This Week's Sermon
A Lingering Faith
While we were busy last week, Jesus ascended. Ascension Day was Thursday, forty days after Easter. It is a necessary part of our Christian narrative. Jesus is born, what we observe at Advent and Christmas. He conducts an earthly ministry, which we retell during Common Time when all the paraments in the chancel are green. We interrupt that for Lent, when we follow Jesus’ ministry to Jerusalem and the cross, Good Friday, the crucifixion. He is raised from the dead, an Easter celebration for forty days during which we read about his post-resurrection appearances to the disciples behind locked doors, to Thomas, to two men walking on the road to Emmaus, and to the disciples on the lakeshore.
And now, the narrative requires that the resurrected Christ ascend to heaven in order to make room for the Holy Spirit, which can be everywhere all the time for everyone, and to prepare the way for the establishment of the Church. The Gospel of Luke tells us the story of Jesus up to the point of the ascension. The Acts of the Apostles, also attributed to Luke, begins with the ascension and then tells what happens next. With our story of Paul and Silas from Chapter 16, we are well into what happens next.
Let us revisit our epistle reading for today. Paul and Silas are on a mission to spread the good news of Jesus Christ in Philippi, a city in Macedonia, which is a Roman colony. We find them in a place of prayer where they are distracted by a slave girl, we are told, who has the uncanny gift of telling the future. Her masters are thrilled because they have set her up in business and are making a lot of money off of her. But she has been following Paul and Silas around town, crying out over and over, “These men are slaves of the Most High God who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She is telling the truth, but over and over to the point where Paul is so annoyed that he commands, “Spirit, come out in the name of Jesus Christ!” It does, and her masters are furious over the loss of a good deal.
They drag Paul and Silas into the public square before the magistrates and claim, “These men are disturbing the city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” Disturbing the peace, being foreigners, and promoting illegal activity, the charges against Paul and Silas.
The crowd attacks Paul and Silas, the magistrates have them flogged and thrown into prison. “Do not let them out of your sight,” they tell the jailer, who takes Paul and Silas to the innermost cell of the prison and secures their feet in stocks.
About midnight, Luke tells us, while Paul and Silas are praying and singing hymns, being heard by the other prisoners, there is a violent earthquake. The walls come tumbling down, the cell doors drop to the floor, and the shackles fall off. They are free!
What would be the natural thing to do? Run off into the night, avoiding being seen by any authorities, praising God for a miracle meant explicitly to liberate us. Like the parting of the Red Sea, surely this is a gift of freedom from God.
But that is not what Paul and Silas do. They stay put; they linger, and apparently they coax all the rest of the prisoners to do the same. The jailer is ready to kill himself because the magistrates had given him specific instructions to not let Paul and Silas out of his sight, but just before he throws himself on his sword, Paul cries out in the dark, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” They save the jailer’s life by lingering for a while, instead of saving themselves.
It is an act of faith, a lingering faith. And what happens as a result? The jailer finds a torch, rushes to confirm that the prisoners are still there, bows down before Paul and Silas, and asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” The jailer takes Paul and Silas home with him, gives them a chance to wash up, the two men speak to the family about Jesus, and the entire family is baptized. And then they sit down and have a meal together, a real eucharistic feast, a true thanksgiving meal.
A lingering faith, a faith that does not run off, a faith that does not let go, a faith that does not serve oneself but empowers others.
Ideally, on this Mother’s Day, we can say that this is the kind of persistent faith a parent offers a child, a commitment of love that never lets go, no matter how strenuous things become. And in reverse, the same persistent faith of a child for a parent. It is a faith that keeps us close.
This kind of devotion stereotypically is portrayed as a mother bear’s tenacious love for her cubs. You know the dictum in the wild: never get between a she-bear and her cubs. That actually was told to Sally and me a few years ago when we were in Alaska and intending to walk from the visitors’ center at the park about a mile to a waterfall and a glacial sheet of ice. We had not eaten and had imagined that the center would have a cafeteria, but it did not. So, we bought a huge chocolate bar to see us through the afternoon and started down the trail. This was shortly before I had my knee-replacement surgery, so I was hobbling along but intent, pain notwithstanding, to make it to the waterfall and the blue ice of the glacier.
A park ranger approached us and said, “There is a bear up ahead with her cubs. Do not worry; as long as you do not separate her from them you are okay.” Now, I am standing there will this chocolate bar in my coat pocket, “bait” in the bear’s range of understanding. And I am limping like the wounded lamb at the rear of the flock. And Sally gives me that look which I interpreted to be the punch line of an old joke we all know, “I do not have to be able to outrun the bear; I only have to be able to outrun you.”
Well, the episode was anti-climactic in that we scarfed down the chocolate bar, walked to the waterfall and back and never saw the mother bear and her cubs. But the alert stays with you: be aware of the tenacity that a loving faith can bring to caring for one another.
This church, the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, is the “Mother Church” of Methodism in the metropolitan area. We were here first before any other church of any other kind, and over the years we have given birth to dozens of other congregations. We have lingered on this corner since 1838. City Hall across Clark Street came much later. The development of Daley Plaza as the public square of the city is a relatively recent development. We have stayed put on this corner in five different buildings through good years and bad years; we have not let go.
We could have moved to the suburbs. All the other eleven churches that were on Washington Street and around the corner on Dearborn in the 1850’s did that. We stayed; lingering faith, not running off but staying put.
A big question facing us right now is, as the city changes around us what does evangelism look and sound like in the center of Chicago’s Loop today? Paul and Silas lingered for a reason – to witness to their faith in God as revealed in Jesus Christ with such conviction that it drew others to it. Part of our witness is simple – signs on the sidewalks, bells that ring, steeple lights that shine in the night, and open doors seven days a week are all part of evangelism, sharing the Good News. The food and clothing ministry with people who are in desperate circumstances, the tutoring program, the theater, the 12-step groups, the grief support group, the pastoral counseling office all are part of our evangelistic outreach.
Erik Nussbaum, Barry Wenger, and I have been invited by the Yale University School of Sacred Music to spend a week in New Haven at the end of June to consider what can we do with our marvelous music ministry on this corner to let people know, not only that there is a church here, but why we linger here after all of these years and what we believe that keeps us alive.
A lingering faith that is a style of evangelism. How do we develop a community of faithful people in which each of us is heard and valued?
But, that is not the end of the story of Paul and Silas. Our reading for today ends with them eating a celebrative meal with the family, but Luke’s account continues. What happens when the meal is over? Paul and Silas go back to jail. They put themselves back in custody so that they can confront the magistrates in the morning. There is another part of a lingering faith that is confrontative.
The magistrates assume that God caused the earthquake to set the men free, and they realize well after their public humiliation of Paul and Silas that, while they are Jews, they also are Roman citizens and deserve much more respectful treatment. So, while it is still dark the magistrates send the police to release Paul and Silas. “You can go quietly in the night. While it is still dark sneak out of town and do not tell anyone what happened.” But, they refuse!
“Look, you beat us in public, you condemned us in public, and you mocked us in public, now you are going to have to apologize to us in public.” A lingering faith, indeed. They are not going to leave until the magistrates confess their magisterial sins. Holding public officials accountable, an act of lingering faith.
On Wednesday a group of citizens from the Chicago area, including members of IIRON, a faith-based community organizing group with whom we work, went to Springfield to meet with legislative officials around issues of economic justice, including bills to be considered that would shed light on what taxes corporations in Illinois pay, and do not pay, and how to close some corporate tax loopholes. If you are going to tax churches for baptismal water, as the city now is doing, then it would be interesting to see what taxes some of the bigger “players” are paying.
The group had an appointment scheduled with Rep. Bradley from Marion, Il., who chairs the House Committee on Finance and Revenue, but when the appointed time came the representative was not in his office. His staff said that he was delayed, had a busy meeting schedule, but he would be along shortly.
When he showed up he did not invite the group into his office but herded them into a crowded and noisy hallway and told them that he did not know why they were wasting his time since he voted for a particular bill in question, though he acknowledged that he thought the bill went too far and knew it would not pass, anyway. He then turned and walked away. The group followed him to ask for the office time with him that had been scheduled. He refused to let them enter, turned to another group waiting for him, lobbyists for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, and ushered them into his office. At which time one of the Fair Economy Illinois group said, “We are not going away. This is important, and we will be back.”
A lingering faith that holds people accountable for their actions.
It may take a while to bring justice. We know how long it took Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, sometimes sitting in jail singing and reading to the other prisoners. We have seen how many decades it is taking of vigilance along the border between North and
South Korea to seek justice for all on that peninsula. We know that we are in our 50th year of civil rights action since the March on Washington. We read in the newspapers yesterday that the Women at the Wall have won legal ratification for them to pray on the Sabbath at the most sacred site in Jerusalem, even if they must endure rocks, bottles, and insults thrown at them. I met members of that initiative almost 20 years ago in Israel. Here they are two decades later still showing up to pray. “We are not going away. This is important, and we will be back,” they have said in word and deed.
A lingering faith . . . a faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior that sets us free to stay close to one another, tenaciously to hold on to one another, like a mother bear for her cubs. And at the same time a faith that sets us free to stick around and face the tough problems. It is a faith that gives us freedom not to escape but to engage life. Amen.
Philip L. Blackwell
The Chicago Temple
May 12, 2013