Listen, But Don’t Emulate

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Rev. M. Jonah Kendall, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church
Durham, North Carolina
May 16, 2010
Text: Acts 16:16-34

Just like our recent confirmands here at St. Philip’s, I was confirmed at a diocesan service, held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC.

What struck me most about that day was that after the service the Rector of my church took my confirmation class to an anti-Apartheid rally in Central Park.  And I’ve never forgotten two things he said to us:

The first was that as we left the beautiful sanctuary of St. John the Divine, the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, as we left the Bishop, his miter, his crozier, all the vestments of the priests around him, the liturgy, the choir, organ and hymnal, he turned to us and said:

“Now that you are confirmed, and have been strengthened in the Holy Spirit for your life in Christ, I want to show you what the love of God looks like when it leaves the sanctuary and enters city streets.”

And then later on, when we found ourselves standing alongside, not just other church groups, but radicals yelling, “Apartheid no, revolution yes!”  Alongside punks with mohawks and agitators who got arrested for lying down in the middle of 5th avenue in acts of civil disobedience that blocked traffic and called attention to our witness against Apartheid, our priest named what each and everyone one of us was feeling.

“You feel like you’re doing the wrong thing, don’t you?  But you’re not, you know.  This is what the love of God looks like sometimes.  We here to stand for God’s children in South Africa that have no rights, no freedom and no protection.  Sometimes being faithful to God means challenging others.”

Where are we with this?  Have we ever used our faith to challenge and disrupt?  For on this Ascension Sunday when we’ve been called by Christ to proclaim a message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, that is God’s love for all, when we have heard in Acts about Paul and Silas, about how the proclamation of this love can lead to imprisonment, we’re invited to ask ourselves how our lives show forth Christ’s Gospel, a Gospel that precisely because it proclaims a love and well-being for all is radical and disruptive.

See Paul and Silas didn’t get arrested for simply saying God loves you.  They were imprisoned because they dared to proclaim the love of God in the face of those that had long given up on love.  In the face of a world that chose, and even now seems to choose power and wealth and even status over love every day.

Just this past Thursday, a group of seven Arizona religious leaders, including Roman Catholic and Methodist bishops, descended, that’s how the article put it, descended on Capitol Hill Thursday to lobby for comprehensive immigration reform in response to what they call a “moral crises.”

I wonder; would we do the same if such an issue came knocking on our door?

I’m not asking this in regard to immigration.  I’m asking this because I think we do need to consider the degree to which we are willing to confront the real issues of our world.  Because I think far too often there’s a disconnect between what we espouse and what we actually do, a disconnect that is best summed up in, of all places, the Didache, a book of Christian teaching dating from the first century.

Of itinerant preachers those who lived and proclaimed a radical and disruptive message–the kind of message Jesus declared in the Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the peacemakers…
If you are struck give the other cheek…
If someone asks for a coat with hold not even your shirt…

You know, those aspects of Christ’s teachings that if we ever took serious God knows what would happen.  The Didache says, (and I’m paraphrasing here) that if you meet one these rabble-rousers don’t ignore them or condemn them, their message is on mark, but don’t follow them either.  Listen to them, but don’t emulate them.

Does that seem accurate?  We hear of these people like Paul, Silas, Oscar Romero, St. Francis, or even those Christians in Arizona—and we don’t criticism them, perhaps even we admire them, realize there on to something, yet it seems we rarely ever follow after them.  Why is that?

At the time the Didache was written the Church was just getting established, and establishment required more than itinerant preachers and rabble rousers, so the message was don’t ignore them, but don’t imitate them because the church can’t be built that way.

Yet today I think we face a new problem.  We’ve got buildings, Dioceses and people, but what are we doing?  We’ve almost entirely let this strand of our tradition go.  The disruptors are almost non-existent.

And so I think we need to be reminded of them, and we need to let their example ask us how the radical message of Christ is alive within us?

Because the faith we’ve been given has been given to us not for our sake alone, but for the sake of others.  We haven’t been called just to the table, but out from it.

Now this doesn’t mean that we need to go storm the capital, or get arrested.  But perhaps there is something we can do.  Something in our everyday lives, something that might give us an opportunity to witness to the love of God in a way that calls things into question.

And if you’re wondering how to do this come to talk to me, Arianne or Jill, well watch out for Jill, she’ll get you into something.  Because apart from what we do at St. Philip’s are a number of local groups—DCIA (Durham Congregations in Action) and Durham CAN that are using faith to proclaim God’s love in tangible and transformative ways.

Or maybe it’s enough to simply consider how we might let ourselves be made uncomfortable by our faith, how we could let our faith guide us into situations, and to welcome others that we might rather avoid.

Last year a parishioner told me that when she recounted the Beloved Community event to another person the person asked why we would ever want to do this; to socialize with the poor and homeless.

And yet so often it was around a table as Luke’s Gospel and Luke’s Book of Acts says—a table of misfits, sinners, tax collectors, pharisees and scribes that Christ and his Apostles brought God’s beloved community into being.  That’s counter-cultural, but it’s also divine.

Our event is not just a party, but a real witness to what the love of God looks like when it leaves the sanctuary and enters the world.

You know I think it’s ironic that on this Ascension Sunday, when Jesus is lifted up to Heaven all I’ve done is to talk about how we are called to respond to the world around us.  And that’s because I don’t think Jesus was concerned with Heaven.  Heaven is alright, and we have a place there.  His concern was with earth, with the way this world of ours opts for power, and wealth and status over love, and with all of us who suffer every day because of it.

In the chapter of Acts that follows the one we heard from today, Paul and Silas are in Thessalonica.  And there they find themselves in trouble yet again, and this time it is because they are accused of trying to turn the world upside down.

And I think that’s what Christian rabble rousing is all about.   In love Christ calls us to turn this world upside down so that promise that awaits us all in heaven is no longer high over head, but the very foundation of the world in which we now live.  Paul and Silas did this.  And we are here in great part because of it.  The question is will we?

This sermon is part of a new series compiled by the NC Council of Churches in conjunction with our lectionary-based worship resource Acts of Faith.  We believe that issues of peace and justice can be expressed in the worship life of congregations, and we remain committed to providing accessible and relevant resources to make this a reality.  This sermon was used with the permission of the author, and the views expressed in it are solely the author’s. Please contact us if you are interested in submitting one of your sermons for consideration.

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