If It Is of God...

From Acts 5:12-42

Though there has been a lot of stop and start, we have been working our way through the story of Acts—the story of the early Church and how they became the Church in the wake of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.
Certainly, they struggled to find their way. They struggled with how to be the Church—and who to welcome—and what to believe—and how to profess it and share it and live it. They struggled with who they were called to be in the world and who they were called to become—with what held them together—connected them on the deepest levels—and the kinds of responsibility their faith required. They struggled to live into the bold, life-giving welcome they had experienced with Jesus.
Do you remember early in the book of Acts—when the disciples are gathered in Jerusalem with people from all parts of the Roman Empire—and they experience the rush of the Pentecostal wind—the Holy Spirit that touches their tongues and gives them each voice to express the beauty and possibility of God’s good news? Do you remember how—in that moment—they know they are called to go out into the world to bear witness to the amazing things they have seen and experienced? They know they are called to go out into the world to offer healing in the midst of great brokenness.
Shortly after, Peter and John meet a lame man who asks them for alms. But Peter says to him: “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he jumps up, walking and leaping and praising God. Then, inside the temple, in response to the astounded crowd, Peter recounts some of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. To this we are witnesses, he says. We are witnesses to the cruelty and injustice. We are witnesses to the behavior of the political leadership that would allow something like this to happen. And we are also witnesses to the power and possibilities of God. We are witnesses and advocates for healing in a great sea of hurt and brokenness. We are witnesses. None of us—not one of you—is alone. We are surrounded, and we embody, the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit—the advocate—lives in us. We are witnesses.
The Temple Council, though, as you might imagine, was not having it. The priests, the elders, the Sadducees, the scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. They felt their power and authority questioned and undermined. They arrest Peter and John and question them: By what power or by what name did you do this?
With boldness, they answer: “If we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”
The Temple authorities reluctantly let them go—warning them not to speak or teach anymore about this name. . . . But—as you and I know—the disciples and members of the early Church are undeterred.
So, here again they are arrested, questioned, warned: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.
To which Peter and the apostles answer: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.Sometimes to be a good Christian, you had to be a bad Roman.
The Council is enraged. They want to kill them. But it’s interesting at this point. A respected Pharisee in the Council named Gamaliel, stands up and says: “Fellow-Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!
If it is of God. . . . If it is of God. . . . How do we know if it is of God?
In the days following the death of my brother, my Dad and several others commented to me: “Stan sure didn’t deserve this.” And I know we are all trying to make some sense of this terrible reality. And there sure is a lot of bad theology out there about death and loss. But the thing is, this situation has nothing to do with justice—what Stan may or may not have “deserved.” If life and death were about justice, I can think of a lot of people who would be dead—and a lot of other people who would be alive—right now. You probably can too.
This situation is not about justice. This is a tragedy. And in this tragedy—however we struggle to make sense of it—I know that our God weeps with us—just as surely as I know God’s loving embrace surrounds my brother Stan right now. He is not alone. And neither are we. And in this togetherness—even in the wake of tragedy—I trust that God’s grace holds us, guides us, and will not let us go.
No, Stan did not deserve this.
But neither did Nia Wilson.
And immigrant children separated from their families at the Border do not deserve this.
And victims of the Carr Fire do not deserve this.
No, tragedies are not about justice. They have nothing to do with God’s will.
But how do we know if it is of God? Gamaliel says: “If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow [it]—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!
God, quite simply, expands love and justice and grace and welcome in the world. God celebrates our differences and vulnerabilities. God encourages us to reach beyond our own comfort zones and to offer love and help and healing to all we can, in all the ways we can. God empowers us to make space for everyone.
If it is of God—it will do these things. But God may not come when—or in the ways—we would like. While I was thinking about this, I was reminded of the quotation: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
I always thought these words originated with Martin Luther King, Jr. And he certainly used them quite often. But as I researched it, I found out that the phrase actually comes from Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and abolitionist, who published a collection of sermons in 1853, shortly before the Civil War. One of those sermons, titled “Of Justice and Conscience,” states “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can [only] divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.”
In other words, it may take a while, but if it is of God and God’s justice, it will eventually prevail. I’m sure Peter and John and the early Church knew that and trusted that. And I suppose Gamaliel intuited that. . . .
But this does not mean that there will not be setbacks. It does mean that the overall arc of history bends toward what is good and right and just. And ultimately, that justice will not fail—even though pain and evil and injustice many appear strong—even though they may have the armies and thrones of power on their side—may boast the riches and glory of the world—may cause the weak and vulnerable ones to cower in despair. We may not understand the moral universe—because its arc is so long and our eyes only reach a short ways. But regardless, I truly believe that justice will not fail. And neither will all that is contrary to God’s law of justice endure.
MLK said it this way: “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”
And if it is of God, it will increase that justice; it will bend that arc a little deeper. May we be a part of that effort.

You Are Invited

Living Stones

Every day I am astonished by / how little I know, and discouraged,
obedient as I am to the demand to / know more — always more.
But then there is the slow seep / of light from the day,
and I look to the west where / the hills are darkening,
setting their shoulders to the night, / and the sky peppered with pillows
of mist, their bellies burnt / by the furnace of the sun.
And it is then that I notice / the invitation didn’t say, Come
armed with knowledge and a loud voice.
It only said, Come.
                               —“Come” by Andrew Colliver
          The invitation to join us for worship, for fellowship, for moral action in our communities is never qualified.  You are welcome to come as you are.  With all that you are.  No matter where you’ve been.  No matter the baggage that you carry.  Regardless of income, education, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability level, age, background. . . .  You are invited into God’s loving embrace.  You are invited into the quirky and questioning, open-minded and justice-seeking community that we embody as we seek to live ever more faithfully into who God is calling each one of us to be . . . and what God is calling us – as a community – to do.  You are invited.  Come!

See you in church,

Resurrection - Part II

I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam, / the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It's like a schoolhouse / of little words, / thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
       full of moonlight.

Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
                          —“Breakage” by Mary Oliver

          I recently got to spend a couple of beautiful days on the Bodega Coast.  We witnessed wild and bold waves and places where the ocean churns itself into a gorgeous turquoise whenever the waves crash on rocks before hitting the coast.  I could watch the waves and the ebb and flow of the tides for hours (and I did).  And I loved seeing the magical treasures the ocean tosses up on the shore.  Before we left, I asked the ocean to send me a blessing—to throw something up on the shore for me to take home to remind me of God’s goodness and my connectedness to all things Holy.  Almost immediately, three sparkly gems washed ashore.  Now, someone else might look at my gems and see broken pieces of sea trash.  But even as I write, these gems lay before me on my desk, and I see symbols of God’s grace.  These beauties inspire me to remember that   all kinds of grace rise out of brokenness.  And I know that even the story fragments of our lives work together to weave a tapestry of amazing beauty.  Even when we feel broken.  Or alone.  Or uncertain.  Or afraid.  Or angry.  Even when the world seems to conspire against us and toss us—broken—on the shore, we are always and forever baptized in God’s love.  We are glittering reminders that God’s love and grace are alive and well.  We, too, are part of the story of resurrection.

See you in church,