Sermon Seeds: Powerful Witness/Living in Community
Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A
1 Peter 2:19-25
Additional reflection on Psalm 23
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Powerful Witness/Living in Community
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
Toward the end of the first century of this common era, what we usually call the first century “A.D.,” the author of the Gospel of Luke wrote the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It is the second half, or Book Two, of his proclamation of the remarkable “things that had happened” – the good news of God’s saving acts in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the continuation of Jesus’ ministry through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the early church. We see this in the very first verse of the very first chapter of Acts, which says: “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven…” and then Luke recounts the events that followed: the apostles getting themselves together and setting out on their mission to preach the good news that they had encountered in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Book of Acts tells us about Peter’s early preaching, Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit (just as Jesus had promised), the conversion of thousands of people, healings and wonders, more preaching, meetings with the religious authorities, persecutions, the first deacons, more preaching, the stoning of Stephen, the conversion of Paul and his subsequent preaching, the growth of the church throughout the Mediterranean, more meetings and more preaching, escapes from prison, Paul’s travels and adventures at sea, the council at Jerusalem, controversies, riots, trials, journeys, and, of course, more preaching. (This very brief description of the Book of Acts does not do it justice, so it would be helpful to sit down one quiet afternoon and read it from beginning to end.) In between those stories and sermons are linking passages very much like this one, little summaries that come up from time to time along the way, and sound very much the same: in the midst of all these deeds – better yet, in the midst of the working of the Holy Spirit through the apostles, the church flourished, counting more and more people as members, people who prayed together, shared their possessions, broke bread together, and devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles.
The commentators do not agree about this passage from Acts: is its description of the early Christian community idealized or not? Does it matter? Long ago, in a far-off land, our ancestors in faith did the same things we do today, as communities of faith: they bore witness by doing the things that we are called to do and to be about. These marks identify us as distinctively Christian communities: devoting ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. It would not be difficult to draw parallels between then and now, to pull out our monthly newsletters and find, here and there, the activities and programs by which we too strive to devote ourselves to study, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. This Bible study or adult education class or confirmation class or church school curriculum, that coffee hour or women’s gathering or youth group outing or film series, this weekly communion service or that opening prayer, that Sunday morning service of worship, that Taizé service, that prayer at the side of one who is dying…these are the embodiments and expressions of our own, idealized, shared life in faith.
What may be missing at times is not the teaching and learning, the fellowship, communion, or prayer, but the awe. The “wonders and signs” may be passing us by, without our taking notice. One of the tasks of the preacher is to remind us, to turn our attention so that we might indeed stop in the midst of all that activity and take notice of the wonders and signs before us. Every church, in its own way, experiences wonders both large and small that merit our time and attention. But so often, the many activities of our life as a congregation get added to our busy calendars as more and more stress, rather than as something different, something qualitatively different from “ordinary daily activities”: they are ministries. Do they feed us, or drain us? These early Christians, clearly, were fed by the things they did and the way they lived.
It can become a regular spiritual practice to stop, take stock, and begin afresh in our shared life so that those “things” we are about actually nourish rather than consume us. (Years ago, our church “took a nap” in January, which is easy to do in cold and snowy Cleveland; the only things on our schedule were gatherings for prayer, learning and worship, but no regular meetings were held.) I’ve always found it helpful – and challenging – to imagine how a visitor experiences a church, that is, its people and its ministries/activities rather than its building or its style of worship, the two things we probably focus most of our attention on. Do you think visitors to your church perceive what you are doing as a witness? If so, what are you witnessing to? Are your visitors drawn into the life of your church, or do they remain merely observers? Is the spirit of your church contagious, where others find themselves wanting to learn more, to gather with the folks in your church, to break and share the bread, to pray in community, not just alone? (Not that there’s anything wrong with praying in solitude, but there is value in both.)
And then there are the implications and indications of this shared life outside the church building: first, at the end of worship or a trustees meeting or a mission trip or an adult education class or a church supper, our hope is that lives are affected, changed in ways that may be imperceptibly small and yet quite powerful. Maybe, for some, transformation is sudden and dramatic and even long-lasting, but for others, it’s incremental, born of everyday faithfulness and grace. And yet those gatherings, those studies, and those worship experiences can resound and echo through their lives, after they return to the world, filled with the Spirit and sent to share God’s love and forgiveness with a world so in need of both.
Our reading is so short and yet, if we pay close attention, if we sit with it for a while, and if we’re brave enough to share it with others, we may find that many “good Christians” (including us) would feel uncomfortable with what it’s implying. (How ironic that this discomfiting text is read on Good Shepherd Sunday, when we hear the beloved and most comforting Psalm 23.) Do you think we even begin to share our possessions with those around us so that everyone has enough? It isn’t just individual lives that need to be transformed, we hear in this text, but the life of the community, the way we share. How does this reading sound to our 21st-century, capitalist, private-property ears? God is still speaking to us today, through this reading and through the images that come to us on the nightly news, about the ownership and accumulation of property to excess, the movement of wealth upward in disproportionate ways that endanger the poor and the middle class.
What is your sense of how your own church would respond to a close reading of this text? We’re probably tempted to side with those scholars who call this an idealized description of the life of those earliest Christians, a way of living that even they weren’t really able to achieve. That certainly makes it easier to let ourselves off the hook. And even if they were somehow able to live that way, we of course live in a very different world, with different economic systems, larger populations, different problems and challenges, and so on, and so on. We even have different and in many ways marvelous methods of sharing that those early believers didn’t enjoy. (I’m thinking of the multitude of charities around us, with more popping up on the Internet each day.) Would a close reading of the text and a challenge to live in the same way as our ancestors in faith be simply “too much” for us?
In a very different time and place where private property is actually called “sacred,” the challenge is to imagine how we can remain true to the heart of this ideal. Indeed, it will require the power of the Spirit to transform the way we live together, to make us more and more generous and less and less focused on our own security. Courage will be required of us, and creativity and a lively religious imagination just as much as a passionate commitment to justice. Of course, the sharing of our possessions, including the generous support of God’s mission through the church, isn’t limited to the church: we can hold up the ideal of this passage from Scripture each time we vote or consider school levies, poverty programs, and issues of economic justice. After all, our lives reach and impact others, even beyond our sight, in ways never imagined when this account was written down.
Just as awe seems to be in short supply (no matter how much we over-use the word “awesome” in conversation), so are “glad and generous hearts” rare in our time. The rise in the number of people diagnosed with depression, for example, and the number of medications brought onto the market to treat it, are puzzling in a time when the standard of living, and the possibilities for “happiness” (depending on how you define it) are so much higher than ancient times. What has our society done or become that presses down our hearts and minds even in the midst of incredible affluence, for depression does not care about income or class? How might we imagine our lives re-shaped and re-directed, even significantly, so that we might experience “glad and generous hearts”? Do you have stories of people who came to your church, whose lives were transformed? Have we passed by, and failed to notice?
Additional notes from a sermon on this text:
The very first Christians studied the Scripture they had, what we today call the “Old Testament,” or Hebrew Scriptures. But here, in the first century, it took some time for the Gospels to be shaped and written down, and gathered together with the epistles that Paul and others had been writing as they traveled around, spreading the Good News and planting new church communities in cities all around the Mediterranean world. When Luke wrote the book of the Acts of the Apostles, he was reassuring his audience that the teaching that had been handed down to them from the apostles – what they had heard – was reliable. Luke’s purpose was to confirm the faith of Christian believers a generation or two after the apostles, helping them to see the link between the power of the Holy Spirit and the tremendous growth and vitality of the early church.
So, as Luke told his story, he held up for his audience a wonderful picture of the earliest church, describing in somewhat idealistic terms a community that had several important characteristics: they were absorbed in religious teachings, exploring what the proclamation of good news in Jesus Christ meant in their daily lives. They had regular fellowship in both social and religious settings: the experience of koinonia, or sharing their life was central to their faith life, and so they saw each other often in worship and in eating “the sacred meal,” and they shared their possessions with those in need. They also continued steadfastly in prayer, which nurtured their spirit of unity, and they showed a proper sense of awe before God, witnessing the power of the Spirit in the many wonders and signs that continued in the life of the community. Is it any surprise, then, that they grew and flourished?
I use the word “idealistic” about this passage from Acts not just because all the authorities seem to, but because it’s important for us, nineteen centuries later, to understand that, right in the Book of Acts, in between the summaries that describe with a joyful exuberance the rapid growth of the early church, are those stories of very real, very human differences and conflicts. The early church had to deal with that very important question of whether to let the Gentiles in on this good news. That was a really big problem that required a special council, in Jerusalem, lots of work on Paul’s part, and a very dramatic dream for Peter to get the message that God’s plan included all of God’s children. And then there were some other problems: right after Luke says that everyone shared what they had, two people are found to have held back some of the profits on the sale of their property. In a dramatic story, each of them drops dead when confronted with what they had done. This must have caused at least a little talk in the church afterward.
And then there was grumbling among the Greek converts who complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. So they had a big meeting, and they decided to designate seven people to be deacons who would distribute the food fairly, so the apostles could continue to preach, teach and pray. Of course, right away one of the deacons, Stephen, starts to preach, teach and pray – the apostles’ job! Nobody can convince me that THAT didn’t hit somebody the wrong way. Today’s short passage doesn’t include those controversies and conflicts, but holds up for us a wonderful model, a memory and ideal not just for the Christians at the end of the first century, but for us, too, here at the beginning of the twenty-first.
The great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner once said that, if the world goes on another 40,000 years, these will be considered “the early days” of the church. This is definitely taking “the long view” of things. Our imaginations have to expand to the point that we see ourselves as giving hope and a model of Christian community to the church that will live and thrive thousands of years from now.
Our story, the story of each congregation, doesn’t have to say that we were perfect. We already know we aren’t. But someday, someone will tell someone else who needs to hear it, that we strove mightily to live out the gospel. There will be stories about different people and the things that happened to them – not just the pastors but the many people who are/were this church and who have worked faithfully to live out the gospel message of love, justice, mercy and peace. The story will be about the people who started the church, and the way it reached out to the surrounding community from its earliest days. The story will tell about the openness of the church throughout its history, expressed even in the architecture and art and capabilities of this building. Perhaps the story will be about the people who kept the church open through lean years, faithfully tending the fire of its mission and vision until its renewed growth and vigor in a later time. The story will be about the children who came through its doors, hungry to hear good news in a hostile and dangerous world. The story will be about courageous decisions to stand up for justice even if the surrounding culture heaped on criticism and sometimes, much worse, and about a steadfast faithfulness to live out those commitments in every way possible, fighting economic injustice, racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and greed.
The story will be one of commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and hospitality. And if the world truly does survive another 40,000 years, the story will include efforts to tend this good earth more lovingly and responsibly than we have in the past. Thousands of years from now, the story will say that we prayed together, grieved together, worked together, celebrated together, learned together, comforted and challenged one another, shared what we had, and gathered together every chance we could to eat – to break bread in remembrance of Jesus, to recognize the risen Christ here in our midst.
Our story will inspire those who hear it. Just as Luke so long ago strengthened the faith of those second and third generation Christians, reminding them that the same things nourished them that fed the faith of the first-generation elievers – prayer, the breaking of bread, works of mercy and justice, the sharing of life, so we, too, are nourished by these same things two thousand years later. But we are nourished here in church so that we can go forth from this place and bring God’s love to the world in our daily lives. That is where ministry happens – in our homes, our workplaces, our street corners, wherever people are hurt, lonely, afraid, despairing, and in need. And all of us are called to that ministry.
For two years before I went to seminary, I had the privilege of working for the American Red Cross Blood Services. Part of my training during my very first week on the job was a course called “Service Excellence.” A Red Cross ideal was held up to us of striving to provide to every person we met the very finest service we could give that person, whether he or she was a blood donor, a volunteer, a nurse or other co-worker, anyone we met in the course of our work. Being an idealist, I loved this idea. It wasn’t easy to live up to, of course. But I held it somewhere in my subconscious mind each day at work. This wasn’t too hard to do, since they had the words “Service Excellence” posted all over the place. But still. I remember it even today with a hint of irony. Aren’t we, as Christians, called to “Service Excellence” in our lives? Are we not called to speak to one another lovingly, to share our gifts with one another, to bear with one another patiently, to respect one another, to serve one another? They didn’t say anything about forgiveness at the Red Cross, but I know we are called to that, too, as Christians. And so, let us hope that the story is about our service excellence, too, and how much we loved one another.
Whatever ways the church has failed in the last two thousand years – in religious wars and persecutions, inquisitions, and hypocrisy, it has still passed on the message of God’s saving love, God’s forgiveness and grace, God’s new life and hope in Jesus Christ. The church has held onto the dream of God’s reign on earth, when every tear will be wiped away, when hatred and war and violence will be no more, when love and justice and mercy and joy and peace will fill all the lands. Today, we have received this dream, and we dare to dream it not only with our ancestors in faith, but with our children, and our children’s children, and all those who are to come.
For further reflection:
Mark Galli, 21st century
“If the church is the body of Christ [who was disguised in servant form], why would we think the world would be able to pick us out of a crowd of other well-meaning organizations?”
Pythagoras, 6th century B.C.E.
“Friends share all things.”
Jean Vanier, 20th century
“Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy–in fact, the opposite.”
Wendell Berry, 20th century
“The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.”
Stanley Hauerwas, 20th century
“Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God.”
William Shakespeare, 17th century, “King Lear”
“…and we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies,…
And take upon ‘s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies…”
In several of his books, Walter Brueggemann provides beautiful commentaries for preachers on this Fourth Sunday of Easter whose text is this most familiar of psalms. While it’s most often associated with funerals, the psalm sings of God’s tender care throughout life, and so it describes an approach to living just as much as it provides comfort in the face of loss or the unknown. Brueggemann contrasts “psalms of celebration” and “psalms of complaint,” the latter focusing on enemies and threats, and the former lifting up God’s awesome power and gracious care. With that kind of shepherd, why should a little sheep worry, indeed?
I remember a Peanuts cartoon (by Charles Schulz) from many years ago, in which Charlie Brown is asked what “security” means. He describes the experience of riding in the back seat, while your parents are in the front seat, driving. You can sleep worry-free, because they’re taking care of everything. That might be another way, in our culture, to describe the feeling of utter trust and security provided by a reliable, loving, all-powerful figure. (Of course, Charlie Brown ends with the gripping realization that the day inevitably comes when “you grow up and can never ride in the backseat again.” But that’s another sermon.)
While the psalms of complaint use tears as a metaphor, Brueggemann writes, the psalms of celebration use a feast to convey God’s goodness and power, a goodness and power that Christians experience in Jesus: “There is no gesture as expressive of utter well-being as lavish food – as every Jewish and every Christian mother knows. Thus the feeding miracles of Jesus and the Eucharist are gestures of a new orientation that comes as surprising gift and ends all diets of tears.” The table is at the heart of who we are as Christians, a community that blesses, breaks, and shares bread, a feast that remembers Jesus’ sharing long ago and looks forward to that heavenly feast when all of God’s children will have more than enough. The image of table, Brueggemann says, thus stands for “all the good tables at which you have ever sat and the experiences of joy that happened there and the subsequent vibrations you have from them” (Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit).
In another book, Brueggemann focuses more closely on the shepherd, who “leads and feeds” the vulnerable sheep, an image full of “tenderness, gentleness, and attentiveness.” While we may think of a shepherd as a man, Brueggemann hears in the psalm a suggestion of the “maternal qualities” and activities of such a God. And in doing “what a mother does,” God turns situations of fear around into situations of joy. The metaphor of the caring shepherd goes beyond herding or even leading to tender, life-giving care as God “does everything that must be done so that the trusting sheep may live” (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy).
John Hayes goes into more descriptive detail about the work of a shepherd, reading the expression “to set the table” as “preparing fields for grazing” by “uprooting poisonous weeds and thorns and clearing the area of the sheep’s enemies, such as snakes and scorpion’s nests. In the evening, as the sheep were corralled, the injured or sickly ones were separated from the others and treated with oil and a curative drink made of fermented material and herbs sweetened with honey” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). Why do you think our tradition gives us a metaphor for ourselves that puts us in such a powerless position, a sheep that cannot do much at all for itself? How do you think that image fits us particularly well in our day and age? Does it clash with our sense of self-determination, or does it touch our most vulnerable and fearful places, or does it bring us back to where we belong in relation to God?
Brueggemann helps the individual claim this text as well as the gathered community (the flock). Each little sheep, each believer receives the gift of faith, the gift of life that “begins…in God’s good intent and God’s utter reliability. Our role is to receive, accept, trust, and respond.” This is no stranger but one whose voice we know and trust, one who knows each one of us by name. “Sheep need three things for well-being: good pasture land, adequate water, and safe paths,” but cannot secure their needs and or defend themselves. In a dangerous world, the assurance that the shepherd is there and will never leave the sheep to fend for itself means that it can graze and rest in peace (Texts for Preaching, Year A).
Of course, we can shift from the image of shepherd to that of host, too, and this host really knows how to treat a guest: there’s nothing perfunctory about the table-setting or the hospitality offered. It meets the needs of the guest who may be in danger, may be in need of vindication before an enemy, may be in need of rest, comfort and healing. It’s all there, in this compact and elegant song. No wonder it is so loved and familiar, if it touches those deepest longings and needs of our bodies and spirits.
But Brueggemann doesn’t leave it there, in a place of comfort and peace. As usual, he challenges us to read the text in light of our own situation, a world full of things we want and expect and often demand. We focus on what God can (and does) give us instead of on God, but the psalm “[affirms] that Yahweh is the true heart’s desire of human persons, the true joy of human life, and the sure possibility of life lived in hope” (Theology of the OT: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy). As we rest peacefully in the reassurance of this psalm, perhaps we might examine our hearts to see what has taken root there, what we have let ourselves long for, what paths we have wandered away from our “true heart’s desire.” Do we even know our “true heart’s desire”? We might explore the possibility that God has become “instrumental” to our hope. What does this mean about our sense of God’s awesome and providential power, and our place in the scheme of things? In a way, we move between two poles: on the one hand, as loved and known individuals precious to God, and on the other hand, as sheep struggling to take our own path and expecting the shepherd to handle all the difficulties and to smooth the way. How does “powerless” feel?
We preach this text right in the middle of the Easter season, after a long season of Lent. O. Wesley Allen, Jr. offers a beautiful reflection on this timing: “Given its association with rituals surrounding death, Psalm 23 can offer a powerful message in the midst of the season celebrating new life. Speaking of the valley of the shadow of death (or simply “the darkest valley”) while basking in the light of the empty tomb offers much homiletical potential.” Christians focus on the image of the empty tomb, and a tomb is not just a happy, sunshine kind of place but one of death and hopelessness. It’s the “empty” part that matters, the promise of resurrection and new life even in an image of death. Perhaps, then, this psalm is so loved precisely because it doesn’t paint a rosy picture of reality. The psalmist (the sheep) faces dangers and threats, as we do, but it is God’s presence at all times, good and bad, that’s being celebrated in the psalm of celebration, and in our preaching, writes Allen: “At the center of the psalm are the words, ‘for you are with me.’ This should be the center of the sermon as well” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
So we can read the psalm privately, as individuals alone in our room, or in small groups over a grave, so often that we almost become de-sensitized to its beauty and power. But that beauty and power are even more encompassing, as the church relies on its assurances. The church feels threatened, too, and there are plenty of dangers to our life as a community of faith. The church can long for abundance, for a feast, for more than enough, for reassurance that everything is going to turn out well in the end, no matter how discouraging or overwhelming the situation. This isn’t just a promise about “the end,” however; it says something about how we live our life today: “a community that regularly yields its past to a memory of generous origins in God’s good power, and that regularly yields its future to the buoyant intentionality of God’s promises, a community that breaks out of amnesia and despair will unavoidably live differently in the present” (Brueggemann, Texts under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination). This “present-tense” trouble the church experiences, Brueggemann says, must not throw us off the paths of obedience and trust. God is with us always, and will not abandon us.
But that’s not what the world says. In Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church, Brueggemann provides another pairing for our consideration, the contrast between the dominant version of reality and the “sub-version” of reality. We all live and breathe and even participate in, and benefit from, the dominant version, he writes. A sermon might explore Brueggemann’s suggestion that what we see around us, what we’re told and what we think we want and need may not be the real truth that underlies everything. In fact, as people of faith, don’t we claim and rely on that sub-version, at some level of our souls? The difficult thing is that, for many of us, the dominant version has been very good, very reassuring, very comforting. The sub-version might be uncomfortable. Still, Brueggemann says, this is the “counter-truth that surfaces in Christian worship. It is a small counterpoint without great voice or muscle. It has been a minority perspective for a very long time…a poetic, elusive, delicate alternative even while the dominant voice of reality prevails in its facts on the ground” (Mandate to Difference).
That’s why we come together in worship, in wider mission, in fellowship, but it’s in worship especially that we make that claim about the sub-version of reality that may seem “vulnerable and foolish and exposed.” Here the understanding of faith as trust (rather than acceptance of intellectual propositions) is the foundation of our shared life just as much as it informs our private relationship with a comforting God. What a wonderful irony that “sub-version” and “subversion” are so close! How are they related in your mind, and in the life of your church, to the needs of your community and the suffering of the world?
For further reflection:
George Eliot, 19th century
“It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them.”
Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century mystic (Matthew Fox, in The Feminine Mystic)
“I am the breeze that nurtures all things green. I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits. I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.”