I've been struggling with what to say about the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville. All I know is that I have to say something and this article does a good job of saying it for me. I have benefited from white privilege my entire life, and I want to use what influence I now have to encourage others to stand up for what Christ calls us to do. Christ outlined his mission in Luke 4:16-21, and I'm committed to living the rest of my life by these words. Our society is badly broken and we can start correcting it by taking a hard look at ourselves. I refuse to remain silent in the presence of evil.
Church on Fire: The Disruptive Gospel
AUGUST 13, 2017 ~ ALLIEROSNERBASS
Scripture: Acts 19:23-41 (Acts 16:16-40)
We’re going to get to the story we just heard from Acts 19, but first I want to back up a couple chapters to another story about one of Paul’s many adventures. This story takes place just after Paul meets Lydia – who you may remember from last week as the Philippian businesswoman who starts the first European house church. Paul and his companions remain in Philippi for a little while, staying with Lydia, and while they are there they meet a certain woman who happens to be of a very different status from their hostess: this woman is a slave.
She’s also possessed by a spirit that somehow gives her the power to predict the future, so her owners use her to tell people’s fortunes and they make a tidy little profit off of that. When Paul and Silas meet her, something about this spirit immediately picks up on the presence an outside spiritual power, and the woman follows them around Philippi shouting “These men are servants of the Most High God! They are preaching a way of salvation!” The text says this happened for many days, which presumably got old quickly.
At some point Paul gets so exasperated that he just turns around and yells, “In the name of Jesus Christ, stop it!” and the spirit leaves the woman. It’s a happy ending, except for – who? The woman’s owners, who find their share prices suddenly taking a dive.
So they drag Paul and Silas before the local authorities. Only it maybe doesn’t sound so great to try to charge them and throw them in jail for exorcising a spirit, so instead, they accuse the religious-minority Paul and Silas of un-Roman activities. This kind of fear sells, of course, and Paul and Silas end up in jail.
Paul and Silas do get the last word in this little episode. Late that night as they are praying and singing hymns in their prison cell, there is a great earthquake, and all the cell doors swing open and their chains fall off. When the jailkeeper sees this he thinks he’s lost all his prisoners and is ready to kill himself, but when he realized they’re still there, he ends up getting saved instead.
I admit it might have been nice if Paul had gotten rid of that spirit more for the sake of healing the slave woman and less just because it got on his last nerve. Still, no matter what Paul’s motives, Jesus was at work. In the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he stood up and read from Isaiah in the synagogue, he said: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me…He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release of the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind; to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” That day in Philippi, those words were still true. This is, then and now, the power of the Gospel.
We also learn in this story that the Gospel, at times, has the tendency to cut into the profit margins of the economic powers that be. This will be important.
Fast forward a couple of chapters and the missionary team is now in the city of Ephesus. Here, again, Paul finds himself in trouble, which will be a recurring theme for the rest of Acts. Things get interesting quickly in Ephesus – we learn, for example, that even a small towel that touches Paul and then is taken to a sick person has the power to heal people. Also, a number of people who previously practiced sorcery come to believe in Jesus, and hold a huge bonfire where they burn all their old sorcery texts. All eye-catching, to be sure, but it’s a silversmith named Demetrius who decides that Paul is a threat to society. Paul is going around preaching the Gospel, telling everyone that new life and hope can be found in Jesus, but Demetrius makes shrines to the goddess Artemis. Artmesis’s temple was in Ephesus and it was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and she was not only the patron goddess of the city but also, as it turns out, the patron goddess of banking. Demetrius see the writing on the wall and figure if everyone in Ephesus starts worshiping the one God we know in Jesus, there might not be much of a market for Artemis shrines anymore, and then he and a bunch of his fellow craftsmen are out of a job.
So he gathers his fellow craftsmen and riles them up real good. “We can’t let this happen!” he says. “It’s not just about our profits – I mean, it is a little bit about our profits – but we can’t let this happen to Artemis!” Everyone yells and cheers – “Make Artemis great again!” and before you know it, there’s a full-scale riot going on in downtown Ephesus.
Paul is persuaded by his friends to lay low as all of this is going on, and eventually the city manager shuts the whole thing down and tells the people to take it to court.
Sometimes (I think) we think – though we probably wouldn’t put it in so many words – that being a good Christian means something like being a good citizen, if being a good citizen means something like living a nice, quiet life, helping little old ladies cross the street, picking up litter sometimes, and generally not making waves. If we do these things then we are pretty well following the path of Jesus.
Not if we read Acts.
Sometimes I think we need a reminder that while there’s certainly nothing wrong with picking up litter or helping little old ladies cross the street, being a good Christian and being a so-called good citizen are not, in fact, the same thing. Sometimes, following the way of Jesus and proclaiming the Gospel will butt heads with the very values a society is built on.
That’s true, of course, in places across the world where simply to go to church or profess faith in Jesus can get you in trouble – and there are those places. But it’s also what happens when we look at aspects of our society and dare to say, “God won’t stand for this.” For Paul in these stories, the problem isn’t talking about Jesus. The problem is that these societies are built on power and profit, and Jesus threatens those things.
The Gospel has the power to disrupt our community life as we know it. If we’re following Jesus, we “good citizens” should probably be prepared to make and get into a little trouble.
Does that sound like something you signed up for?
I have to tell you that I wrote much of this sermon yesterday, at Jon’s parents’ house where the internet is pretty sketchy. Then as we drove home and came back into civilization, I started reading my Facebook news feed in horror about everything that had taken place in Charlottesville that day.
As you know, yesterday white nationalists marched on Charlottesville, protesting a decision to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee in a local park. In the morning, they surrounded a downtown church where people were gathered, in response, for an interfaith prayer service. It was pointed out that this Klan-type group didn’t even feel the need to wear hoods. Somehow, militant racists don’t feel like they have to be anonymous these days. Street violence broke out between the white nationalists and counter-protestors. Later that afternoon, a car drove into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing at least one person and injuring many others. This was all two hours south of here. (Was anyone there?)
You know, I’ve always liked to imagine myself as someone, if I had lived during the 60s, who would have joined the Freedom Riders. I would have been one of those religious leaders you see in the pictures who locked arms with Martin Luther King – never mind that none of them were women at the time – and I would have faced the water cannons and bravely gone to jail. In these ways I would have let the Gospel which says that all people are created in the image of God come to life in my life.
I like to imagine that, but a week or so ago, Bishop Lewis sent an email out to clergy asking us to be there, be physically present if possible. I read the email and didn’t dismiss it, but Jon and I had plans to go to his parents’ this weekend already. Besides, having the baby always complicates these things, and besides, this is DC and there is always a protest or counter-protest going on, which I will very occasionally attend. So it wasn’t something I gave that much thought to. I confess that what was happening there was a lot bigger than I realized. So I wasn’t there yesterday. Some of my friends were, and I am thankful for their witness. They may not have caused a riot like Paul did, but they willingly walked into one. They did so to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of love and justice, the Gospel that sets all of us free from both the power others wield over us and the power we wield over others. They did so to say racism is evil and God won’t stand for it. They did so to live out their baptismal vows: to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
I’ve heard people say that if you’ve ever wondered if you would have been a part of the civil rights movement back then, the best indication is whether you are part of it now. That always gives me pause.
It’s not about one day, but to be honest, I think I could sometimes let my living out of the Gospel be a little more disruptive.
That’s not to say that I or anyone else missed their chance. Because at the same time showing up at a protest or counter-protest can be a way to preach the Gospel, we can’t be fooled into thinking that racism in our society is mostly represented by people carrying torches. That is too easy to denounce – though that kind of blatant racism does seem to be making a comeback these days. Still, far more often, racism is simply embedded in the world as we know it. It’s who gets called back for a second interview. It’s how people fare in the hands of police. It’s who gets labeled as beautiful. It’s who has economic power. Remember what got Paul in trouble wasn’t instigating anything but living and preaching in a way that poked at the values of a society, and specifically the profit and privilege of the people in power. God wants to disrupt all of that. God has work for us to do preaching and living out a Gospel that exposes all of those things as a lie.
God has plenty of chances for us, in plenty of ways, to disrupt a culture of fear, hatred, greed, exploitation, and discrimination by instead proclaiming a Gospel of hope, love, justice and grace – out loud. And if we do it right, it might get us in trouble.
Again, Paul isn’t starting any demonstrations in these stories; he’s just proclaiming the Gospel in word and in action, in preaching and healing. It’s just that as it turns out, the Gospel is a disruptive force. Love is a disruptive force. Justice is a disruptive force. Healing is a disruptive force. Peace is a disruptive force. Paul doesn’t set out to start a riot or go to jail but neither does he shy away from living out the Gospel, even when that tears at the fabric of a society held together by greed, exploitation, and carefully manipulated fear.
That’s an important distinction, because there is a danger here, and that is that we might make it more about us than about Jesus. We might think that the more waves we’re making, the better we’re doing; we may want to be a martyr. In these days when it’s cool to “resist”, it’s worth examining our motives: how much am I trying to follow the hard and risky call of Jesus to proclaim God’s reign of love and justice, and how much do I mainly want to put that selfie with the protest sign on Instagram for everyone to see? I ask that because it is a temptation I have struggled with.
Maybe a good question is this: how much have we let this disruptive Gospel first disrupt us?
Have we let Jesus challenge both our pride and our complacency? Have we let him challenge both the fear that holds us back and the desire for glory that makes it about us, or the need to be part of something bigger that isn’t of God? Have we let him disrupt this idea of the Christian as a “good citizen” with the call to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God?
On the other hand, if we’re not quite sure our motives are pure, that’s hardly an excuse for doing nothing.
How does Paul do it? How is it possible for him to keep facing the trouble that he knows awaits as he takes the Gospel to new places? How does he remain faithful in the midst of it all?
Well, Paul knows there’s something bigger. He knows that God’s promise is true: that love really does win over fear, and grace really does win over greed, and liberation really does win over oppression, and life really does win over death. He knows because he’s experienced it for himself.
And with that he’s ready to walk out into the world and say so – come what may.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. Romans 8:18
When I worked in the Pentagon several years ago, I had the honor and privilege of working for Brigadier General David “Bull” Baker. Bull Baker was a colorful character – I could always hear him coming long before I saw him. He was loud, good-natured and powerful and had earned the name “Bull” for his aggressive style of flying and fighting. So when Bull was in the area, you knew it! It was also true that Bull Baker lived in pain every single day I knew him.
General Baker was what I would call a “real-life hero.” He was a Vietnam War veteran and a former Prisoner of War. During the war, Bull flew the O-2A Cessna – a modified business aircraft that was used for reconnaissance and targeting primarily to improve air-to-ground effectiveness and prevent friendly force casualties. While small and agile, the Forward Area Controller’s or FACs as they were called, were easy targets from ground fire, and Bull was shot down over Cambodia in 1972. Surviving the crash, Bull fought off the enemy with only his service revolver before finally being captured. He sustained severe injuries from the crash and was shot at least twice during this ordeal. I was honored to hear his story one day when he shared it with a group of visiting high school students – of how he was tortured and forced to live in a bamboo cage buried in the ground during his time in captivity, never receiving the medical care he needed. It was the only time anyone could remember him sharing his story this way and I volunteered as an escort that day so I could hear it. There was a great deal more he shared but suffice to say he survived and became the only Air Force member repatriated from Cambodia at wars end. He went on to continue in service to his country and flew 20 more combat missions in the F-15 during the Gulf War in 1990. I worked for him for about two years in the Pentagon where we served together as liaisons between the Air Force and the classified intelligence agencies.
The reason I write to you about this now is to share some of the life lessons Bull Baker taught me. His aggressiveness in the air carried over into his leadership style in the Pentagon and while he wasn’t known for his eagerness to please every bureaucrat or politician, he was one of the most loyal bosses I ever had. Loyal to his country, to the mission of the USAF, and to his people. And there was a side of him that surprised many people – his sensitivity. Behind the aggressiveness and bluster, was a man with great empathy and discernment. He was a wonderful example of how to be a strong leader while showing concern for those around you.
I also mentioned earlier that Bull was in constant pain. After his release he underwent numerous surgeries to repair his shattered legs but despite all the technology of the day, he still suffered terribly. I suppose he could have taken the medications to relieve that pain, but it would have ended his career in the Air Force. Instead, he dealt with it, and labored on. And despite this suffering and how miserable he may have felt, he was still that compassionate, uncomplaining person that wanted to listen and learn about your life and the struggles you had.
I don’t think Bull was a particularly religious person but I sensed a profound faith in this man. And it was during my time working for him that I first heard my call to full-time ministry. And when I think or read of “suffering” – whether that be physical, mental, emotional, or some other form of suffering, I think of Bull Baker, laboring on in pain, enduring for the sake of something greater than himself. Bull inspired me to at least try to do greater things, and that there are far more important things in life than pleasing the earthly powers that be, and I will always be grateful to him for that. Bull Baker died January 29, 2009 at the age of 62.
Romans 8:18 speaks to the suffering of our present condition and the glory that awaits us in the future glory of God’s kingdom – “18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. I pray for the day when we will be free for suffering and enter that glory that awaits us, and I hope to hear Bull there – long before I see him.
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Ephesians 4:29
This past May I planted my usual small garden behind the parsonage. Those of you that come to church and park in the back lot are welcomed each week by my overgrown garden plot as you walk up the stairs and enter the backdoor of the church. Regardless of how much I try to hold back, I always plant too much and by mid-summer, the plants have all grown more rapidly and larger than I expected and the whole thing becomes a mass of green tomato vines intermingled with green beans, peppers and other vegetables vying for the sunlight that filters across the backyard in the morning hours. Since I really like cucumbers, I knew I had to plant a few of those as well so I picked a spot a little further up the driveway, away from the other vegetables and put in a few plots of cucumbers. They’ve done pretty well although they are escaping over the back wall and stretching out onto the lawn toward the garage. A few weeks ago I was very excited to find my first large cucumber – the first fruits of this year’s crop! I carefully picked it, washed in and cut it into the wedges so I could enjoy that delicious taste of a fresh cucumber straight from the garden. But it was not to be – the first taste was not the taste I love, but a sharp bitter bite that lingered in my mouth long after I chewed and swallowed it. What a disappointment! It took a few minutes but fortunately I was able to get that bitter taste out of mouth. If only it were that simple all the time!
It just so happens that as I was reading from Paul’s letter to the Church at Ephesus, I came upon a verse in Chapter 4 about being careful with what comes out of our mouths. Despite the old rhyme we used to recite as children – “Sticks and stones may break my bones – but words will never hurt me!” – the fact of the matter is that words do hurt. The bitterness of harsh and hasty words can last far longer than it takes for a physical bruise to heal. Unfortunately, I’ve seen friendships and family relationships destroyed by words. With some of the rhetoric flying around this election season, it seemed a good time to remind everyone of the damage words can have. So, with that in mind, I’d like to issue a challenge. I’d like us all to memorize Ephesians 4:29 and use that to measure our words in the coming weeks and months. Let’s try not to get caught up in the anger and bitterness of this political season but instead, let our words be used only to build up one another, to praise and encourage. Then, come November, we won’t have that bitter taste in our mouths and deep regrets over the friends we may have angered or even lost based on a word spoken in anger or frustration.
And just so you all know, despite the bitterness of that first cucumber I’ve not given up. I’ve been looking for ways to fix the problem and am hopeful I may still harvest some good cucumbers before the growing season ends!
May the peace and joy of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you dear readers. For those of you taking the time to read this blog – thank you. I am always blessed by the responses I get to simply sharing the Word of God in these short simple messages. For my objective in speaking through this forum will always be to build up and encourage the Body of Christ – fellow Christians and seekers struggling to understand our place in this world, struggling to make sense of sometimes difficult situations and hardships, and pointing to a source of hope that can only be found in a faith in a God that transcends our understanding.
And while some may see evil and depravity around every corner, I think it is more useful to see the good that occurs around us each day – the decency inherent in all people, the small acts of kindness performed each day, and the sacrificial love of one person for another. These are the events that capture the love of Jesus Christ in our world. And although there are many that might disagree with me, I often wonder how some folks reconcile their bitterness and angry messages of exclusion and bitterness with the message of Jesus Christ. For instance, I can’t find a single statement from Jesus saying he wanted his followers to be the “enforcers” of God’s word based on their interpretation of scripture. In fact, this seems to have been the mission of the Pharisees – those that opposed Jesus, tried to entrap him, and were ultimately the ones that successfully orchestrated his crucifixion. No, all I can find is a single commandment from Jesus that says to love one another, just as I have loved you (John 15).
So what should we as Christians be doing in this time and place where God has placed us? Again, we can find the answer in scripture in both the Old and New Testaments. One of my favorite verses is Micah 6:8 - He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. And in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12 under the subtitle “Marks of a True Christian:” Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. And as much as one might want to read between the lines on these verses, I can’t find any conditional statements that we are to love one another “only when they agree with us” or “only if they believe the same as I do.” We are to demonstrate God’s love to everyone through our words and actions no matter who they are. There is a classic Christian folk song that appears in over 30 Christian hymnals to include Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and others – “They Will Know We Are Christians” – and the line continues – “by our love, by our love, they will know we are Christians by our love.”
As followers of Jesus Christ we have no need to worry about enforcing God’s word – God is big enough to handle this without us. Our call is to be the vessels of God’s love in a broken world.
This past week I attended my second Penn Central Conference Annual Meeting in Selinsgrove, PA. It was a good experience primarily because of all the many friends and colleagues I was able to see and visit with again. As was the case last year, the Hearts and Minds Bookstore had a display with the latest in books designed to make a pastor salivate. I managed to get away this year for under $100 – quite an accomplishment for me!
Of the thousands of books on display, I happened to pick one up entitled “Room to Grow,” by Martin Copenhaver. Rev. Copenhaver is the President of Andover Newton Theological School and a United Church of Christ minister. I had never read him before but was interested in the books premise – it was described as a book of pastoral meditations that offered insights into the countless ways we try to live the Christian life. In a time when there is so much division in our country and in Christ’s church, it seemed like a good way to discover how God can, and does work uniquely in the lives of so many diverse people. The last line of the description especially appealed to me – “...these reflections will renew and inspire Christians in their daily walk.”
Being a pastor is sometimes difficult so things that might “renew and inspire” are always worthwhile. Many clergy encounter times of discouragement and burnout when after months and years of trying to preach and teach the love of Christ, we see people do exactly the opposite. Rather than becoming that voice of compassion and understanding in a very broken world, we too often contribute to the conversation of disunity and bitterness. Rather than listening to learn from others, we attack and shout at one another in a spirit of intolerance. Don’t get me wrong – I’m as guilty of this as the next person!
But not to be too depressing rarely a week goes by that I don’t come to face-to-face with one of the great equalizers – death. This week, all of us have had death thrust upon us once again as we’ve witnessed another senseless killing in Orlando, FL. It’s not been the first terrorist attack and it will certainly not be the last. I may have more to say about these attacks later but as I read Rev. Copenhaver’s very first chapter, I came upon these words: “Death is a teacher, and among the things it can teach us is the wide and often tragic gap between the questions “What is important to you?” and “How do you spend your time?” Experiencing the death of a loved one or pondering our own death can provide perspective on our lives and help us see what is truly important and worthy of devotion and what is not.”
The reference verses for this particular meditation are from Luke 12:16-21. In these verses, Jesus describes a farmer who spends his life building larger and larger barns to hold his bountiful harvest. The farmer promises himself that when he has accumulated enough, he will take his ease, relax and enjoy the fruits of his many years of labor. But in an instant, all that becomes irrelevant, as God tells the man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” Copenhaver goes on to surmise what the subsequent visit to the man’s wife might have been like. In the quiet reflection that such times bring, we often stop and ask the question, “What was truly important to this person?” and “How did they spend their time?”
This week has been a swirl of emotions to include grief, anger, sadness, and fear. As I’ve thought about the families of those killed in Orlando, read and listened to the opinions of politicians and people in the news and social media, I’ve also encountered death and dying on a more personal level. Through all of this, the reality is we all have a finite amount of time on this earth, and the events of this week should perhaps prompt all of us to reflect on our mortality and the priorities in our lives. How are we spending our time? Is it to encourage and comfort one another? What is important to us? How do we treat and speak to others? Perhaps we should take to heart Copenhaver’s observation that one of the crowning ironies of our lives is the fact that the most important things in life, are also the most easily postponed.
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is
your name in all the earth!
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
(Psalm 8:1, 3-4, NIV)
Several years ago, I had the honor and privilege to meet and dine with Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human being to ever set foot on the moon. It was an amazing opportunity to talk with someone that my colleagues likened to meeting a famous explorer like Leif Eriksson or Christopher Columbus. It was during this encounter that I asked Mr. Armstrong what it had felt like looking back as the earth slowly receded into the distance, and the beautiful blues and greens of the seas and continents became smaller and less distinct. I asked if he had thought about God or about the frailty of human kind as the immense size of the universe opened before him. He thought for a while and spoke deliberately. He said he couldn’t help but think about God and the beauty of creation as he viewed sights never before witnessed by the human eye. And he shared that his faith grew stronger as a result of this experience although he admitted he didn’t have a lot of time to reflect while the mission was under way. Even after going into orbit around the moon, the landing mission was uncertain and at best had a 50-50 chance of success.
During part of my time in the United States Air Force, and even a few years after, I worked in the area of space operations. A mathematics major in college, I enjoyed working with numbers and was fascinated by the physics, the harsh space environment, and the precision of orbital mechanics. Some would wonder what could possibly have led to this point in my life serving God as a pastor in a small rural community. It’s a long story. But while others may find their faith tested by advances in science and evolutionary theory, I’ve discovered that the mystery of existence, the ordering of the planets, the sun, moon and stars, the complexity and precision that exists even in such disciplines as chaos theory and evolutionary biology, could only have come about through the majestic and magnificent power of a Creator.
We often pass through life with little regard for the incredible diversity and beauty of our surroundings. Yet God speaks to us through the creation – from the ordering of the heavens to the incredible detail of a single flower, we are meant to see God’s hand. We are moving now into the spring season, when the earth’s rotation and position in orbit changes the Sun’s angle on our little part of the world and warms our area in the northern hemisphere. As life awakens in the soil and in the plants, birds, insects and animals around us, stop for a moment and take the time to notice. And give thanks to God for your life, and even more importantly, for the eternal life offered through faith in our risen Savior.
My name is Dave Downer and I am honored to have served as the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ since December, 2014. I have been a full-time pastor for a relatively short time – about four years now. After retiring from the Air Force, I worked as a Government contractor for several years before hearing God's call on my life. I returned to school to pursue a Masters in Divinity degree from Virginia Union School of Theology in Richmond, VA. During that time, I served as the Assistant Pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Woodbridge, VA. In November 2014, I was called by the members of Trinity UCC to serve as their pastor. My wife Terri and I relocated from the hectic suburbs of Washington, DC to beautiful Centre County, PA, and could not be happier. Our three children, Jonathan , Joseph and his wife Lauren, and Emily, still live in Virginia, but have also enjoyed the slower pace of life in Central PA when they visit. My family and I are honored to be a part of this community and look forward to all that God has in store for Trinity in the coming years.