Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Gospel Interpreters Save Lives in All Languages

Acts 2: 1-12
I remember seeing on the door of one of the offices at St. Raphael’s a bumper sticker that said, “Medical Interpreters Save Lives in Other Languages”.  I wish I had that service a few years back when I was in Israel and I found myself in Shaare Zedek, ironically translated, the Gates of Righteous, Hospital.

A hospitalization of four days was not one of the experiences I had planned to have, but there I was in need of medical care and was zoomed off by Hasidic paramedics in an ambulance to the closest hospital.  I got the best of attention and the worst of food.  You see Israel is on the cutting edge of technological advances in medicine so I knew that I would get extraordinary care.  And I did.  And, the food was kosher and while I’ve had some delicious kosher food, this was not by any stroke of the imagination even recognizable. 

But the food was not the problem.  The problem was, everyone from housecleaning, to the technicians to the doctors were Hebrew speakers.  I am not, for all intents and purposes, even though I had studied the language in preparation.

I knew that I was in God’s hands when on the third day the cardiologist and a team of 10 other doctors and residents did rounds.  There I was in bed, hooked up to monitors, not quite sure what the next step was going to be save for a few short, broken English translated phrases about drips and medications.  I was surrounded for ten minutes with the team standing above me and unintelligible words swirling around my head.

While the empathetic patient in the bed next to me was able to translate a bit of important information like diagnosis and treatment, I was at God’s mercy and the hands of everyone else.  And when I was released they gave me some meds, a bill, which was nothing, I repeat, nothing compared to US medical healthcare costs, and a five page medical report, you guessed it, in Hebrew!  I needed an interpreter so that I could understand some vital information to my health.

It’s frustrating not being able to understand what is happening especially when you need essential information such as a medical diagnosis and your treatment options and plan.  I think that’s what God already knew that day when the disciples were gathered once again in that very familiar and safe upper room.  For what good is a plan particularly God’s plan if others can’t understand it?
The beginning of the Book of Acts is very a critical juncture for the disciples, and Jesus, and for the life of the early Christian community.  By now Jesus has ascended.  Their confidante, their rabbi, their beloved was gone and they would see him no more.  Before he left he makes a promise and then he gives them a charge. 

He promises that the Holy Spirit will come to the apostles; that they will receive power.  And he charges them to witness throughout Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria and in fact, to the farthest corners of the earth.  How the Holy Spirit comes to them and how they are to be witnesses is what we heard in today's scripture. 

You see they were hole up in that upper room in Jerusalem. Maybe they were sitting near or in the open windows just to catch a cool breeze after the hot blazing sun of the day. By now many of the pilgrims who had converged on Jerusalem for Passover had gone back home but many of them stayed and made Jerusalem their home.  It had been 50 long days since Jesus’ resurrection; the apostles were probably tired, probably sad and confused too.

Then, without warning, a great wind filled the house and what appeared to be flames lighted on their heads.  The Holy Spirit had taken control and when the Holy Spirit takes control…watch out!   They began to speak.  Each one of them had their own story to tell of how they had experienced Jesus, of how he had called them from their fishing nets or their almond groves, of how he helped them along the way. 

Each one of them could witness in whatever language needed to be heard that day in Jerusalem by all of the people around. They were not speaking in tongues, their witness was not gibberish or slurred, they were not some sorry drunkards from the farmlands of the Galil.  They spoke intelligible languages, it was Parthian, and Phyrigian, Hellenistic Greek and Aramaic, it was Cappadocian and Elamite however the people needed to hear the apostle’s stories, and they were given the ability to tell it.  And tell it they did.

So Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit and his charge to be witnesses came true on that Shavuot, that Pentecost day way back.  But there is one catch.  The apostles had to expose themselves; they had to leave that safe upper room haven. Had they stayed in that room how would we know those old, old stories?   If you stay inside this church how will others know about how God has impacted your life, how the grace of God has been gifted to you through Jesus Christ?  We each have our own authentic story to tell and we each have been given the ability, the voice, and the gift to tell it.  I cannot tell your story.  Your spouse, your neighbor cannot tell your story.  Only you can tell your story of salvation.

Remember last week when Chris Casella told his story of how God’s grace had impacted him while on the mission trip?  It was clear that what he did made a difference to his life, to the life of another person and to his God.  We should all be so moved to tell our story like Chris.  If you don’t think you have a voice, think again. 

Earlier when our scripture was read, we heard the same message but in different languages all at once.  What they read was a poignant passage from 1 Corinthians where Paul is encouraging the people at Corinth to use the gifts that they have been given to tell their story and to bear witness to the Gospel message, he says,
God's various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God's Spirit. God's various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God's Spirit. God's various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God [himself] is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people!          1 Corinthians 12: 4-7                  from  The Message by Eugene Peterson

All kinds of things to all kinds of people and everyone benefits.  That is the power of the Holy Spirit.  We are given gifts galore.

What is your story to tell and how can you tell it?  Well think for a minute.  How have you been picked up from the valley of depression?  How have you been cured from illness or have made it through the night at the bedside of a child or a spouse or a parent?  How has God helped you through cycles of addiction?  When did you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that you were completely and totally blessed?  When did you know that you are loved?  When has Christ shined the brightest for you?   These are our collective stories and interpreters are wanted to interpret the great good news of Jesus Christ.  Similar to the bumper sticker, “Medical Interpreter Save Lives in Other Language”, Gospel Interpreters Save Lives in All Languages!

If everyone on this planet stopped telling their story, their witness of Jesus amazing grace in their lives….if everyone stopped then the Gospel would die and that’s not how its supposed to be.  You have the power within you to carry that gospel on.

Those days in Shaare Zedek for me…well God’s healing power was with me in the quick actions of the Hasidic paramedic who assessed what I needed in the ride to the hospital.  God’s mercy was with me in the reassuring words of the patient next to me in that room when the doc’s couldn’t communicate with me.  God instilled within me a trust to believe that I would be taken care of and be healed.  God, through my belief in Jesus Christ, saved me that day and that is my story to tell you today.  I’ve got many more and I bet you do too.

Amen, may it be so.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Through Faith, For Faith

Romans 1: 1-17

There was a whole lot of chaotic news that crossed my news feed this week, how about yours?  I’m worn out from it.  We know now that the devastating earthquake in Nepal left over 6,000 people dead and 1,000’s more without water or shelter.  We also know that peaceful protests against police actions turned into violent riots by some down in Baltimore and that the death of Freddie Gray is considered a homicide at the hands of six police officers.  It seems that the world is a mess right now and there is probably another tragedy somewhere, someplace waiting to happen.

One might wonder, “God – with all due respect – what’s going on here?”

Let’s first have a look at our chosen passage today from the Narrative Lectionary before we try to figure that one out.    We have scibbled over from the Acts of the Apostles to Paul’s Epistle or letter to the Romans where we begin with our passage today.  Paul is on the move from the East to the West and had purposed to visit Rome continuing on to Spain. 

So he writes this letter to introduce himself and his understanding of Jesus and some of that really early doctrine but quite frankly, he too sees the world as a mess.  He felt he had to write to address some of the squabbles folks were having about this early Christianity.  Had the people just used the discernment and knowledge from God all would have been ok but no, humans are humans and so we make errors and rely on our own knowledge without prayerful consideration of what God wants.

We begin at the very beginning of Romans….
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish —hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

This quite a heady beginning to a letter, don’t you think?  Paul is never without words.  I do like Paul because he is one who stands on his convictions where the Gospel is concerned, he is a true believer in every sense of the word.  I don’t agree on all that he argues to be true, but you have to hand it to him, as most converts to the faith are, he is beyond passionate.  But geez!  Wordy, wordy, wordy.  Reading Paul is like talking out loud with marbles in your mouth.  So we have to take it slow.

This Epistle is not just a letter where he says, ‘hey Romans, what’s up?’  It’s a theological masterpiece.  He begins by telling the folks who he is and more importantly who God and Jesus Christ are. That’s the ticket for Paul.  All you have to do is put your faith there in God and Jesus Christ and every little thing’s gonna be alright, salvation will be yours. It’s been twenty years since Jesus died and not everyone has gotten the faith bug yet; that’s why he is so eager to share the gospel. 

He is not ashamed of the gospel.  That is his thesis for the letter and the solid foundation upon which Paul stands.  God’s righteousness or faithfulness in God’s commitments and in God’s relationships with us are real and are revealed through faith and for faith.  In other words, God keeps God’s promise, it is irrevocable.  Covenant promises to the Jews….still en effect!  Covenant promise of Jesus Christ to us….going strong!  As Mary C. Boyes asks in the title of her book, “Has God only one Blessing?”.  No!  God is not limited to blessing just Christians, or just whites, or just straight people, or just the rich.  God has blessed all and all people can be a part of the faith.
For us though it is about accepting that and trusting God to keep those promises even when it looks like God isn't doing so.  It is having faith "through the period of not seeing and not knowing." So what does this mean then in light of the events in Nepal and much closer to home Balitmore?  Faith is trusting that God will reveal Godself to us in these tragic situations.  And God has. 

In Nepal we know that God is present when a fifteen year old is pulled from the rubble or a tiny baby scantily clothed, layered in dust being held high as he was rescued.  Any signs of life found can be seen as God bring order out of chaos.

And what about Balimore?  What can possibly be said about Baltimore?  A child handing a police officer a bottle of water, now there is a sure sign of hope.  Residents cleaning up the debris from broken windows and boarding up windows of stores?  That’s hope too.

When we see and recognize these signs of hope we are living into our faith in a God who is solid, whose promises have been kept.  But honestly, it can’t stop there.  If we are to accept God’s part of the bargain then we need to own up to our part of the bargain.  We need to have a living faith that works towards a world that God, I believe, is looking for, one where each individual is valued for who they are, where love prevails, not hate and violence. 

How might that look given our own diverse political positions? This is what Jesus whole teaching on the kingdom of God is about.  About loving our neighbor and doing for our neighbor what we would do for God and for ourselves.  God is in the streets and ally ways of Baltimore and Nepal because God’s promises are true. Can we say the same for ourselves?

May the spirit of God be present in your hearts and minds today and may the thirst for justice be a tangible action in your understanding and zest for the Gospel.


To See and Be Seen

Acts 13: 1-3; 14:8-18

Last week the story we heard featured Cornelius and Peter.  It was full of bizarre visions that resulted in Peter coming to terms with the fact that God really does prefer a more diverse church than what Peter had thought.  God won.  Peter lost and Cornelius, a Gentile man, was inducted into the company of believers.  The first of his kind and we are the ones who are the recipients of God’s insistence for diversity.

This week we hear about Paul and Barnabas as we continue in the Book of Acts and the Narrative Lectionary. What we have here is a story of healing and then it turns into this chaotic, almost comedic encounter because this miracle of healing prompts a huge misunderstanding which requires just a little explanation.

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off…..
…. In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10 said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk. 11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. 14 When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15 “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; 17 yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” 18 Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.

A man who had never walked, who was without functioning feet all of his life gets up and walks.  In fact he just didn’t slowly get up, you know he didn’t take a moment to get his ‘sea legs’ going, he sprang up and began to walk with the ease of someone who has been walking all of his life.  A miracle!  Unbelievable!  It was such a phenomenon that the people all around started shouting.  The downside for Paul and Barnabas was that the people were shouting in a language that they flat out didn’t understand which left them scratching their heads.  I can only imagine the conversation after things quieted down.

“What just happened?” Paul asked.  “I dunno,” say Baranabas, “they thought we were gods.”  “HA!” says Paul, “they thought I was Hermes, and you Zeus.  Why even the priest brought some oxen and flowers to offer a sacrifice in our honor.  Unbelievable!” 

“But I think we did something wrong here.” Paul continues.  “Yeah, let’s review so we don’t make this same mistake again.” encourages Barnabas. 

“OK, when we got to Lystra (LIStra) I saw that man sitting by the side of the road, his legs were all withered.  Why he looked as though he had never walked.  I could see that he was listening to me though as I preached.  I could see that he had the faith to be healed.  So, without thinking I said, ‘stand up’ and he jumped up and walked around.  That’s when the crowds went nuts on us, shouting that we were gods from heaven.”

Barnabas thought for a minute, “Paul”, “that’s where it all started.  You healed this man before you finished explaining who Jesus was, plus you didn’t tell them that the healing was in the name of Jesus.”  “Barnabas, with all due respect, I didn’t have a chance.  They began shouting all at once, no one would have heard me.”

The people thought Paul was the healer, that he was a god so Paul and Barnabus tear their clothes in an old Jewish custom but the people wouldn’t have understood that.

Paul says, “Barnabas, we can’t let this happen again.  We have to learn from this mistake and hopefully others will learn too.  We just need to keep on sharing the good news of Jesus”. 

This passage has it all, healing, almost humorous outbursts, confusion and mistakes.  What I want to focus on is what precedes the healing.  The part about Paul “listening to him intently and seeing that he had faith” because I think that is where our learning will come from today in this passage.

I believe that our eyes are one of the most powerful tools that we have to express and make meaning with others.  It is often said that they eyes are the window to the soul.  Had Paul not seen this man, and, this man, through his eyes, had he not conveyed a look that exposed his faith and his heart, his healing may not have happened.  It took this beautiful relationship of seeing and being seen to initiate God’s marvelous wonder of healing.

Many years ago I was in southern India with a group from Greenfield Hill Congregational Church.  We traveled from Hyderabad way deep into the Khamam district, where the poorest of poor people live.  Being an real amateur photographer I desperately wanted to photograph the people.  The faces, the colors, the desperation, the incredible hope, I wanted to remember it all.

There were weathered old faces with cataracted eyes, and young faces with expectant hope streaming from their eyes.  But there were also blank stares from children who know the pain of child labor as rag pickers in the hot Indian sun.  And there were women who’s eyes showed distrust and resignation.  And yet, there were some whose eyes were so full of love that they twinkled.

I wanted to photograph them all but I had an internal, ethical dilemma brewing inside of me.  I felt as if I was exploiting them rather than earnestly recording the journey of their lives that their faces told and their eyes exposed.

I spoke with Alida, one of the pastors, about this and she said, “I felt the same way the first time I came here but then I realized that they want to have their photos taken.  They want to be remembered, they want to know that someone sees them, that they are noticed, that they are cared about.” 

Isn’t that what we all want?  To be seen and noticed, to be acknowledged for who we are, beloved children of the one God?  The visual exchange between Paul and the man conveyed so much, but mostly it conveyed the love and healing power of God.  Because without this eye to eye connection, and the willingness on both men to be open and vulnerable to each others needs, healing and wholeness wouldn’t have happened.

And that’s what it takes.  Openness and vulnerability.  When you look intently, like Paul, into someone’s eyes you are open to the possibility of relationship and you, yourself become vulnerable in the seeing.  But that is ok, that’s when the spirit of God breaks through so you can really see the other person in front of you.

Brother Curtis Alhmquist from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge says, “Seeing people with new eyes is a restoration of innocence that Christ promises. People whom we may otherwise find irritating, or offensive, or disappointing - they are a child of God, whom God adores and whom God shares with you. That will dawn on you.”[i]  God shares other with you simply with a glance, if you take that opportunity.

Have you seen the person sitting next to you?  Have you looked deeply into their eyes to understand them, their pain, their joy, maybe their apathy or their interests?  What about those whom we call the other?  What might you see in their eyes and what, might they see in yours?  Acceptance?  Resistance?  Or those who just outright irritate us, can you look at them?  Maybe the larger question is do you take time to look? Looking into someone’s eyes can give us an understanding of ourselves if we are open to it.

Paul certainly did and he found someone in need.  He recognized that there was faith and hope in this man’s heart.  He found this man that God shared with him at the very moment was in need of healing, as we all are.  As Paul was in that moment too.

May our eyes be blessed in their seeing this week with each person in whom we encounter.


[i] Brother Curtis Alhmquiest, ‘Brother, Give Us a Word’, April 25, 2015 daily entry.  Cambridge, MA.