The Choice for World Peace – May 22

A sermon based on John 14:23-29

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 22, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

As we continue to try and adjust the service back to normal I thought I’d warn you today that in the weeks ahead I plan to reintroduce humor in the sermons as we adjust the timing. It shouldn’t surprise most of you that a goodly portion of the humor will include puns. I’ve already had some folks urge me to do impressions instead. Which is fine but, the only impression I do well is John Wayne singing Christmas Carols . . . so that’ll have to wait.  Today’s message is about peace. Most peace puns we’ve probably all heard. Like, what did the scientist get when she put green legumes in a centrifuge? Whirled peas.  But, last night Nancy helped me find a new one, when I asked if I could have a little peace and quiet while I cooked dinner, she took the battery out of the smoke detector. Just be happy I did not tell the joke where I ask, If you had a choice between world peace or Jeff Bezos’s money, what color would your Lamborghini be?

And actually, that last joke,  I snuck in. It’s not really a pun, but it helps segue into the lesson which refers to the peace Jesus left and gave us. That peace is a Way to God’s shalom, God’s peace which means well-being for all.  My Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines peace as “more that the lack of war [it] points to full societal and personal well-being coupled with righteousness and possible only as a gift of God.” In the Gospel of John Jesus is considered from Chapter One onward as the very incarnation of God in creation from day one onward.  So, this peace for all, Shalom, is the gift Jesus gives, it’s what he left us all a treasure map to . . . Peace on earth good will to all.

Jesus’ teachings indicate that the way to that peace, God’s peace,  is providing love (desiring and working toward well-being) and justice (giving what is due, which is well-being). To put it another way, God’s peace requires heavenly choices by humans to love and end injustices. Those are critical choices – not just for grads but for all of us. We can choose to act toward world peace or not.  Two extreme examples of choosing not to,  are Jeff Bezos’s money choices and President Putin’s power choices. The heart of the Bezos joke is the strong cultural push to choose the world’s way of idolizing power and money and objects like fancy cars over idolizing God–who’s way is world peace.

Every time we choose personal prosperity or power, over world peace we reject the peace Jesus left and gave us. It’s easy to tell because Jesus’ peace is not of this world, Jeff Bezos’s money IS of this world, Vladimir Putin’s power IS of this world.  Obviously the chances of getting to literally choose between instant world peace and instant billions of dollars or power to rule a nation is not very likely to come our way. But over the course of our lifetimes, we do get to choose between the peace and good will for all Jesus offers and the paths primarily for self alone which the world offers.

The Gospel stories are about choices between God’s Way that Jesus chooses and takes and teaches and leaves behind,  and Caesar’s way that Herod and Pilate and Judas and sinners choose and take.  One of those ways leads to more and more of heaven breaking into the world, the other leads to more and more of the world breaking. God vs Caesar. Jesus’ Way vs Worldly ways. And clearly in our culture you can take the worldly way and be looked up to and admired and legitimized. But the worldly way does not give the peace that Jesus does because the worldly way is not about peace that provides well-being to all. It’s about well-being for self or tribe while Love the desire for the well-being of others, takes a back seat. Justice– providing what is due– is put off for all but you. So, peace takes a back seat too. Heaven does not break in taking Caesar’s route.

Jeff Bezos is an example. He has a hoard of wealth – in the neighborhood of two hundred billion dollars. That’s so much wealth he could choose to use it for all manner of heavenly purposes on a massive scale. He does not have to. But he could. To use Jesus’ examples in Matthew 25, he could choose to empty a large percentage of his coffers to tend to Christ in the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, strangers,  imprisoned and other least among us.  If he did that more of heaven would break in, peace would be closer too, because so many more would have well-being. Of course, Jeff Bezos acting toward their well-being would couple righteousness with it. Righteousness is doing what’s right and maintaining right relationships all of which Mr. Bezos would be doing with the Christ within all those he’d help.  It’s not criminal for Mr. Bezos to choose to do as he does with his money. It’s also not heavenly or peace-full.

President Putin is a worse example, while it is criminal to a lot of us for him to do as he has been doing warring in Ukraine, in his country it’s legal. Some in our country even think it’s legal. President Putin is a modern example of someone acting like Caesar. He has hordes of power that he uses for himself and his tribe to the exclusion and detriment of many. He has used it to intentionally cause terrible and unspeakable things to the people of Ukraine and Russia. He has so much power he could choose to use it for all manner of heavenly purposes on massive scales. To use Jesus’ examples in Matthew 25, instead of warring or hoarding or ignoring he could choose to tend to Christ in the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, strangers,  imprisoned and other least among us.   If Mr. Putin did that, more of heaven would break in, peace would be closer too, because so many more would have well-being.  Of course, President Putin acting toward their well-being would couple righteousness with it. Righteousness is doing what’s right and maintaining right relationships all of which President Putin would be doing with the Christ within all those he helps.

I have given two extreme examples of modern men in the news behaving of this world with choices the world allows them to make. Even as I speak they make those worldly choices. Power and money choices that help themselves and their tribe above all others–and hurts others and the world or lets them be hurt.  If we were in their shoes what color of Lamborghini or chateau or yacht or rocket or missile would we choose? Or would we choose something not of this world, but of heaven and so tend to Christ in the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, strangers,  imprisoned and other least among us?  That’s the gist of question asked over and over and over again in the gospels. One leads to peace of Christ, one does not.

And that’s the question asked of people like us by Jesus. Jesus was not teaching or preaching to the likes of the Jeff Bezoses or Vladimir Putins of the world, the Caesar-like people of his or our day.  The Caesars have a proven track record of not listening to Holy teachings or following paths toward world peace.  They follow the ways of the world, not the ways of God. It gets them what they want, not what God wants.

Jesus was teaching and preaching to the non-Caesars, the vast majority of folks, the yous and me s of the world.  Jesus was– and still is– trying to get us to not idolize and aim to be like the Caesars, the Putins, the Bezos of this world. Indeed, he taught us and showed us to do more than not idolize them.   He was and still is trying to get us to idolize God and aim to be like God incarnate– Christ– in ways that we use the power and wealth and resources we have from God for peace on earth good will to all.  It’s not to be used for peace on earth good will to only us and ours. It’s not to be hoarded ignoring other’s needs. That’s Caesar’s way, that’ the way of this world.  It’s supposed to be peace on earth good will to all. That’s literally Jesus’ way, not the way of the world. Jesus does not give as the world gives and we are not supposed to either. Material wealth is not supposed to be our goal – the wealth of well-being for all, peace is supposed to be the goal.

Doing for us and ours alone is not the means– doing for others what we want done for ourselves is the means.  It’s called the Golden rule because it’s the sign of heavenly riches. Jesus’ Way doesn’t involve hoarding,  it involves generous giving.   Jesus’ way doesn’t involve oppression or injustice or unloving conduct of any kind, nor does it involve ignoring such conduct.  Jesus’ way requires action, love in action. It’s about justice being sought, and kindness being loved on our humble walks with God. That way that Jesus left gives us peace not of this world. May we all work toward it and seek it every day of our lives. May our choices be peace-full.  AMEN.

                        COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The Choice for World Peace – May 22

Yes, There is Proof of Heaven – May 14

A sermon based on Revelation 21:1-7
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 15, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott

This mornings’ lesson from Revelation that Ian just read so well is often heard at funerals because it offers promises of a better place where God (the Alpha and Omega) is fully sensed from the beginning to end as we drink from the spring of life. It’s a place where there’s no longer chaos, death, mourning, tears or pain. The verses in Revelation that follow our lesson add that bad is also gone; and those verses note there are angels and that God’s radiance is experienced everywhere all the time.
Revelation is describing a heavenly place. Indeed, it sounds like the heaven we often think of and hope that our ancestors, beloved, and selves go to in the great by and by. John, the author of Revelation, envisioned heaven coming to earth. This should not be a surprise since Jesus taught that heaven is near and how loving acts toward the well-being of others helps heaven break in on earth. The idea of heaven on earth for the living can strike us as unusual since heaven is most often associated as being a part of the afterlife.
While we challenge ourselves to follow Jesus’ teachings and focus on living to bring heaven to earth for the living, a big part of church ministry includes participating in end-of-life matters and conversations around afterlife. Thoughts and hopes of heaven are, of course, a big part of that ministry. We consider Biblical and theological reflections around death in worship and in classes. We also pray for those who are dying and families of those who have passed on. We provide end-of-life related ministries – which this church does very well– with kind and caring outreach to families, thoughtful loving memorial services and gracious hospitality at receptions for the family and friends. Our shepherds and pastors face death and dying out in the field too in hospitals, hospice, homes and anywhere else they are needed. It’s never easy work– those times are intense and grief-filled which humble our beings and dwarf our words.
A part of the humbling and diminishment of the value of words is that those occasions are somber and deeply, deeply Sacred. To be in the presence of death is to be so near the threshold between heaven and earth that you can feel what theologically I’d name, the power of the Divine pouring out and into the transformation from this life to what follows. Somehow just providing care for the dying or their loved ones allows the care giver to experience that threshold and Divine power emanating. There’s immense awe and wonder to it and an electric -like current of love. There’s mystery in it all too.
Most of us here this morning probably feels comfortable naming that mystery and power and awe and wonder and love, God. Some, in the culture, maybe not. By whatever name, it’s undeniably present. I’ve experienced it repeatedly and uniformly. Others report that same experience. It is observed without regard to belief or faith, making it an objective truth. It exists. The same can be said of life noticeably leaving those who die. Regardless of belief, we can tell when a soul that animated a body no longer resides in the body. So, it is also an objective truth that the presence of consciousness – the soul– departs. Webster’s on-line dictionary defines a soul as “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life.” Outside of religion, regardless of belief, it is objectively true that each human has a soul. Souls are part and parcel of our individual consciousness–and appear to be as unique as snowflakes and fingerprints. No two souls are alike.
What souls are, what consciousness is, and where they go at death by-and-large have pretty much been left to religions to take seriously. Except for assessing the cause and physiology of a body’s lifelessness, mainstream science as a rule does not provide much in the way of answers–and frankly does not seem to want to deal with it, or simply can’t due to its own dogma or repulsion from mystery. Those scientists who do seek answers are marginalized or ignored and at any rate have been relatively few and far between. Consequently, many in the West, raised to rely solely on the tools of the Enlightenment, tend to set aside evidence relating to death and out-of-body consciousness. It’s thought to not be scientifically understandable– so we ignore it or scoff at it and go along with science’s general dismissal.
But just as it is okay to challenge religion, it’s okay to challenge science, especially in this area it seems to know so little about. I am going to do some of that challenging– and in case this disturbs anyone. I remind you all no one has to agree with the pastor in this church. I realize I am out on a bit of limb, but I deal with death and dying a lot, and it is more than a little troubling there is such a chasm between evidence around death and dying and science. The limb I am going to wander the most out on is what are called near death experiences and the Age of Reason’s general dismissal of them, with virtually no more than a wave of hand, as if they are akin to UFO or Bigfoot sightings.
Let’s start with human consciousness. Science has yet to explain consciousness. Scientists may not understand it, but, we know it’s there. The evidence of individual consciousness, of souls, is as simple as knowing that we have thoughts. (I think therefore I am). Science has also yet to explain why that thinking, that individual consciousness, is needed to animate a healthy body. Why does it drive our life on earth? Science has also yet to explain where consciousness goes when it leaves a body, other than to confirm it’s left our life on earth. While science seems to be satisfied that gone is gone, it does not explain it nor the powerful nature and mystery surrounding death and dying. Mainstream Science does not account for the evidence of countless reports across time and cultures of people experiencing consciousness out-of-their-bodies in what are called near death experiences. In short, mainstream science has yet to provide understanding of basic existing empirical evidence around death and dying.
Sadly, science mostly seems to ignore what it cannot explain about all of this. I love and respect science, I really do, but sometimes it can be as dogmatic as religious fundamentalism when it comes to consciousness and death. It is estimated that there have been twenty-five million near death experiences over the last half century, so this is not an obscure happening. Ignoring the phenomenon because it doesn’t fit preexisting scientific dogma, is well, pretty unscientific and dogmatic. This is especially so since not only do we know that the estimated of millions of experiences have happened, over the centuries there have been countless reported experiences of people experiencing consciousness out-of-their-bodies in near death experiences. There are also scientists’ (nurses, physicians and psychologists) reports addressing those experiences. The evidence exists.
Those reported experiences at the very least allow inferences and probabilities to be considered. It’s okay to be skeptical even of the mystery of it , but is also okay to weigh and take comfort in the possibilities the evidence suggests, even those the mystery suggests. In the reported experiences there is evidence of uniformity, including numerous repeated reports of people undergoing a drawing out of this life and moving into moments of dimensions in an afterlife. These reports have not just occurred in the past fifty years, but throughout history. Yet science by and large dogmatically denies or denigrates the reports as being driven by belief and faith. Which is not only inaccurate, but ironic since scientific knowledge is based on belief and faith. Science requires a belief that there is order to the world and a faith that it can be understood based on human observations and human conclusions. Adding to the irony is scientists claim to scoff at dogma, but tend to be dogmatic about their own belief and faith, so much so they dismiss objective truths and evidence around death and dying. All of which tends to head off widespread scientific discussion of the reasonable inferences and probabilities of what we do know.
Countless reports of afterlife experiences by people in near death situations may not prove that they had one, but it is not an unreasonable explanation for the reports. The truth is it is actually reasonable to consider and hope it a probability, especially since the consensus of science provides no alternative explanation, beyond disregard.
Now that’s not true of all scientists. There are very serious well researched books by a few scientists on death dying. I find one in particular very helpful. Fortunately, fate or coincidence or serendipity or God actually caused a once very skeptical scientist to see for himself and gain understanding. It’s a remarkable story. An agnostic neurosurgeon and Harvard professor, Dr. Eben Alexander, lived through a near death experience caused by a week-long coma. He then applied his learning to the experiences of both his biological state of being and his soul’s conscious state of being during the coma. He published his experiences and findings in an excellent book filled with science and wonder and awe and love called Proof of Heaven. I often recommend this book to people who are grieving the loss of loved ones. The book offers reason and hope.
Just as you’d expect a Harvard professor to do, Dr. Alexander articulates his experience well, and offers compelling evidence and science related to the existence of out-of-body consciousness, including a very hopeful and uplifting glimpse of where consciousness may go when it leaves the body. He uses his own personal experience, observation and training to explain and reason what occurred. He also uses science to dismantle the scientific community’s attempts to deny his experiences and conclusions.
I was reminded of Dr. Alexander’s work when I read the Lectionary lesson, they both have similar images and descriptions. Dr. Alexander does not just rely on applying his scientific training to his own observations either. After writing down what he observed he also researched other works and observations regarding near death experiences. His initial summary before getting to details captures the gist of it. He writes:
“Finally, the day came when I had written everything down . . . Then it was time to read. I plunged into the ocean of NDE literature–an ocean into which I’d never so much as dipped a toe before. It didn’t take me long to realize that countless other people had experienced things I had, both in recent years and centuries past. NDEs are not all the same, each one is unique– but the same elements show up again and again, and many I recognized from my own experience. Narratives of passing through a dark tunnel or valley into a bright and vivid landscape – ultra real– were as old as ancient Greece and Egypt. Angelic beings –sometimes winged– sometimes not– went back to at least the ancient Near East– as did the belief that such beings were guardians who watched the activities of people on earth and greeted those people when they left it behind. The sense of being able to see in all directions simultaneously; the sensation of being above linear time – of being above everything . . . the hearing of anthem like music which entered through one’s whole being rather than simply one’s ears; direct and instantaneous reception of concepts that normally would have taken a long time and a great deal of study to comprehend . . . [and f]feeling the intensity of unconditional love.” 2.
I mentioned when I started the sermon how our lesson from Revelation sounds a lot like the heaven we hope that our ancestors, beloved and we ourselves go. It also sounds a lot like the place countless people have reported in near death experiences– like the place Dr. Alexander writes about. It’s a place where God’s is the Alpha and Omega whose full radiance is present and always sensed. It’s a place where angelic beings greet and watch over souls, where death and mourning and tears and pain and bad are not experienced. The Bible has long suggested such a place awaits our souls when we depart our bodies. Many have taken comfort in that idea and the hope the Bible description offers. That’s good news. But we modern folk tend to want more than Bible verses. So, I wanted to make sure to point out there’s more good news for those of us who like objective proof to support the idea – and the hope– that beyond our bodies the souls of our ancestors, and our beloved exist and bask in the glory of God.
There is evidence out there– lots of it– and a well-respected highly trained professor and brain surgeon has had the courage to write about it scientifically and with firsthand experience. It’s a work that gives more hope about the continuation of the soul and its presence with God in heaven. Like the Bible, the evidence Dr. Alexander sets out and refers to, affirms in many ways that we are loved unconditionally and eternally. It also allows us to reasonably infer proof of experiences of a good and God-filled afterlife exists and that our ancestors and beloveds whose souls have left their physical bodies abide there . . . And that we will too. It’s a place filled with God’s no strings attached love, which can give us hope that all of us and our beloved may experience it by and by in a land where joys shall never end. News doesn’t get much better than that. There is proof of heaven and it’s okay to consider it and take hope in it. AMEN 3

ENDNOTES:
1. Alexander, Eben, Map of Heaven, p 62
2. Alexander, Eben, Proof of Heaven, p131
3. This sermon was inspired by the recent death of my beloved sister Kimberly and the soul searching it sent me on, including the re-reading of Dr. Alexander’s book Proof of Heaven and his subsequent book continuing the discussion of his amazing journey and scientific work, The Map of Heaven. Both of these books provide modern thinkers solid footing to the hope offered in Scripture of heaven after life for the souls of our ancestors, beloved and self.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Yes, There Is Proof of Heaven – May 14

Tabitha Is a Hero We Can Be – May 8

Tabitha’s a Hero We Can Be – May 8

A sermon based on Acts 9:36-43 Inclusive Bible
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 8, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I am hoping, especially on this secular holiday that lifts up some very important women– mothers– that we all noticed that Tabitha, the woman at the center of the Lectionary text for today is called a “disciple. She is called that before we even learn her name “Now in Joppa there was a DISCIPLE, a woman named Tabitha . . .” We need to notice that because there’s a lot of misinformation out there that women were not, and could not, and even to this day should not, be leaders of the church. But by golly guess what? It’s not true. We just heard the Bible literally name Tabitha a disciple.

After we learn she is a disciple and that her name is Tabitha, the very next thing we learn is that Tabitha “never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity.” Tabitha was a follower of Christ who did not just talk the talk, but walked the walk. Males in the early church may have been out there talking about Jesus’ Way, but Tabitha was out there walking Jesus’ Way. Nineteenth Century feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton put it like this, “What men teach in their high places, such women as [Tabitha] illustrate with their lives.” 1

Tabitha walked the walk by dedicating her time, her talent and her resources toward the well-being of others. And it was large quantities of time, talent and resources too. For all Christians, male and female alike, Tabitha remains a model disciple and leader and Follower of Jesus. She did all of that as a woman. I say that because women are often unheralded in history, in the Bible, in the church and in the culture. (How many of us have heard of the disciple Tabitha much . . . if at all?)

Tabitha may have been under our radar all these years but she was heralded in early Christianity and in the Book of Acts if we take time to notice. Part of what has put her under the radar is that the way the story is now told Peter seems to be the intended hero. Sort of like how Paul seemed to outshine Ananias in our Lectionary lesson last week, Peter seems to outshine Tabitha in our Lectionary lesson this week. Peter is said to have raised Tabitha from the dead, a hard act to best. Except that it’s not a feat any of us can do. It’s actually questionable for a lot of us whether Peter could even do it since it not only seems improbable, but appears to echo the genre of stories in the Bible where heroes (like Elijah, Elisha, Jesus and Paul) bring someone back to life. This suggests that the story was set out with a primary intent to show that Peter, as a patriarch of the church, has the same sort of stature as those other major heroes of the faith. It may even have been designed to make sure that looking back men in the early church seem to outshine women.

There was, and is, a lot for men to outshine when it comes to women in the very earliest days of the Jesus Following. Women were the last to see Jesus die on the cross and set in the tomb before Easter and the first to see him and speak to him on Easter. AND Women were the ones charged with informing the others that Jesus lives! Only because of women Jesus was reported as resurrected, and has been known ever since to have lived on and Jesus’ Way survived and grew to be Christianity.

Many men seem to have had a lot of trouble with the fact that women were crucial to the survival of the faith, and with the fact that Jesus and the earliest church treated women as equals. To borrow from Paul, the early church understood that there was no longer Jew or Greek, there was no longer slave or free, there was no longer male and female– for all were to be considered one in Christ Jesus. Just like today, back then some men appear to have not bought into to that, and they wanted to reinstate full blown patriarchy in the Church as it became a force in the culture. They may have placed Tabitha’s sterling reputation as a model Christian against a miracle by Peter to shore up male leadership by diminishing this lauded familiar female hero.

Whatever the reason, Peter is portrayed as a hero in a supernatural sense. While there are a lot of wonderful people in the church, I feel pretty confident claiming none of us can do supernatural deeds. It’s questionable any person ever could. And that’s the thing, that’s where any patriarchal effort to outshine Tabitha fails. We cannot do what they tell us Peter did. We can, however, do as Tabitha did. There’s no supernatural improbable sense to Tabitha’s acts, just human kindness and love and dedication to Jesus’ Way. It’s not questionable whether a person could ever do what she did. Tabitha’s heroic acts are those we could all do– we should all do. She’s our practical model– not Peter. She does not rely on the supernatural to accomplish Jesus’ teachings. She relies on her very own resources and Christ within to put herself in action outwardly as the hands and feet and voice of Christ. Arguably Tabitha outshines Peter when it comes to Holy acts and ways of being, because she uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary.
Peter may be the hero the patriarchal storyteller wants us to focus on, but Tabitha’s the hero we can be. She is actually the one we are challenged to try and be. She is who we can be like. No one is asking us to raise the dead, but Jesus asks us to make sure the poor get clothed and fed Tabitha does that in the Christ-centered life she led. Her down to earth real-life work and donations made her so important to the early church that we have this story of Peter, considered the head of the church, leaving without delay to personally tend to her. When Peter arrived, we are told that there were widows in need gathered to honor Tabitha and display how she helped them with new clothes she personally sewed.

Tabitha was no ordinary disciple, she did not just heroically work hard and give generously, she made it her mission work to work with a very poor and outcast demographic of her day, widows. The patriarchal culture treated women poorly in general, but widows were outcast and oppressed – women without husbands were, as a rule, expendable nobodies to the culture. But not to Tabitha, not to Jesus. So, Tabitha acting as Christ’ hands and feet and voice in Joppa, treated them with love. She did good works and charity for them and with them. She didn’t just send money in and let others do the work; she made them clothes and let them in her home. The outcasts were cared for, the expendables were treated as worthy and felt worthy.

Although there were many women followers of Jesus at this time, Tabitha is the only woman literally called a disciple in the New Testament. She is the one Peter drops everything to go help with a supernatural miracle– because the truth is, Tabitha and her work are too important to die. They must live on. 2. We can take that literally in the story– many do– but we can also take it metaphorically. Jesus’ Way and the Church itself have not survived because patriarchs of the church pulled off supernatural miracles back in the day. Even if they really did such acts back then, they have not done them for millennia. They cannot help the church now. You know what has and always will help the church survive? People like Tabitha? Christians who “never tire[] of doing kind things or giving to charity.”

Christians who heroically work hard and give generously, and make their mission work to work with those who are the poor and the outcast demographics of their day– the widows, orphans, lepers, blind, oppressed, hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, and the other least among the culture. Those are the people Jesus worked with. Those are the people Tabitha worked with.

Tabitha walked the walk by dedicating her time, her talent and her resources toward the well-being of others– especially the least among her culture. It was large quantities of time, talent and resources. For all Christians Tabitha remains a model disciple, leader and Follower of Jesus. She needs to live on in churches and she does. Here’s how the Reverend Joseph Harvard puts it in the Feasting on the Word commentary on our lesson (Year C, vol 2, p 430)

“Have you ever met Tabitha? I have known her in every church I have ever served. She has no wealth or power except her deep and abiding commitment to give expression to God’s compassion for those in need. She is tenacious about practicing her faith by serving others. She prays a simple prayer: ‘Lord, help us to help those in need, and make us sensitive to what they really need.’ Tabitha’s work is too important to die and I am grateful that the story records God’s agreement as well by empowering Peter to keep her alive. Tabitha is still alive in most every church I know.”
Tabitha is alive! She is here in many ways and in many faith communities and in many people old and young, male and female, and non-binary. Long live our Tabithas and the Tabithas of every faith community! May we, like them, find a deep and abiding commitment to give expression to God’s compassion for those in need. May we be tenacious about practicing our faith by serving others with our hands and our feet and our voices acting as Christ’s. May we pray the simple prayer: “Lord, help us to help those in need, and make us sensitive to what they really need.” AMEN. Long live Tabitha!

ENDNOTES:
1. Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, The Woman’s Bible, p 146, cited to in Levine Amy-Jill (ed), A Feminist Companion to the Acts of the Apostles, p 34, (article by Janice Capel Anderson called “ Reading Tabitha: A Feminist Reception History”)
2. Harvard, Joseph, Feasting on the Word commentary, Year C, vol 2, p 430.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Here I Am God – May 1

A sermon based on Acts 9:1-20

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 1, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

The lectionary text that Ann just read so well is pretty famous. It’s one of the sections of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles that discusses what most of us probably know as “Paul’s Conversion Story.”  That name for the story is inaccurate, because Paul doesn’t actually convert from one religion to another.  In fact, throughout his letters in the New Testament Paul unflinchingly claims to be a Jewish. This is true before and after his experience on the road to Damascus. He didn’t convert from Judaism when he saw the light of Christ and heard Jesus’ voice. Paul was Jewish until the day he died. At the time, the Jesus Following was a sect of Judaism, it was not until decades later that the Jesus Following split away from Judaism to become a separate faith and religion. So, it’s as anachronistic to claim that Paul converted to Christianity, as it is to claim Jesus, a Jewish rabbi was a Christian. That’s not historically accurate, or literally true.

What appears to have happened on the road to Damascus is that Paul had a very spiritual experience which began his transformation from a religious persecutor of other Jews who were promoting Jesus’ radically inclusive Way to God,  to himself becoming a chief promoter of Jesus’ radically inclusive Way to God.  To put it in other words,  Paul went from being among a small group of Jews who despised those advocating Gentiles being let into the Jewish Jesus Following, to being the primary advocate for letting Gentiles in and a leader of that Jewish  sect which he previously opposed.

How did this transformation come about? Well, we know it began by Paul literally seeing the light within and listening to the voice of Jesus during a deeply spiritual experience. The experience profoundly affected Paul. So much so he basically went from being a zealot for exclusivity to being a radical for inclusivity. In my mind it’d be like a televangelist famous for zealously excluding LGBTQ+ from church, transforming into a Christian who is radical for including LGBTQ+ in church. The televangelist would still be Christian, but would include all their neighbors in their love, instead of excluding some. That’s akin to what Paul did in the Jewish faith of his time.

If God asked me to go visit such a televangelist and invite him to join our Progressive church,  I’d have a conversation with God very similar to the one Ananias had in our reading. At the time the story in our lesson unfolded Paul was a known danger to the inclusivity of Jesus’ Way. Just as today some famous televangelists are known dangers to the inclusivity of Jesus’ Way. So, I’d be asking God are you sure about this? That televangelist has done much evil to your saints.

Sadly, God has yet to send me to such a televangelist or ask me to talk to them or assure me they’d be an instrument of good for the faith and safe to have around. But thankfully God did send Ananias to Paul and also gave Paul a vision of Ananias so they’d talk as a result.

It’s fascinating and telling that in his vision Paul did not see the pre-Easter Jesus in human form, blinded he saw the post-Easter Christ as a light within. But if we think about it, he did see the post-Easter form of Christ. Paul saw Christ in the human form of Ananias,  a loving, caring Jesus Follower who was brave enough to do as God instructed and tended to the well-being of even a mortal enemy like Paul had been. It’s Ananias who already found the Light of Christ within that, as a disciple of Jesus, provides the inclusive love of God for a mortal enemy.

We can hear the stark difference between Paul and Ananias (at the time) in how they respond to the still speaking God in the story.  When Paul heard the Lord’s voice he asked “Who are you?”  When Ananias heard the Lord’s voice he unquestioningly responded “Here I am God.” That’s a Biblical prophet and disciple of Christ’s,  response to God if ever there was one.

In the Book of the Acts of the Apostles Ananias is not the only prophet and disciple doing loving work. Just before our lesson Chapter 8 ends with the story of another rejected person being cared for, the Ethiopian Eunuch — who was scripturally forbidden as a Gentile and a eunuch to be a part of the community. You may recall in that story Phillip was sent by God to lovingly welcome with unconditional love that rejected person. That’s the end of Acts Chapter 8. Then as we heard,  in Chapter 9 Paul, a mortal enemy, is welcomed with unconditional love. If those two examples of loving the outcast and loving the enemy didn’t make it clear how wide God’s net of love is, in Chapter 10 God makes it abundantly clear with the commandment to Peter to call no one profane or unclean.

Acts made sure to record that the early church (through Phillip, Ananias and Peter) acted as Christ’s hands and feet and voice casting the net of God’s love as wide as Jesus meant it to be and wants it to be– and how God’s love actually is ALL INCLUSIVE.  The net of God’s love is cast so wide the outcast Ethiopian Eunuch is loved and the enemy persecutor Paul is loved. To drive the point home, we learn God commands that no one is profane and no one is unclean. God destroys any and all narrowing of the net of God’s love that religious people may think exists:  Scripture’s ideas of a narrow net of love, Paul’s ideas of a narrow net of love, a televangelist’s idea of a narrow net of love,  were all cut up by Jesus long ago. Because the honest to God truth is that God long ago fashioned a net of Love so “Holy” all manner of human beings are simultaneously let in and caught up in it. Jesus taught and practiced that. Acts records that the early church taught and practice that.

In our lesson today Paul’s transformation is dramatic and profound. It’s a great and wonderful event. But it unfortunately drowns out the real living hero of the story, Ananias.  Paul’s not a hero yet, he’s new to the following.  He only becomes a hero when he starts acting with love like Ananias does. And Ananias is not alone, Phillip acted with love in Chapter 8. Peter acts with love in Chapter 9. Of course, the acts of love by these men and other men and women in the Jesus Following were a part of their following the Way Jesus first walked and taught, the Way of radical inclusivity and love.

Paul’s dramatic story not only overshadows Ananias story, but can make us think our stories of becoming followers of Jesus are inferior,  and our transformation to embracing Jesus’ radical inclusivity might be less profound.  But they’re not. And finding the Way is, at any rate, not a completion with Paul or anyone else.  It’s about filling the world with so much love for so many people that every day we get closer and closer to peace on earth good will to all. It’s about being love in the world now so that heaven breaks in on earth for the living! In our story Paul’s not being love like that and would not have ended up being love like that later were it not for Ananias and his type of Jesus Followers who hear God and say “Here I am God” and follow where God calls, which is always, always toward love.

“Here I am God” and following God toward love is the response of Biblical heroes and known and unknown heroes of the Church and of Jesus throughout history. May it be our response too.    AMEN.

                        COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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