Sunday, September 25, 2011

" By What Authority?"

Matthew 21: 23-32  
Sunday, September 25, 2011
Ordinary Time – Season of Creation  
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

I went to bed Wednesday night hoping for a miracle. Troy Davis, a prisoner on death row in Georgia, had been scheduled to be executed at 7:00pm on Wednesday, but due to last-minute Supreme Court deliberations, he was still alive when I went to bed around 10:00pm.


In case you missed the news this week, let me give you a brief re-cap. Troy Davis has been on death row in Georgia since 1989. He was convicted of killing an off-duty cop. Since his conviction – which happened with no DNA evidence and no physical evidence tied to a weapon – seven of the nine witnesses have recanted their testimony. Do we know for a fact that he’s innocent? No, we don’t. But is there a reasonable doubt? Absolutely.


When I woke on Thursday morning, I called David, who had already left for work and said, “What happened?” He said, “There was no stay. They executed him.”


Quite literally, the only thing that kept me from bursting into tears was the fact that my son was clamoring at my feet, begging to be picked up. I hung up the phone, wiped away the tears forming in my eyes and resolved not to cry until after M went to school. After all, how could I explain to a one-year-old the reality that our society pays people to inject poison into other people’s veins and kill them? And that this is completely legal and sanctioned by our government?


As I got M ready for school, the same thought just kept coming into my head over and over again – Troy Davis was like this once-upon-a-time.


I don’t know much about his upbringing, but I know he had family that loved him. I know that his mama must have made him breakfast, changed his diaper, laughed at his funny faces, kissed his boo-boos.


I just kept thinking – Dear God in heaven, what if this were to happen to my son one day?


Now, to be sure, the chances of this happening to M are slim. There is one huge difference between M and Troy. M is white and Troy was black. And in this country, that matters. According to the 2010 census, 13% of us are African American and 72% of us are white.
[1] But of those folks currently on death row in this country, 42% are black and 44% are white. And of the people we as a nation have executed thus far, 35% have been black and 56% white.[2]

Race matters.


Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t be executed by the state if you’re white. In fact, another high-profile execution took place on Wednesday. White supremacist Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed on that same evening in Texas. He was convicted of dragging a fellow child of God, James Byrd, Jr. to death in Jasper, Texas in 1998.
[3]

There were no last-minute pleas for Brewer’s life. Unlike Troy Davis, he did not claim his innocence while being prepared for execution. He did not offer forgiveness to his killers as they prepared the syringes that would take his life.


For those who support the death penalty, this was a clear-cut case – Brewer was a man who committed an absolute atrocity against Byrd and against all of humanity. He was unrepentant.
[4] He was, in many people’s minds, unforgivable. In all honesty, when I recall his crime, my stomach turns and I have an incredibly difficult time remembering that God loves men like Lawrence Brewer.

But there was one line in the New York Times article I read about Brewer’s execution that snapped me back to reality. The article noted that Brewer’s parents were there at his execution, as was his sister. They watched him through the glass window as a tear slipped down his cheek and he closed his eyes for the final time.


Brewer, like Davis – like all of us – was loved. He was a child who ran through his house causing mischief and inspiring laughter. He was held and rocked and soothed. His parents had dreams for him. Regardless of what a child does or does not do with his life, no parent should have to stand by, helpless, while their government coldly kills their child and calls it justice.


And as hard as it is to believe, Brewer, just like Davis – just like you and me – was loved and is loved by God.


Did God weep and mourn when Brewer took another man’s life? Absolutely. I would even go as far as saying that God watched with great anger and disgust. But you can be angry with someone and still love them. Their actions can disgust you and you might still hold out hope that they will one day walk a better path.


God loved both of these men deeply. God had dreams for what their lives would be. God was with them when they died and God is with them now.


*******


By what authority do we, as a society, claim the right to execute another child of God? Where is it written that it is okay for us to punish murder with murder?

Well, if you’ve read much of the Bible, you know it actually says it a bunch of times in the Bible.


There are tons of references to capital punishment in the Hebrew Scriptures – none of them making a big deal out of it. Of course, in the Christian Scriptures, things are more complicated. You might even recall Jesus mentioning that it’s not okay to take an eye for an eye; that we are supposed to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us; and that only those of us without sin can judge others.
[5]

Jesus got in trouble for talking like this. His expansive ethic of love was not immensely popular at the time. In fact, it got him killed.


People who lived alongside Jesus often found themselves wondering, “Just where does this guy come from? How does he say all this stuff like it’s okay to just say it?!?”


In today’s story from Matthew, we see one of these encounters in great detail. Jesus was teaching in the temple in Jerusalem and the chief priests and other religious leaders came upon him. Irked that he was standing up just saying stuff like he had every right to be there, they approached him and asked, “Hey, who gave you the authority to teach here?”


Let’s pause for a moment and get our characters straight.


These chief priests were members of the Jewish elite in Jerusalem. They were not known for being the most upstanding guys. Maybe they had initially gotten into the priesthood with good intentions, but most had long-since been corrupted by power.


They were in the back pocket of the Roman occupiers – for example, the high priest had to actually get a key from the Roman governor so he could get his vestments out of a locked room before visiting the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.
[6]

The folks challenging Jesus in this story were not, “the Jews.” Not all Jews had a problem with Jesus. We know some Jews were really into Jesus or they wouldn’t have been gathered in the temple to hear him speak.


I can imagine these chief priests were curious about Jesus’ authority because they felt threatened.


Their God-given authority as priests had long-ago been corrupted by the state-sanctioned authority given to them by their occupiers. Here was a young man who spoke of God, claiming God’s authority. Of course they were annoyed by him.


The way Jesus responds to their challenge is beautiful. Rather than just saying, “God gave me this authority” he actively claims authority through his actions.


He responds to their question with a question. Far from being cavalier or avoiding their challenge, this was actually a way of answering the question without answering it directly. Answering a question with a question was a very rabbinical thing to do. By playing the role of rabbi to the other religious leaders, he made it clear that his authority was from God – whether or not they chose to recognize that authority.


And the chief priests respond in a way that shows they have pretty much lost their God-given authority. Once called to speak truth on behalf of God’s people, they have learned the art of pandering to the powers that be and you can see it in their answer. Or should I say, non-answer?


They hem and haw and think about all the possibilities each answer to Jesus’ question would hold. They are trapped in a situation where neither answer is beneficial to them.


If they say that God gave John his authority, they will be in trouble because they weren’t fans of John when he was alive. If they say John was just popular with the people, they will make the crowd angry because many of them loved John.


So they choose not to answer. And Jesus chooses not to answer their initial question….except it’s clear to everyone present who had the upper hand in this little power-struggle.

********


Authority is a tricky little word.

Authority and power are often used interchangeably, but there are differences.


Authority conveys a sense of legitimacy. When the religious leaders ask Jesus by what authority he is teaching, they are not questioning whether or not he is able to teach. They are questioning whether or not he has the right to teach – whether or not he is allowed to do so.


Power, on the other hand, is the ability to get things done. The very fact that Jesus was standing there, in the temple, with people gathered around him listening showed that he had power. He had the power to make people listen. If he hadn’t had power, the chief priests wouldn’t have cared about his authority.


Those who do the work of grass-roots advocacy talk a lot about power. If you want to learn about power, go read some Saul Alinsky. One of his more famous quotes is that power isn’t about what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.


Power is about getting things done. And in a world that is rife with injustice, power is crucial. We need good people who have power to work on behalf of God’s dreams for the world.


But I would also caution us to always remember this tricky concept of authority. Legitimacy. Authorization. You might even say it’s a calling.


As Christians, our authority comes from God.


I’m not going to lie – I get scared even saying that out loud because Christians have caused so much trouble through the millennia by claiming to speak and act on behalf of God.

 

But I do believe it is true. We are given authority by God to act as beacons of hope in the world.

We are called, like Jesus, to take a hard look at the practices of our governments and our religions and hold them up to the plumb line. We are called to speak up on behalf of those who are being oppressed. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us because we are anointed to bring good news to the poor, to set the captives free, to help the blind see, to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim God’s realm right here and now.


Perhaps more than anything else, we are given authority to love. If God is love and God so loved the world to send Jesus Christ as an example for all of us….and if Jesus Christ loved even unto death and beyond…then how could we be called to do anything but continue to unleash that love into a hurting world day after day after day?


If someone asks us, “where did you get that authority to love?” I hope we will respond with a warm embrace and words of peace and kindness.


If I ever find myself in a place where I’m supposed to spit on a fellow human, tell them they’re unworthy, or chastise them for the things they’ve done, I hope I will find the strength to love them instead. I hope I will offer my hand in fellowship and if anyone asks me how I could love a person who is so despicable, I hope you will be there with me, reminding me that it is on God’s authority that we love.


Nobody ever said this following Christ thing was easy. The only way I can figure out how to do it is to walk alongside you and hope that you will encourage me along.


If we can somehow find a way to hold each other in times of difficult decisions…if we can promise to love each other even through controversial issues…if we can quietly and firmly remind each other that we, the Church, are given authority to be God’s agents of love in this world….if we can do those things together, I think we can make it work.


We will find in each other, the strength to do the hard things. And when we do, we can rest for a moment and just breathe, saying, “Thanks be to God.”



[1]
http://2010.census.gov/2010census/data/


[2]
http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/race-death-row-inmates-executed-1976


[3]
http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2011/09/21/us/AP-US-Texas-Execution-Dragging-Death.html?_r=1


[4]
http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.thenation.com%2Fblog%2F163536%2Fother-execution-tonight%25E2%2580%2594-man-who-dragged-james-byrd-jr-his-death&h=YAQAVFYhwAQB2XW1w414z7CiVIi5II5h0tX59Fsmum5_3yQ


[5]
Matthew 5, Matthew 7, and John 8.


[6]
Preaching the Gospels Without Blaming the Jews. Allen and Williamson, page 74.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

“Al-Ghafur: A Sermon for the 10th Anniversary of September 11th"


Matthew 18: 21-35
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Ordinary Time – Season of Creation
FirstUnited Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

I wasn’t planning on preaching a sermon about September 11th today.

Well, to be more accurate – I was and then I wasn’t. If you had asked me a few months ago, I would have told you, sure, yes, a preacher should address September 11th in some way on the 10th anniversary. It has been a formative event in our shared lives. It needs to be addressed from the pulpit.

But as the anniversary crept closer and the stories in the media started coming and coming….I just started to feel overwhelmed. Stories of bravery. Stories of tragedy. Stories of political fallout. Stories of the mundane everydayness of “where were you when the towers fell?” And on and on.

I started to wonder: by the time we get to the actual anniversary, will anyone care? Or will we all just be so inundated by the coverage that we’ll want to think about something else?

But somewhere on the way to the sermon, I remembered something. I remembered that we don’t come to worship to hear human interest stories. Or to have our intellect stoked by thought-provoking statistics.

We come to worship to be transformed by the Gospel.

And so I want to tell you a story from the Gospel of Matthew. If you’re anything like me, you’ve heard the preamble to this parable a million times….Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? Seven times?” And Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

The parable, on the other hand, is not one I’ve heard so many times. Historically, we’ve referred to it as “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” but I prefer to think of it as “The Parable of The Guy Who Never Should Have Been Forgiven But Was.”

Here’s how it went down: There was a ruler who had a whole slew of people working for her. Let’s imagine, perhaps, that this ruler was the CEO of some Fortune 500 company.


The CEO is a nice lady, so she tends to help her employees out where she can. One of her employees – I’m going to call him Bob – had a habit of always needing something. Over the years, he came to rack up quite the debt with his boss.

One day, the boss decides that she needs to get some of her money back from her employees. When she started looking at her books, she realizes that Bob owes her approximately 10 kajilliony-jillion dollars. An astronomical sum. There’s no way Bob (or anyone else, probably including the CEO) has ever even seen this much money.

So she says to Bob, “Pay up.” And Bob, of course, says, “I don’t have it.”

So the CEO says to Bob, “Well, I don’t know what else to do. I’m going to have to fire you and you’ll be on your own.”

And Bob says, “But if you do that, how will I ever find another job in this economy? You know my wife is very ill and we won’t have health insurance. And my twins just started college. If you fire me, we will be ruined. Let me stay and I’ll work hard. I promise.”

And the CEO, having a warm heart, reconsiders. She allows Bob to keep his job, and she even forgives his debt. Wipes the slate clean.

And Bob leaves the CEO’s office with a new spring in his step. Feeling confident, he goes to the cubicle of one of his subordinates, Sally. He grabs her roughly by the elbow and says, “Look here, Sally. I’m tired of you scamming off me. I want the $10 that you owe me from lunch last week.”

And Sally says, “I don’t have it. I’m so sorry. Please let go of my arm. It hurts. I’ll bring the money tomorrow.”

Bob says, “No. I don’t care. I’m sick of your lies. Get out. Pack a box. This is your last day.”

His coworkers, looking on, stare with disbelief. The run to tell the CEO because they know that she would be horrified if she knew something like this was happening on her watch. Enraged, the CEO calls Bob back into her office and lets loose. “What on earth are you thinking? How can you sit here and beg me to forgive your debt and then turn right around and treat Sally that way? I treated you with kindness, and this is how you repay me? Get out. I mean it this time. I’m done with you.”

*******

Now, if you were going to write a sermon for September 11th based on this text, it would kind of seem like a no-brainer, right? The boss in the story is clearly God. The reason Jesus tells this parable is to illustrate to his hearers that God requires forgiveness.

The Kingdom of Heaven is a place where we can owe huge debts, make big mistakes, and still be forgiven. Apply that to a nation’s remembrance of a terrible Tuesday morning where innocent people were slaughtered by outsiders using instruments of everydayness as instruments of terror and you’ve got it wrapped up: we are called to forgive.

So let’s forgive those who have done these atrocities. Let’s move on, practice God’s grace and be a model for the rest of the nation as they continue to struggle with the allure of hatred and vengeance.

And you could preach a sermon like that. I don’t think you’d be wrong. And I don’t think it’s even as easy as I’m making it sound. Because in many pulpits in this nation, there are preachers who are standing up in front of people who lost their daughters, their sons, their best friends, their partners. Asking those people to forgive is not an easy thing to ask.

********

But here’s what happened as I was pondering forgiveness this week. I was reading about this Matthew text in one of my favorite little commentaries – The Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Sounds thrilling, right? This series of books does an astounding job of breaking apart the social mores and fabric of the Biblical world, so I consult it every time I preach.

And what I found this week was this description of forgiveness of sins:
“In the Gospels, the closest analogy for the forgiveness of sins in the forgiveness of debts. Debt threatened loss of land, livelihood, and family. It made persons poor, that is, unable to maintain their social position. Forgiveness thus would have had the character of restoration, a return to both self-sufficiency and one’s place in the community.”

Debt is debt because it endangers our livelihood. It makes us fearful for our families. It puts us on the defensive. When we are in debt, we are poor. We are unable to be the people we once were. We suffer.

When we seek forgiveness of debt, what we are really seeking is a return to the “good ole days.” A return to prosperity. A return to the time when we were a part of the wider community. When we knew our place and our place was one of dignity and respect.

When I started to think about debt in these terms, I suddenly came to a realization.

We are all – we Christians and we Muslims, we U.S. Americans and we foreigners, we white folks and we brown folks, we liberals and we conservatives – we are all indebted to each other. The legacy of September 11th is a tortured dance of deceit and shame, fear and loathing, attack and counter attack.

As we remember the events of ten years ago, we are called to forgive, yes. And that alone would be hard enough for most people.

But I would also submit to you that we are called to beg for forgiveness.

When presented with an opportunity for humility, an opportunity to turn the other cheek and respond with lovingkindness, we as a people did not do so. When presented with an opportunity to look seriously at our shortcomings as players on the global stage and reconsider our historic methods of coercion, we as a people did not do so.

Instead, we have spent the better part of ten years responding from a place of fear and intolerance. We have waged wars that have not made us safer. We have said things that cannot be unsaid.

In short, we have dug ourselves further and further into debt. We have shamed ourselves.

I don’t know about you, but my tendency is to think, “Not me. I don’t support those wars. I have a great deal of respect for Islam. I don’t condone our fear-based behavior.”

And yet – what have I done to demand accountability for my nation’s actions? Not much.

Sure, I’ve honked my horn in support when I drive past the war protestors that still gather each Wednesday at the corner of Kirkwood and Walnut. But my tax dollars still fund a response based in fear and aggression.

I have not done all I can to engage my neighbors who disagree with me on how we should shape our response. When I see a bumper sticker that espouses hatred against followers of Islam, I shake my head in disgust. But I’ve never once sought out the owner of the vehicle to engage them in a conversation about their views.

We are all – all of us – in debt up to our eyeballs on this one.



If debt means losing your place in the world. If debt means putting yourself in a situation where you and your family are at risk. If debt means being shamed…well, then, that’s all of us.

There have been no real winners as a result of September 11, 2001.

And yet, ten years in, I hold out hope that forgiveness is possible.

If forgiveness means a reconciliation – a return to community, a return to a place where we can all respect ourselves and respect each other – if that is forgiveness, then we can all hold out hope that it will come.

I know this because Jesus tells us that we worship a God who forgives a debt of 10 kajilliony-jillion dollars for no good reason. No good reason except that it is the very nature of God to do so.

To be God is to be Pure Goodness, Lovingkindness, Mercy of All Mercies. To be God is to forgive.

And even in this age of uncertainty, there are still many billions of us the world over who are seeking to walk in the ways of the Holy One. We may call God by different names, but all of the world’s major religious confess that forgiveness is the very nature of God.

In the Qu’ran, God is referred to as Al-Ghafur, “The All-Forgiving One.”

I am holding out hope against all hope that those who worship Allah will find within themselves the strength to emulate the spirit of Al-Ghafur.

Though our sins of the past decade are great, I take solace in knowing that some of those we have sinned against worship one called Al-Ghafur, “The All-Forgiving One.”

I continue to hope that we will be forgiven and that we will find the courage to forgive.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

“In God We Live”


Acts 17: 22-28 and Exodus 12: 1-3, 11-4
Sunday, September 4, 2011
Ordinary Time – Season of Creation
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Last week, I took a day and went on retreat at Waycross Camp out in Brown County. If you haven’t been to this Episcopal retreat center just 20 miles from here, you should really go sometime. They have a variety of lovely overnight accommodations, lounge and study areas, and a delicious food service. Of course, being in Brown County, none of those things are the highlight of Waycross. The main reason you go there is to explore the grounds. Acres and acres of opportunity to convene with God in nature.

There is a labyrinth. There is an outdoor chapel area. There are easy paths for wandering and a couple of lakes and creeks. And there are hiking trails galore.

I’ve been to Waycross many times in the six years I’ve lived in Bloomington, but never had a chance to explore the trails until last week. The staff at Waycross makes it so easy to get out there! There are easy-to-follow trail maps, bug spray, backpacks and water bottles to borrow. I had no excuses left so I hit the trails for a few hours.

One thing I’ve noticed about Waycross is that someone is always mowing. I mean always. Every single time I’ve been there. Last week was no different.

As I started up the steep hill on the far side of the creek bed, I was distracted by the sound of the mower in the distance. As I climbed higher and higher, the sound receded, and – suddenly – I noticed I couldn’t hear it any more. I couldn’t hear any of the sounds I am accustomed to hearing in every day life. No toddler babbling or playing with electronic toys. No hum of a refrigerator or washing machine. No cell phones ringing. No cars zooming past.

One thing that did seem to get a little louder was the chattering inside my head. You know, that voice that never shuts up? The one that’s constantly telling you about all the things you need to be doing or should have done? Or maybe it’s only me that has that voice.

I started to hear sounds I’m not used to noticing. Birds chirping. Crickets cricketing. Leaves and small sticks crunching. As the hill got steeper I found myself searching for a good walking stick and was exceedingly grateful when I found one. My breathing became labored and as I began to pay attention to the sound of my breath among all the forest sounds I noticed that the running-on voices in my head started to slow and dissipate a bit.

In short, I started to notice my place in the world.

In all honesty, I walk around most days at the center of my own universe. Sure, I think I’m fairly courteous of other’s needs. I don’t typically cut people off in traffic. I open doors for people. I smile at strangers. But the voices in my head are usually talking about me. My life. My needs. My feelings. My shortcomings. Me.

I need to wake up sometimes. I need to put myself in a place that’s unusual so I can be smacked upside the head and realize it’s actually not all about me. I am just one small soul in a whole giant world. And this whole giant world is pulsing and moving with holiness.

This whole giant world – birds and sticks and running water and chirping crickets and even worn out, panting pregnant hikers – this whole giant world bears testimony to the beauty of God.

********

Paul’s speech to the Athenians in Acts is a thing of beauty. In a few short sentences, he manages to succinctly explain to a group of skeptics why they should listen to anything he’s got to say about his foreign God. And one of the ways he does this is by quoting one of their own philosophers, Epimenides – “In God we live and move and have our being.”

Huh. I always thought Paul said that. I guess Epimenides said it about 700 years before he did. Regardless, it seems like a pretty solid statement to me.

God is at the center. God is the one in whole we live. God is the one in whom all of our movements take place. God is the one who makes it possible for us to be. Nothing happens outside of God. Not one single thing.

Of course, the trick is remembering this. I honestly don’t think the reality of God’s centrality ever changes. I think the thing that varies from person to person, culture to culture, and time to time is our awareness of this fact.

Sometimes it takes getting out there in the middle of nowhere – heart pounding, breath panting, birds singing – to be reminded of this fact. Sometimes we are reminded by a sudden catch in our belly when something terrible happens to a loved one. Sometimes it’s a smile from a stranger, a glance from a lover, a sloppy kiss from a child.

We are reminded in different ways, but we are reminded all the same.

********

One of the ways religious people force themselves to remember is by creating rituals. At the Jewish preschool just down the street from here, the kids bake challah bread and gather together to welcome the Sabbath on Fridays.

They sing songs about Shabbat. They recite the prayers in Hebrew. They share the bread and juice. In short, they take a few moments each week to pause and remember who they are and whose they are. They take time to remember that it is God in whom they live and move and have their being.

I have to say, one of many lovely things we Christians inherited from our Jewish forbearers was the commandment to remember.

In the passage from Exodus today, we see God’s intricate instructions for the first Passover meal. There is no way to gloss over the stark fact that the Passover feast initially celebrated the wrath of an angry God against some very helpless people. This is not God at her best, in my humble opinion.

Of course, what you think of God is often a matter of perspective. And if you were a member of the Hebrew community – if you were counting on a very powerful God to swoop down from on high and save your people – well, then, I can certainly see why God’s decision to kill your enemies would be good news. I don’t begrudge these enslaved people their right to celebrate this story.

And, for an oppressed people, it was good news. And for many groups of oppressed people since the stories of Moses were first set down, it has continued to be good news.

The Moses story is one of many stories in our scriptures that remind us of the centrality of God. It reminds us that – no matter whether we remember it or not – God is always present. God is in and around us at all times. God does not leave us or forsake us. God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

And the Jews, over the centuries, have remembered this story well. To this day, the story of Passover is celebrated by those who find meaning in the faith of Judaism. Passover is arguably the most celebrated of the Jewish holy days. Even Jews who are mostly secular often still celebrate the Passover feast. I would say it’s akin to the way those folks who are “culturally Christian” still remember who Jesus is at Christmastime.

But the Jews, I think, do a better job of telling their story when they gather to celebrate the story of Passover. Many Christians who gather around a Christmas tree to unwrap gifts seem to have forgotten the reason for the holiday. But Jews who celebrate Passover have no choice but to remember the story of the Exodus. The telling of that story is an integral part of the celebration.

One of the things I love about Passover is that children play an integral role.

It is the job of the children to do what they do best: ask questions. The first question is “why is this night different than all other nights?” The adults answer their questions, and, in doing so, gently remind them who they are and whose they are. The purpose of Passover is to remember that it is always God in whom we live and move and have our being. There is nothing outside of God. God is central to who we are.

Of course, we Christians have strengths in this area, too! We gather together weekly to celebrate the centrality of God in our lives. We share our sacred stories. We sing songs of celebration and remembrance. And we gather together at the Table of Christ to remember Jesus’s final meal with his own disciples – which, of course was the Passover meal.

Jesus gathered with his friends and loved ones during a time of bitter crisis.

Someone present there must have asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” And stories were shared about the God that they loved. Stories were shared around that table which helped a group of very needy people remember who they were and whose they were. Stories were shared that helped them remember that it is God in whom they live and move and have their being.

Two thousand years later, we are all – Jews and Christians – still gathering at the Passover feast to remember who we are and who God is. We are still hunkering down with each other in moments of silence and awe to share words of encouragement and hope. We still have needs and we still find that Paul’s borrowed words center us and give us hope.

Of course, the purpose of gathering together to be reminded that God is central is not just so we can feel all warm and fuzzy and re-emerge energized to enjoy the rest of our day.

The purpose of this time of renewal is to give us strength for the work we must do in the world. The House of Israel was blessed so that they might be a blessing to all other nations. As they gathered with Jesus for the Passover feast, disciples of Christ surely recalled those times where they had broken a small amount of bread and used it to feed many thousands of hungry people.

We come together to be reminded so we can go out from this place and remind others.

I know, I know, this is where it starts to sound scary, right? You might be feeling squirmy now – wondering if this preacher is going to tell you that God wants you to do some evangelism or some crazy stuff like that.

The answer is yes. Absolutely. We are absolutely called to be evangelists. We are called to share the good news about God that we have found through Christ.

We are not all called to do it in the same way, thank heavens. I can promise you that my style is not to visit spring break hot spots handing out scary repent-or-go-to-hell booklets to scantily clad college students. And, quite honestly, I don’t believe God is calling you to do that either. I think God is fairly weary of Christians telling everyone we’re better than they are. I think God is pretty exhausted by watching some Christians resort to scare tactics to get people to pay attention to the goodness of God.

God doesn’t want us to scare people into finding religion. In fact, if you look at what Paul does with the folks in Athens, that’s not what he does there.

Paul simply meets a group of people who have spiritual needs where they are. He speaks to them in words they can understand about the God he has come to know. He reminds them that God is central – whether they remember it or not. He invites them to explore with him what it might mean to recall that they are living and moving within this God.

Paul does this because he has found that remembering who he is and whose he is adds meaning to his life. He has discovered a community of people who take the time to remind him of the centrality of God – and living within this community has made him a better person. Stronger, more loving, more fully aware of the holy beauty of each passing moment on earth.

I truly believe God wishes this for each of us.

God hopes that we will find a faith system that helps us make meaning of our place in the world. God hopes that we will find a community of people that support us on this journey. God wants us to be reminded – daily – that he is absolutely central to each and every moment of our lives.

And, when we find that, God wants us to share it with others.