Prayfaithfully: The Resurrection and the Outcasts – Part 6

It takes Peter and the other apostles a while to truly understand the breadth and scope of God’s saving grace.

“Prayfaithfully” is the prayer ministry website of the Northern Great Lakes Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I wrote the Daily Devotions for this week.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Text: Acts 10: 34-48

“Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”’

“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.”

Again we return to Peter, that lovable/hate-able, bumbling fool who experiences the power of the Holy Spirit and becomes one of the most influential leaders of the church.

Here, he has been sent to the family of a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who is said to be “a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” Cornelius, being a Roman, is obviously not a Judean. He’s a Gentile, specifically not of God’s chosen people. After receiving a vision from God, he sends for Peter to come and visit him.

Peter, meanwhile, has his own vision, a vision of ritually unclean animals he’s commanded to eat. Peter, acting as a proper Judean for maybe the only time in the Bible, politely refuses. The Law says hes’ not allowed to eat those, so he won’t. In response, a voice from heaven commands, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” After visiting with Cornelius, hearing about him and his family and their visions, Peter launches into this speech, when he finally realizes that the good news of the risen Christ is indeed also for the Gentiles, the “unclean”, the outsiders. And just like with Philip in the Ethiopian eunuch, he finds nothing preventing them from being baptized and receiving the full grace of God. In fact, God seems so in a rush to get Peter to welcome these outsiders, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit before they’re baptized! God is impatient when it comes to dolling out grace…

It takes Peter and the other apostles a while to truly understand the breadth and scope of God’s saving grace. Poor Peter has to be lit on fire, give speeches, and have visions before he gets it. Accepting those on the outside doesn’t come easily when one spends their entire life reinforcing the separation between the in-group and the out-group. But the way I see it, if even Peter can come to this realization, then with God, nothing is impossible!

Let us pray: Impatient God, you delighted in revealing to Peter your intentions for all people, Judean and Gentile, in-crowd and out-crowd. Delight in us as well, revealing to us the breaking down of the barriers that separate us. Come quickly Lord Jesus! In the name of your Son we pray. Amen.

Featured Image: “Evelyn’s Baptism” by Robert Bejil is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

What’s in a Name?

Baptism is more than “just” a washing away of sin. It’s more than just a means of grace, through which God brings us wholeness, fullness of life, and forgiveness, if “just” is a word that could be used to describe all of those things.

Baptism of Our Lord A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Before I was born, my parents, as most parents do, needed to figure out what my name was to be. If I was a girl, they were going to name me Dana, I think. If I was a boy? Well, they had different ideas.

My father proposed that name would be—and I kid you not—Virgil Wyatt Ranos. Anyone have a guess about where those names came from?

That’s right, these guys.

According to popular legend, when he suggested this to my mother, she laughed in his face.

Instead, I was named Kenneth George. It follows naming conventions that are still popular in our culture. Kenneth is a name I share with my mother’s twin brother, Kenneth Pearson (it also happens to mean “handsome”, so I consider myself to have been very appropriately named). And George is the name of my father and my great-grandfather.

My sister was born without a name while my father thought of the perfect name (since my mother got to name me). And though she is named Sheri, after no one in particular, she bears my mother’s name, Lynn, as her middle name.

Picking a name is hard. We experienced this difficulty in a heart-wrenching way when we decided to choose a name for the baby we lost in August. Because we didn’t know our baby’s biological sex or gender, we decided on a gender-neutral name, Taylor, so that whoever our baby was going to be—male, female, man, woman, transgender, cisgender, intersex, their name would fit.

In some cultures, it’s important that names fit their bearers. In many Native American cultures, a person’s name changes over the years; they adopt new names as they grow, becoming new people, either replacing their old names or adding the new ones. Some cultures are keenly aware of the meanings of the names they give to their children; parents who name their daughter “Joy” after waiting so long to meet her, for example. Old Hawaiians deliberated carefully about a new child’s name, because the meaning of the name had power.

Even Jesus’s name was important, powerful. His name, coming down to us through multiple translations and transliterations, “Yeshua”, is the same name from which we get Joshua, and means “he saves”, or “God delivers”. When Mary was visited by the archangel Gabriel, she was told specifically to name her child “Yeshua” because “he will save his people from their sins.” Even before he was born, Jesus was named to describe who he is, and to remind people of why God came to earth in the first place.

When he is baptized by John in the Jordan River, he is given a new “name”, a new title: “Beloved.” He is called “Messiah” or “Christ”, the same word just in different languages, which means “anointed”, chosen by God for a specific mission. All his life, Jesus lived into his name and titles, even to going to a cross to die, God’s love given form and then sacrificed in the court of public opinion.

We live in an age when, more than ever, we bear a multitude of names and titles. You’ve already heard about how I received my three names. But I could also describe myself with any number of labels and titles. I am an ordained minister, a minister of Word and Sacrament, a pastor, a white, cisgender man, a Chicago-native, Wisconsonite, GNU/Linux user, dog-lover, Blackhawks fan, Trekkie, Browncoat, Potterhead, activist, loyalist, INFJ, husband, son, brother, cousin, uncle, nephew, grandson, and others I can’t even remember.

All of these, in some way, describe who I am. They identify parts of my personality and my life and together, paint a broad picture of my identify.

But there’s one name/title that stands above all others, and that is: baptized.

There was a recent discussion among clergy my age asking the question: how would you respond to the question, “Why is baptism necessary?” The church has spent hundreds of years explaining, in great detail, using a variety of theological sources, why baptism is so important. Martin Luther devoted sections of his Small and Large Catechism to the subject. He asks, “What gifts or benefits does baptism bring?” and answers: “It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.” He quotes Matthew, Mark, and John to make his case, explaining that the power of baptism has nothing to do with the water itself and everything to do with the faith and trust in God that brings even us to the font.

But there’s something missing in all of this talk about baptism, and it’s the climax of our Gospel story this morning. Jesus is baptized, the heavens are opened up, and the spirit of God descends on Jesus like a dove landing on a branch. And a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

When we were baptized, we were often given a white garment, a mark of our new identity. A candle is given, a light to signify the new light of Christ in our lives that shines out for others. And we were anointed with oil, in the shape of the cross on our foreheads, and told, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Many of us still, to this day, mark ourselves with some sign of the cross or other to remind us of this occasion.

Baptism is more than “just” a washing away of sin. It’s more than just a means of grace, through which God brings us wholeness, fullness of life, and forgiveness, if “just” is a word that could be used to describe all of those things. Baptism is when we are given a new name, a new title, a new identity: child of God, Beloved.

Names are important. They tell people who we are. They mark our identities. We carry them with us our entire lives. Some names even change; but not our name as Beloved. Not our identities as children of God.

You are baptized children of God. You are Beloved. Nothing, no one, can take that away from you. Ever.

Featured Image: “Bautizo” by Hector Melo A. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

God Bless the Outsider

Outsiders worry us. They disturb us. They disrupt our sense of order and the way things should be. They are dangerous. They don’t like us and want us to change. Can you believe that?

Second Sunday after Pentecost C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
Psalm 96:1-16
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

It’s that time of the year again, we thought to ourselves.

As Debbie and I sat outside the Three Lakes Center of the Arts with our puppy Nora, drinking our Lick-a-dee Spitz milkshakes, we watched car after car drive by. We noticed how packed the street was with parked cars. We greeted every person who walked by, and there were a lot of them. The sound of traffic filled the air, of people talking—this small town of ours was filling up!

It’s that time of the year again, we thought to ourselves. Tourist season.

It’s the season where people from all over the country come up to the chain of lakes and descend upon our towns and communities. The population surges. There are people everywhere. More people, more traffic, more…. inconvenience… outsiders…. hisssss….

I hope you can tell by my utterly sarcastic tone that this is NOT how I view the summer crowd that brings new life and energy to our town. Heck, I’ve been here two years and in many ways I’m still an outsider myself! But I’m willing to bet most of us know at least one or two people in our lives for whom tourist season means an influx of unwanted people, of “outsiders” here to ruin the good life we have here.

This is not an uncommon view of outsiders, as we can glean from our readings this morning. Ancient Israel, the setting for our reading from 1 Kings, was heavily critical of outsiders, and I can’t really blame them. The Israelites were God’s Chosen People, special, the only ones with whom God had a covenant relationship. They were called to be apart, to be models, to be different. The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, traditionally called the Law of Moses, established very clear, direct rules that separated the Israelites from outsiders.

And given the Israelite’s history with “others”, with outsiders, I can’t say I completely blame them for their view of outsiders. The Israelites as a people lived under slavery in Egypt. When they lived in Canaan, they were surrounded by hostile city-states. The Philistines caused trouble, the Syrians and Edomites waged war on the Israelite kingdoms, Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom, Babylon conquered the Southern, Persia conquered what was left of both, then Greece, then Rome. For the Israelites, outsiders weren’t just enemies in some philosophical sense: often, they were very real, tangible enemies of the people.

The same can be said of the centurion that sends a message to Jesus in the Gospel story. A centurion was a Roman soldier—remember, in Jesus’s day, Judea was a conquered province of the Roman Empire—who was charged not so much with protecting the peace as enforcing the peace, by force. He was a visible reminder of the brutality and oppression under which the Judean people lived every day. We don’t know what wars or battles he fought in, what actions he’d taken, what his relationship was the rest of the people; we only know that he’s a soldier of an occupying force, and that makes him the enemy, an outsider.

Outsiders deserve to be looked down on. They don’t know the history and customs of a people. They don’t follow the traditions and the way things have always been done. They haven’t shared the same struggles, they haven’t faced the same tests, they haven’t come through the same ordeals as the rest of the community. Outsiders don’t belong not necessarily because they are bad people. They just don’t understand. They can’t understand. Someone like me, who didn’t grow up in a place like Three Lakes, can’t possibly understand what it was like to be born here and grow up here. That automatically makes them different, other, not “like us”. And because they are not like us, they don’t belong.

At least, this is how outsiders are treated throughout history, and we are no exception. Outsiders worry us. They disturb us. They disrupt our sense of order and the way things should be. They are dangerous. They don’t like us and want us to change. Can you believe that? Outsiders want -us- to change! Who do they think they are?

And so outsiders are pushed further and further to the margins, to the edges, where they can either be controlled or forgotten about: immigrants, foreigners, city slickers, hillbillies, non-whites, women, children, non-heterosexual and transgender, members of the “other” political party (whichever that happens to be), those “other” Christians, non-Christians, all of them pushed aside to make room for the “us”, the insiders, the in-crowd, the special ones. It’s just the way it is, and for many, the way it should be.

Solomon and Jesus, however, paint us a different picture of outsiders than the one we might like to hang on our walls and admire. And what they say about outsiders has a lot to do with God, and God’s relationship with us.

Solomon’s words are from his dedication of the Temple he’s built to and for God, the very first temple dedicated in the name of God. It’s the crowning moment of his career as king of Israel, and in commemoration of the event, he gives a long speech to the people that includes quite a few prayers, this being one of them.

Though it is a joyous event, dedicating the Temple to God, there is also a great deal of strife in Israel. Things, apparently, are not going well. There’s a famine, there is social unrest, there are enemy nations waiting outside the gates to attack, there is sickness, there is sin. It would seem to be the perfect time to find someone to blame for all of the misfortunes of the Israelites. If only there was someone the community could blame, someone on the “outside” on which the Israelites could put all their troubles, someone they could to and say, “There! It’s their fault! All of our problems are because of them!”

Instead, Solomon, in his call for the Israelites to come and pray and for God to hear and answer their prayers, extends the same call to foreigners and asks God that their prayers be answered as well. Remember, this is the Temple of the Lord God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the Hebrews and the Israelites, the protector of the kingdom of Israel. God is -their- God, not for sale, not for hire.

And still, Solomon prays that their prayers may be heard and answered as well. Solomon of course may be trying to be a shrewd king—he says that outsiders will certainly hear of God’s mighty acts, which will draw them in and praise and glorify God, and therefore, God’s people—but the fact still remains that Solomon recognizes something extraordinary about God: God is also the God of the outsiders.

In the same way, Jesus, in his dealings with the messengers of the Roman centurion, the enemy, calls into question the prevailing attitudes about Roman outsiders. In him, Jesus recognizes a profound faith, a faith that surpasses even the faith of those of the Judeans who have faithfully worshiped God for generations.

It’s not exactly clear why the centurion’s faith is so striking to Jesus. Is it because he’s an outsider, who shouldn’t have this faith? Is it because he trusts that Jesus can heal his slave from afar with just a word? Is it because he trusts that Jesus even has the authority to heal, and that he decrees will in fact come to pass, just like a general’s orders? We don’t know. Maybe all of the above. But what is clear is that in this faith, Jesus finds a strength and a love of God so profound that even he is amazed by it. Jesus, of course, knows the same thing Solomon did: God is the God of the outsider, too.

Which is a good thing, too. Are we Jewish? No, we aren’t. We aren’t part of God’s chosen people, the original “in-crowd” with whom God made a covenant. If God only cared about the Jewish people, the Chosen People, then we’d be left on the outside looking in.

In Holy Baptism, though, we are grafted into God’s chosen, adopted into God’s family. We, who were outsiders, outcasts, foreigners, were brought in; no, not brought in. The walls that delineated the ins from the outs were removed, allowing us entry into the reign of God.

We are also outsiders in the culture and society, or we should be. Christianity as a religion favors mercy, justice for the poor and oppressed, challenges rampant greed and the love of money, teaches forgiveness rather than retribution, and is willing to risk all in the name of compassion rather than hate in the name of security. Though Christianity and western civilization enjoyed a long, intimate relationship, they have parted ways, and Christianity is increasingly recognizing its role as “outsider” in the culture.

All of this reflection begs the question, then: how do we treat outsiders in our midst? I am reminded of part of the Passover rituals in Judaism in which the people are reminded that they were once slaves in Egypt, outsiders, and are now free. Many of God’s commands to the now-free people concern how they treat outsiders, reminding them over and over that they were once outsiders in the land.

So I’d like to slightly rephrase that admonition to remember that you were slaves in Egypt: remember that you were once outside the family of God, and God brought you inside through your baptisms. This is how God treats outsiders and those who don’t belong. God welcomes the outsider with open arms: go and do likewise.

Featured Image: “Outcast” by Sabrina M is licensed under CC BY 2.0.