless you,” I said to this child who came up to my belly. The moment nearly filled me with tears. “Where were you?” says Matthew 25 (look it up). I humbly suggest that we need to be right there.”
“We need to be right there.”
Megan wanted to show the people at Pride Fest—that mother wanted to show her children—something about God’s love for all people.
This brings us to that ancient city of Lystra, where Paul and Barnabas come across a man crippled from birth. Paul does not preach at length—for which I’m sure this fellow was thankful. He simply speaks the healing word. “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man, we are told, begins to walk.
Now, shouldn’t this act of healing be enough on its own? Was any explanation necessary?
We would expect to hear that the crowd—amazed by what has happened—start to worship the living God.
Instead, the people want to worship Paul and Barnabas. “Zeus and Hermes have come down to us in human form,” they cry out.
What good fortune! Call the priest. Bring an ox. Let’s make a sacrifice to the gods we have known for so long.
The members of this congregation, the members of the United Church of Christ, have chosen an expression of the Christian faith that calls us to action. You know that being a member of this congregation is not a spectator sport. We join in the struggle for freedom, advocate for peace, and seek justice because we believe these are the tasks to which God calls us. Unlike what happened to Paul and Barnabas, people rarely call us gods as a result of our actions. Often enough Congregationalists have ended up in jail for practicing this faith that shows.
All of this grows out of our theological understanding of the incarnation. This earth matters and God’s love is shown in flesh and blood. Our approach has a similar “incarnational” aspect. We don’t throw pamphlets at people. We don’t bombard them with words. Love shows itself—just as God was revealed in the life of the very human Jesus, in what he did, how he acted.
Actions speak louder than words—right? The problem is that our actions are never as clear to others as they seem to be to us. Paul and Barnabas discovered this. Our actions can be misunderstood and need to be explained.
Reflecting on her experience, Megan discovered she also had something to say to gay-friendly church folks—and especially Iowa City folks. And it goes like this: We all know that those hate mongers will be out there again, and again, for every Pride fest to come. And we have to be there too. Not just in our booth. Not just in our church. But actually, as she puts it, “counter preaching” in the space where that stuff goes down.
“Counter preaching”—words are also necessary. We need to be ready to explain why we do what we do. Yes, people want to see if our faith shows itself in our action. People also long to hear what that faith is—so that they too might find a home among people who act and believe as we do.
The townspeople have declared Paul and Barnabas to be gods. Paul stands up and shouts for all to hear: “We are mortals just like you—and we bring you good news.”
And here’s something I’ve missed the other times I’ve read and preached from this story in Acts: this good news is rooted in the goodness of creation and in the ways God provides rain and fruitful seasons, filling our bodies with food and our hearts with joy. Everyone—everyone—is included in the love of God. Everyone—everyone—is accepted by God and a recipient of that love. And when other human beings forget this and seek to exclude and condemn and marginalize people, we understand it as our calling to do what we can and say what we can to make the accepting and welcoming love of God evident once more. We speak and act, not on our own but as part of something far greater, more powerful, and filled with love and compassion for the whole creation.
Like Paul and Barnabas, we are mortals, not gods.
We are not (and I hope this doesn’t offend you too much when I say it) we are not better than other people. We sense, however, that our lives have been claimed by a loving God.
Entire generations of people wait outside our doors. But they are wounded by the world.
For them, God is not the problem.
Congregations are the problem.
Christians are the problem.
There are a lot of people that want to be a part of what’s happening in places like this. Yes, they need to see what we are about. They need to see that what we do matters in a world where so little seems to matter. So we need to show them.
And they need to hear that what we believe gives life and hope in a world where there is so much death and despair. So we also need to tell. Let us be ready to explain—to be clear about what we believe and why we do the things we do. As a living community of faith, we are called to speak rather than keep silent.
What happens when a group of uncertain followers of Jesus take the risk and start to show and tell people about the inclusive love of God? The book of Acts is one account of the results—success and failure— and some very strange events.
We will continue to discover the same results in our own live and in this congregation as we show and tell the love of God.