Sermon: Sunday, June 30, 2013: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14  +  Psalm 77:1-2,11-20  +  Galatians 5:1,13-25  +  Luke 9:51-62


Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa 1994-1999. Freedom Fighter.

I’ve been keeping a close eye on the news, watching and waiting for any changes in the condition of the man President Obama has compared to George Washington, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

Mandela, as you know, became president of South Africa in 1994 after decades of struggling against the system of racial segregation known as apartheid.  In his youth, Mandela was a lawyer involved in anti-colonial politics.  He directly opposed the National Party that came into power in 1948, first non-violently, and later by leading bombing campaigns against military targets.  He was captured, convicted of sabotage, and sentenced to life imprisonment, part of which was carried out on Robben Island, a prison compound off the coast of Cape Town.

Mandela served eighteen of his twenty-seven years of imprisonment on Robben Island, and the stories from that place are a part of his living legend: how he befriended the prison guards, reaching for their humanity in an inhumane place; how he gifted his captors with plants he grew on the windowsill of his tiny prison cell.  I was in high school when the government of South Africa finally bowed to demands for his release, as he had grown to become an international symbol for the anti-apartheid movement.  That was 1990.  Four years later he’d gone from prison inmate to president of the newly reconstituted South Africa, an office he held from 1994 to 1999.

When I visited South Africa as a seminarian in the summer of 2000, Mandela’s presidency had just concluded, and the country was nervously making the transition from his leadership to that of his successor, President Thabo Mbeki.  It was difficult to move from the iconic leadership of the man who had confronted the violent powers of the institutionalized racism of the Afrikaners’ National Party, and had lived to tell the tale, to his successor.  There was a great deal of fear that the non-violent transfer of power from the National Party to the African National Congress, Mandela’s party, would finally break down and that the country would be plunged into violent conflict and civil war.

That was almost fifteen years ago, and South Africa has made the transition from one leader to the next more than once now, each time confirming Mandela’s vision for a peaceful, multicultural nation.

After leading the nation through decades of the anti-apartheid movement, then as its elected president for five years, in 1999 Nelson Mandela stepped down from public office, ready for a quiet family life.  At the age of 80 he married his third wife, Graça Machel, also a political activist, from Mozambique.  For the next few years he continued to be an active presence in South Africa’s political and cultural life.  Then, in 2004, he announced that he was “retiring from retirement,” receding more fully from the public eye, though always in the national consciousness.

Tahrir Square, April 8, 2011.

Tahrir Square, April 8, 2011.

I asked Judith Kotzé, the South African LGBTI activist who was with us at the beginning of this month to share news and build support for IAM — Inclusive and Affirming Ministries — how South Africa was faring now that Mandela and Tutu, and other leaders of the anti-apartheid movement, were growing old and struggling publicly with their health.  She said to me, “we are, of course, grateful for their leadership.  They were symbols of the anti-apartheid movement.  They brought the world’s attention to South Africa.  But that was twenty years ago.  Today we don’t need another Mandela, or another Tutu.  We need networks of activists.  We need the entire nation to push toward the vision they gave us.”

We’ve been traveling with the prophet Elijah through the book of First Kings for the last month, from his initial confrontations with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, to his exile in the wilderness east of the River Jordan where he fed and healed the widow of Zarephath and her son.  We remember how he condemned the power of the state when Naboth’s vineyard was illegally seized, and declared a coming day of judgment when the mighty would be brought low, and Israel would return to the Lord, its God.  Last week we reflected on how lonely this work was, how silent God could be, how again and again those touched by God are sent back into the fray, when all they want is to be allowed to retreat from the struggle.

Finally, this morning we see Elijah retiring from his public ministry.  He, alone among the prophets, does not die but is lifted into heaven by God whose power manifests in the appearance of a fiery chariot.  Elijah is ready to make this journey, and even seems to prefer that he be allowed to take it alone, but his protégé and successor, Elisha, is determined to accompany him.  Along the way from Gilgal to Bethel to the Jordan, Elijah and Elisha are joined by fifty others from a group we’ve not heard of before, called “the company of prophets.”

This company of prophets is one of the first signs we see that Elijah’s ministry has been about more than a dramatic public confrontation between power and the prophet.  It has been about stirring the public’s imagination and creating a space in which people could begin to imagine themselves as members and leaders moving toward God’s vision for the world as it was meant to be.

In his book, Prophesy and Society in Ancient Israel, scholar Robert Wilson writes,

“Although there is no direct evidence on this point, members of [the company of prophets] were presumably individuals who had resisted the political and religious policies of the Ephraimite kings and who had therefore been forced out of the political and religious establishments.  After having prophetic experiences these individuals joined the group, which was under the leadership of Elisha.  In the group they found mutual support and were encouraged to use prophesy to bring about change in the social order.”

Reading between the lines of scripture the picture that emerges is that, far from his imagining, Elijah has not been alone in his struggle against empire.  Inspired, perhaps, by his public witness, a community of prophets, a society of resisters, a network of activists has emerged who are already practicing the tools of prophesy, the art of truth-telling, to make change in the world around them.

This company of prophets, led by Elisha, accompany Elijah to the place of his ascension and there Elisha makes his request.  “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”  Throughout his ministry, Elijah has performed miracles that confirmed his message.  He created abundance where there was scarcity.  He called down fire on his enemies, and commanded the waters to part before him.  His message to the powers and principalities could not be ignored, when he was so obviously filled with power from another source.  Elisha asks for that power, the power to lead with credibility and authority.

Elijah’s response to the eager young prophet is instructive.  How often do we see leaders, whether it’s in business, or politics, or even the church, who try to select their successors.  It is tempting, when a person has invested all of themselves into a lifelong project, to want to ensure that it will live on past the leader’s departure.  How many companies, or movements, or congregations have suffered when a leader’s desire to select their successor saddles the community with the wrong person at the wrong time?

Elijah does not promise Elisha anything, because Elijah knows that his own ministry has been powered by his relationship to God.  Elijah has argued with and complained to, but ultimately been faithful to the God who gave him power to meet the demands of the ministry to which he was called.  Elijah knows that, in the end, it is God who will select his successor.

So he tells Elisha, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”

Here’s how I hear Elijah’s reply: if you have the vision, you will have the power.  “If you see me as I am being taken from you…”  If you can see that I was always about something greater than me, then you will still see me even when I myself am not here.

Elisha and the company of prophets had seen, and did know, that Elijah’s work had always been about more than Elijah.  It had been about bringing the people of Israel back into right relationship with their God and with one another.  It was a ministry that began during a drought, a sign that the king was not caring for the window, the orphan and the stranger, but which brought the rain.  Over and against imperial power that sought its own interests at everyone else’s expense, Elijah’s ministry had been marked by costly truth-telling for the sake of the common good.  Elisha, too, was marked as one ready to lead the twelve tribes of Israel; one who shares the vision for the world as God made it to be.

Ascensions: Elijah & Jesus

Ascensions: Elijah (top) & Jesus (bottom)

The story of a wonder-working prophet ascending into heaven, and leaving behind a community of followers ready to continue his ministry should sound familiar to any of us who have been Christian long enough to celebrate the festivals of Easter and Pentecost at least once.  The gospel of Luke draws heavily on the story of Elijah in its presentation of Jesus.  The people even wonder if Jesus is, in fact, Elijah returning for them.

They can wonder this, in part, because rather than dying, Elijah is taken up into heaven to be with God.  This ending is powerful not because of the prestige it confers on Elijah, but because it defies resolution.  Elijah is not dead, but ascended, which means that he might return at any moment.  Indeed, the way Christians order the Hebrew scriptures, the last book of the Old Testament is Malachi, from which we read, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (Mal. 4:5).  To this day, our Jewish brothers and sisters leave a place at the Passover table for Elijah, who may yet come knocking at the door during the festival of liberation from the slavery of Egypt.

Likewise, we who are Christian, see in the stories of Elijah and Jesus a vision for God’s work in the world that is greater than any one person, a message that is bigger than the messenger.  From Jesus’ own defiance against the slavery of the grave, we draw power and conviction that God’s work in this hurting, broken world is not done yet either.  We have ordered the books of the New Testament so that they also end with the promise that God’s visionary Word will come again, as the book of Revelation ends with these words, “‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)

And, of course, we say these words each time with gather for a meal at this table, as we recite the mystery of faith: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.”  And, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.”

These words, spoken over and over, aren’t magic spells that turn bread into sacrament, they aren’t ingredients in a liturgical recipe.  They are pledges of allegiance to a new world order, the one we saw breaking in through Elijah, through Elisha and the company of prophets; through Jesus and the company of the apostles; through our brothers Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.  These words, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” are acts of sedition, drawing us into a struggle for the future of the world.

Nelson Mandela was not released from 27 years of imprisonment so that he could enjoy his retirement.  Nelson Mandela was set free in order to lead the people of South Africa, and the entire world, into a greater freedom.  For freedom he was set free!

And so are you.  So are you, my dear brothers and sisters, who by baptism have been initiated into the company of prophets, the community that looks at Elijah, and Jesus, and sees the message in the messenger.  Who see the vision.  Who are called prophets of the Most High.

You have not been set free from lives of bondage to racism, or classism, or sexism, or nationalism, or heterosexism, or militarism, or consumerism, or capitalism simply in order that you might enjoy a more peaceful life.  In Christ, you have been set free from all these powers, powers that try to tell you who you are, powers that try to reduce you to one aspect of your identity, in order to liberate the world from these same lying, death-dealing powers.

After years of prophetic leadership that saw an end to apartheid, Nelson Mandela stepped back so that others, many others, could continue to work of freedom, truth-telling and reconciliation in South Africa.  After a prophetic ministry that brought King Ahab and Jezebel low, that brought waters back to parched lands, Elijah withdrew so that others, a company of prophets, could lead Israel back to God.  After a public ministry so encompassing of God’s politics that it led to a cross, a tomb, and a resurrection, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so that we, together, the church, might become God’s advocates for God’s emerging reign of peace with justice, of a world of plenty shared equitably with all, of love for everyone forever.

We are called to be prophets of this reality. Whether we are working to relieve hunger, marching for LGBTQ equality and civil rights, working for passage of common sense immigration reform, organizing to ensure all citizens continue to enjoy equal voting rights.  Whatever our vocation, whatever our cause, we are called to set our minds on freedom, this morning and every morning. Come, Lord Jesus!



Sermon: Sunday, May 5, 2013: Sixth Sunday in Easter

Texts: Acts 16:9-15  +  Psalm 67  +  Revelation 21:10,22 — 22:5  +  John 14:23-29

Apostles act, and it’s generally not in the temple, but out in the world.

You know I’m not one of those preachers who begins every sermon with a joke, but I’ve got one for you this morning that some of you have heard me tell before.

Door Knockers

What do you get when you cross a Lutheran with a Jehovah’s Witness?

Someone who goes door to door but doesn’t know what to say.

I don’t remember where I heard that one, but I’m sure I know the reason it stuck.  Kerry, my partner who most of you know, was for many years a Jehovah’s Witness who went door to door.  And he knew what to say.  Generally speaking, he’s not at a loss for words.  But when we started dating and he came here to St. Luke’s it was a bit of culture shock, because we Lutherans often don’t know what to say, or how to say it.  Instead we talk about being proud of our worship, our distinct theological voice, our strong network of charities and advocacy organizations.  Basically, we think that if you can find your way to us, you’ll like what you find.

Not so with the Witnesses.  They do a wonderful job of equipping their community with a vision of this world and the next, and sending them out to share their vision with people they’ve never met.  And while I can’t say that I agree with a lot of how they understand scripture, in particular how they understand passages like the one we read this morning from the book of Revelation with its vision of the new Jerusalem, I have tremendous respect for the faithful discipline its members show in reaching out to connect with those they’ve never met.  It takes courage, it takes practice, it takes commitment.  It requires them to have something to say about their faith and to be willing to say it, and we could use a whole lot more of that in the Lutheran church today.

All that said, I think this morning’s story from Acts — which is the story we’ve been following most closely during these fifty days of Easter — has something to teach us about the unpredictability of ministry outside the walls of the church, and might even give us some clues about what to expect when our ministry follows the acts of the Apostles, who left Jerusalem and spread out to share their story with people far from home.

You can tell that our passage begins in the middle of a longer story.  “During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’”  Paul was on the western coast of what we now call Turkey, in Troas.  He’d worked his way north from Jerusalem and met up with his companion Timothy in Lystra, in south central Turkey.  As they went from town to town they would meet with the Jews in those places to share with them the story of what had happened in Jerusalem.  That Jesus, the messiah, had entered human history and that the world was changing; that the end of what had been had begun, and that the whole world was being drawn into the transformation. So the churches throughout that region were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily (Acts 16:5).

And it all seems to be going so well for Paul and Timothy.  They’re being well received outside of Jerusalem.  So they make plans to expand their ministry.  They head north, through Phrygia and Galatia in central Turkey, because the scriptures say they’d “been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia” (Acts 16:6b).  I think that’s a really interesting idea.  It suggests to me that Paul and Timothy actually wanted to head east, toward the parts of the world we now call Armenia and Azerbaijan, but that something turned them north toward the Black Sea instead.

I wonder what kind of strategic planning process these apostles had that made room for the Holy Spirit to let them know that the plans they were making just weren’t going to work out.  Do we suppose they were praying together and just felt strongly that their hopes to head east weren’t God’s hopes?  Do we think that they started heading down that road, but hit one roadblock after another and took that as a sign that they should make a new plan?  We don’t know.  We only know that something in the way Paul and Timothy made their plans allowed for the spirit of God to be a part of their decision-making.

So they turn north and begin heading for what we now call Istanbul (not Constantinople, for you They Might be Giants fans), but again it says that “Spirit of Jesus” wouldn’t allow them to go any farther in the direction they wanted to go.

We don’t focus on this part of the story, opting instead to get right to the sweet story of Paul and Timothy encountering Lydia in Philippi, which is a wonderful story that we’ll get to in just a minute, but I think that story is all the sweeter when we understand the awkward attempts at collaboration with God that Paul and Timothy, not to mention you and I, go through when we set out to follow God’s call to get out of the Temple and into the world.

Our interns, who are ending their time as interns with us this morning, know something about what I’m saying.  Sarah, along with all the other 2nd year students at LSTC, were waiting for months to hear where they’d be placed on internship this coming year.  They filled out forms indicating their preferences.  They interviewed in person and by phone with prospective internship supervisors.  Then, one day not too long ago, they were handed an envelope with the name of a congregation somewhere far away and told to get ready to pack their bags.  They were being sent out.  Sarah is headed to Florida, near Tampa.  Tina, our Administrative Assistant who is also a 2nd year student at the seminary, is headed to St. Louis later this summer.  They’d imagined, perhaps, other futures and other paths, but they are being led by the Spirit of Jesus to these places instead where they will have to find words and actions to share their faith with people who are like them, and not like them, in a variety of ways.

Like Sarah and Tina, who are leaving the state; like Jessica Palys, who is leaving the country this summer for two months in a Spanish language immersion program in Guatemala; Paul and Timothy set off for distant and unknown places.  They set sail from Troas to Samothrace, a small Greek island in the Mediterranean.  From there they sailed to the southern shores of Greece and made their way inland to Philippi, looking for the man who’d come to Paul in his vision, asking for help.

They’d been in Philippi for a few days before the sabbath, but still had not found the man they were looking for.  So, on the day of worship they left the city proper and gathered at the river (the beautiful, the beautiful river) with a group of women, not the man from Paul’s vision.

There was a certain woman down by the river whose name was Lydia, described as a worshipper of God.  This descriptor, “worshipper of God,” along with her name, indicate that she was not Jewish, but that she was interested in worshipping with the Jews.  She was perhaps a religious seeker, open to wisdom from many sources beyond what she’d been raised to believe.  She might even have been considering membership.  Does she sound familiar to you?  Do you know someone like Lydia?

Furthermore, Lydia is described as a dealer in purple cloth, which required a highly expensive indigo dye.  She appears to be a wealthy woman, unattached to any man, and head of a household full of people, because after she hears Paul and Timothy’s story she invites them back to baptize her entire household.  And that’s the end of the story.

Do you notice what’s missing from this story?

There’s no man.  The vision that led Paul to leave Turkey and cross the sea, the man who called to him in his dream, “come over to Macedonia and help us;” that guy never appears in this story.

Paul left Jerusalem and the temple and the community of those he’d come to know through his conversion to the faith in order to reach people who were strangers, whom he did not know.  He thought he’d head east, but he ended up going west.  He thought he’d find luck with the men gathered in their local synagogues, but instead he finds a home with an unusual woman gathered with other women outside the city by the river.

Friends, this is what happens when we get outside of ourselves and go door to door, meeting our neighbors — those close to home and those far away.  We are changed.  It’s not that we can’t or shouldn’t make plans, it’s just that we have to remain aware that all of our planning, all of our prayer and discernment and training and strategy is really intended to get us to a place where we might finally be brave enough to try something new, to open the door to a new relationship, a new experience, a new direction.  Once we allow for that possibility, we’re allowing for the fact that we will be changed in ways we could never have imagined.

This is where I think Lutherans, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and basically all of us most often get it wrong.  Whether we stay indoors with our proud traditions, or go door to door with our apocalyptic expectations, our message as people of faith has too often been “come, join us, and be changed.”  If Paul and Timothy have anything to teach us, I think it’s that we have to be ready for God, acting in us through the Holy Spirit, to be changing us.  Changing our understandings of what it means to be a church, a people of God, a community.  What it means to follow by faith.

The story of the book of Acts is the story of the early church’s rapid and massive growth across the ancient near East, a course that eventually brought Christian faith to the ends of the earth as we know it.  Lydia is first convert in what we now call Europe.  She is the first European Christian, and her unusual household is the birthplace of Christian community in Greece and the rest of the west.  She is not what Paul went looking for.  She is so much better than that.

What do you suppose God has in store for us, once we move outside our doors?  I think of our seminarian, Will, who left Iowa to pursue a career in academia, but has heard God calling him to become a preacher and a pastor.  He set out heading in one direction, but discovered God leading him a different way.  I think about Erika, who left for seminary wondering if she might be called to be a teacher at the intersection of faith and science, but has discovered so many other directions her ministry might take.  I think about my own story, how I left the church for  years but couldn’t stop worshipping God along with all the other unusual people of faith outside the city, down by the river.

And I think about us, who have been working so hard for so long to rebuild the walls of this congregation, to restore what had been knocked down.  I wonder how we are making room in our conversations with one another for the Holy Spirit to direct us, to deny us, to steer us toward people and places we’d never considered.  I wonder where the riverside is in our neighborhood, where people filled with faith but not a part of the establishment, are gathered right now.

What would it take for us to find out?  What would it look like to go door knocking, not with answers, but with questions?

Wouldn’t you like to find out?