I am at Gardnertown UMC in Newburgh, NY this morning (Location of the church); services start at 9:45 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday, Ascension Sunday, are Acts 16: 16 – 34, Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 1, and John 17: 20 – 26.
Borrowing a thought from the entrepreneur and philosopher Charles Handy, I believe that our life today is a paradox.
We are asked to live in a world of simultaneous opposites, where the political dialogue calls for lower taxes yet the social dialogue calls for a deeper caring of the human condition. The paradoxes that we encounter confuse us because things don’t behave as we think they should and what worked well before is not guaranteed to work as well this time. The key is to understand where we are, how we got here, and where we want to go from here; yet, such understanding itself is often a paradox.
Without a clear understanding of the process, things will not work as they should. But how do we obtain such understanding? How then do we find the truth in what we seek? (Adapted from “The Age of Paradox” by Charles Handy)
We live in a world where our acceptance of the truth is predicated on reality but we will readily accept as reality the claims in an e-mail that we receive from the friend of a friend of a cousin who knew someone who might have possibly heard that “so and so” was actually there when it happened. (And I want to thank Dale McClure, a friend, for providing some of the inspiration for this sermon.)
We accept without question the claims of politicians and pundits when they tell us things as the truth; even thought we know that they are not true or too implausible to be true. But we accept them because we have willingly given these individuals the power to tell us what to think. And when such statements are constantly repeated, they begin to take on the aspects of truth and they defy any and all attempts to correct them and remove them from the social landscape.
Similarly, when we speak of things mystical or we read of a prophet having a vision, we dismiss the speaker with phrases like loony, wacky, or just plain crazy. We associate the Book of Revelation with the Apocalypse and well we should because “apocalypse” means “revelation”. But our association with the term is one of death and destruction, of actions that are not necessarily in the reading but in the interpretations of 19th century theologians. What many people don’t realize is that apocalyptic writing was common place writing in the early days of the church (there is at least one other Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse of Peter, but it is not part of the accepted canon) and that it was almost a literature for “insiders”; understanding required knowledge of the situation and the symbols that were used. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/apocalypse/)
Our view of the Seer’s vision is clouded because we do not understand what was written two thousand years ago on Patmos. As a result, our own view of Christianity is distorted and clouded. We also have problems with the whole nature of visions. If John the Seer had written his revelation in the 60s, we would have dismissed him as wacky, loony, or just plain crazy.
This “vision thing” is something we do, not something that has any validity. We will accept the results of a visioning exercise if the results are what we want to happen, not just what might happen.
The reading from Acts today starts off with a young slave girl who offers visions for a price. There were a number of things in this piece that spoke of labor practices and their application to today’s society but I will save such a discussion for later. Suffice to say, I grew up in an environment that justified slavery because slavery was in the Bible.
If we are to accept as truth all that is written in the Bible, then we can easily accept the notion that it is right and permissible for one group to oppress another. But this flies in the face of the ideas that are clear and present throughout the Bible; that all of humankind is the same in God’s eyes. And it should be noted that the treatment of slaves in our own history runs counter to the rules set forth in the Old Testament.
So we have this situation where a young girl sees visions for the benefit of her owners. And she must be very good at it because those owners go after Paul and Silas for taking away their livelihood. Yet, according to the laws and customs of that time, Paul and Silas did nothing wrong and the corresponding court action is not about the welfare of the girl but rather the loss of income for the owners.
It does not say how she had the visions but, from the actions of Paul and Silas, we can presume that many would have felt that she was possessed by some sort of demon. Paul is not angry with the girl for following him and proclaiming the truth; Paul is angry that she is viewed as the source of truth (which leads me back to my original thoughts about how we seek and see the truth).
Because of how the young girl is described in the historical texts, there is an association with the Oracle of Delphi in terms of how the young girl in the story had her visions. As I said, she must have been good at what she did, because, why would the owners have taken action against Paul and Silas?
But did she tell the truth as it was to be or did she tell the truth as the listeners wanted to hear? Were her words of prophesy clear and distinct or clouded in mystery and ambiguity? Was she truly a prophet?
Prophets do not foretell the future; what they do is tell the truth as they see it. They point to the way things are, not the way people want things to be. They can warn of dangers ahead if things are not changed (we would call such people “whistle-blowers” today). They can and do point to what they think is wrong, unjust, or prejudiced. (Adapted from “The Age of Paradox” by Charles Handy) This was the way of the prophets of the Old Testament who spoke out against the actions of the people of Israel and the dangers that lie before the nation if it did not change its ways. For the most part, the people of Israel ignored the prophets until it was too late. The words of the prophets only made sense to the people after the fact, not before.
What a prophet cannot and should not do is tell the doers what to do. I get this sense that people came to this young girl so that they could be told exactly what to do. And that is a very dangerous thing.
There is a reference in the commentaries for the reading from Acts to the Oracle at Delphi. This was a shrine to the Greek god Apollo and apparently was built around the entrance to a cave. Those seeking answers would approach the priestess of the Oracle and pose their question.
She then would go into the cave and enter into some sort of hallucinogenic trace caused by ethylene and other hydrocarbon gases in the cave. In this state, she would utter some incomprehensible phrase that the petitioners would have to decipher.
Such a vision/prophecy occurred in 480 BCE. The Persians, under the command of Xerxes (who is mentioned in Ezra and Esther), had conquered and occupied 2/3 of Greece and were threatening Athens. As custom demanded, the leaders of Athens send a delegation to the Oracle at Delphi for instructions on what to do. They received the message, “the wooden wall will save you and your children.” But what did this mean?
To some, it meant building a wall around the city as a defensive measure. This was a logical conclusion. But it was a conclusion based on traditional thoughts. But others were pushed to see beyond the traditional logic. A static defense of the city may not work; after all, the Persian army had already shown its power in battle and it would have only been a matter of time before Athens fell to that military might.
For others, the answer to the Oracle’s pronouncement lie in the strengths that Athens already possessed, its navy. Lining up the ships of the Athenian navy side by side formed a wooden wall and, as history notes, the Athenians defeated the Persians in 479 BCE at the naval Battle of Salamis (http://www.ancient-greece.org/history/delphi.html and “A Whack On The Side Of the Head” by Roger van Oech).
The church today, whether we are talking about an individual church, a denomination, or in general, faces an uncertain future. The question is thus one of how shall we see the future? Should our vision of the future be framed in conventional and logical terms? Or is there an alternative view to seeing what lies ahead?
When John Wesley came to America almost two hundred seventy years ago, he came with a plan, logical in nature and clearly thought out. It was reflective of his life and methodology. But, as he crossed the Atlantic, the plan began to fall apart. The crossing of the Atlantic in the early 18th century was not an easy one and we know that John Wesley was sick during most of the trip.
His illness and discomfort were complicated by the fact that he could not find solace and comfort in God. Yet, there in front of him on that same ship were a group of Moravians enduring the same hardships yet singing hymns and praising God. The logical, methodical plan for salvation that Wesley had developed during his college days at Oxford was slowly beginning to fall apart.
We know that Wesley’s mission to America ended in abject failure and he brought a sense of failure with him when he returned from England. And this failure was not just felt by John Wesley. So affected by the failure of the American journey was Charles Wesley that he was literally on his death bed the night that John went to the chapel on Aldersgate Street.
It has been recorded that on that night when John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed and he received the Holy Spirit, Charles began a recovery from the illness or illnesses that had forced him to his death bed. And with the acceptance of the Holy Spirit came the assurance and the power needed to move forward and begin what has become known as the Methodist Revival.
Now, there is no logical explanation for this nor should we try to find one; because it cannot be explained in such terms. For me, the acceptance of Christ as one’s Savior and the acceptance of the Holy Spirit brings about a new consciousness, a new understanding of the world around us.
It is very difficult to understand this when we are constrained by the logical of common thought. We are constrained when the loudest voices today call Christ a myth and religion mere superstition. Those who do think that Christ may have existed two thousand years ago say that our scientific and technological enlightenment have removed the need for such beliefs.
For me, personally, it comes down to this. Two thousand years ago, something happened in Jerusalem. Whatever happened there so profoundly affected a group of people that they began to tell others. And in spite of persecution and unknown dangers, they took their message of what happened beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem and ancient Israel.
It wasn’t just the telling of the story that changed the lives of those who listened; it was seeing the changes that occurred in the lives of the people who told the story. The people of “The Way”, as the early Christian church was known, were a loving people, committed to the care of everyone, even those outside the group. And that had to change the minds and hearts of those who saw these changes.
Yes, in the period since those early days, when the church became officially sanctioned, there have been wars fought in the name of God and under the banner of Christ. There have been people and nations enslaved for the same reasons. But were these the actions of God or the actions of people who would have done so under the auspices of any other organization?
For every instance where God has been used as the justification for violence and hatred, there is an instance where people have been feed, people have been healed, and people have been freed from oppression and injustice.
Something inside me tells me that the movement that came out of Jerusalem, spread across the Mediterranean and around the world could not have survived these two thousand years unless there was some truth to it. We must offer a vision of that early church, not just in words but in action as well.
We must speak and act with the same love that Jesus Christ spoke of in His prayer that we read in the Gospel today. We must offer the evidence in actions and deeds as well as thoughts and words spoken.
In a world where truth is often sold, we are faced with a challenge. People are not willing to believe that the truth that will set them free comes without a price; that is freely given to all those who seek it. We need not explain what happens when one accepts Jesus Christ as one’s Savior; we merely have to live the life found in Christ so that people will see Christ in us.
So the offer is made this day, not to explain what we do but to live the life that we have proclaimed. For if we live the life that we have proclaimed then others will know that Christ is alive.
Our closing hymn this morning is “Shall We Gather at the River?” As we gather at the river, we are reminded of the people who came to hear John the Baptist call for repentance and renewal; to begin a new life. We are called to gather at the river and begin anew.