by The Rev. Dr. Mary L. Foulke
Sunday, June 2, 2019
Good Morning St. Mary’s!
There is one of those sayings that has been going around for a long time, even before social media people had little posters of it: “if you want to make God laugh, make plans.” It’s a guess, but I think most of us know the truth of these words. The apostle Paul certainly knew this, from his conversion experience for sure, and visions like we heard in today’s passage from Acts. Paul and Silas had been planning to go to Asia, which in Biblical times meant what is now Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Iraq. Because of a vision, Paul goes the opposite direction, to Macedonia, what many translate as Europe, but which is actually Greece, “the cradle of Western culture.” If geography makes your head hurt, think of it this way: Christianity was born in Judaism’s religious center (what we now call the Middle East) and spread to Greece’s intellectual center, and finally to Rome’s political center. Or as one scholar puts it, the apostles’ journey to bring the good news of God’s love and freedom was the opposite of that of Alexander the Great, who left Macedonia to bring Greek language and culture and war to the Middle East three centuries earlier (1). In short, early Christianity – in so many ways – was a challenge, a reversal of the pattern of empire. (Of course once it became the religion of the empire, this was lost, though there is still the potential for us to reclaim our roots.)
There’s the geography of the ancient world, and then there’s the geography of the city of Philippi. It is likely that there was no synagogue in Philippi, and that Paul and Silas looked for faithful Jews where they gathered to worship: by the river, outside the gate, on the margins of society, people without authority or voice, women, and in particular Lydia. There are a couple lessons here: first that the followers of Jesus were not yet distinct from ordinary Jews, there was great coherence between the message of the Hebrew Bible and the stories of Jesus, just beginning to be written down. Second, Lydia, who was “a worshiper of God,” as the text says, was most likely a Gentile who was studying Judaism; tradition says she is the second Gentile to convert to the way of Jesus (the first being Cornelius the centurion).
All these details form an account of the spread of early Christianity, an account that documents something of a reversal of the path of empire (again – at least at the beginning), a seeking out of people on the margins, ordinary people, Jews, non-Jewish believers, and in this story, women. We see this also in the Gospel today, Jesus goes to the healing pool, around which are those on the margins, those named as “invalids” – for which the Greek word also means the sick, the weak, the impotent. We remember the ancient world, and still today, we blame people for their physical or social condition, as if all of us were not subject to the chances of disease or accident, nor the oppressive forces that cause poverty. Jesus went to Jerusalem for the festival, and he chose to spend it with those left out of the festivities.
In spite of multiple examples in scripture of Jesus or the apostles reaching out to those on the margins with a message of love and freedom, healing and empowering those on the margin, growing the community starting with those on the margins, this strategy doesn’t seem to make it into most church growth manuels. We often think of reaching out to the margins as a ministry strategy rather than a growth strategy, where we go to “help” people whom we perceive to be powerless.
I don’t think this is what was happening in today’s lessons. Paul and Silas went to a marginal community and found welcome and support from Lydia, the outsider, whom would host the original house church in Phillipi. Jesus went to a marginal group at the pool, but he did not assume that people there were powerless: he honored their dignity, their right to bodily integrity/to make decisions about their own bodies, first asking – “do you want to be made well?” The sick man’s first answer was one that he had learned as a marginalized and oppressed person, “I have no one to help me…” – “I am helpless,” and Jesus’ response challenges that assumption, I imagine him saying something like, “you have the power, God is with you, stand up and make your way!”
Those of you who have been around for awhile have heard me preach a message of togetherness, of how we are not alone, and -in fact – we cannot make our way alone in this world. This is particularly for those of us who have internalized the mythology of self-reliance, and especially for those of us who think we have made our way on our own in whatever way. The message today seems to contradict this message, and is equally true: we have the power to claim love and freedom for ourselves no matter what our society, our churches, our families have said to us. Nothing can separate us from God’s power to heal and to love, we have only to choose wholeness, and accept the challenge to stand up and walk. I say, “only” and I know that defying the death dealing forces of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, economic exploitation and all the other evil powers of this world, is no small task. One of the biggest challenges is that first question: do you want to be made whole? Because, to say “yes,” you have to believe somewhere in your spirit that it is possible! That life can come out of death. That healing can come for the nations, than nothing is or will be accursed in the holy city of God. That a vision of peace, of belonging, of justice, can interrupt the most evil plans.
Maybe you heard that the Senate finally passed an aid package for disaster recovery, finally provided $900,000 for Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria 2 years ago. Now we need the House of Representatives to support it. I have a call to action from Jubilee USA, to call our representatives. It seems a miracle that it finally passed the Senate, now with your help, we might get it through the House.
On this Memorial Day weekend, I want to close by invoking the names of a few military personnel who claimed love and freedom in the face of direct orders, who had a vision of belonging for the vulnerable even in the most difficult circumstances.
Captain Silas Soule and Lt. Joseph Cramer who each personally refused to fire, and ordered those under their command to stand down at Sand Creek in 1864, when their commanding officer ordered the massacre of 300 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women and children. Their refusal and subsequent testimony brought condemnation (though no legal action) upon the commanding officer, and resulted in the end of the career of the Colorado territorial governor. One historian consulting with the Cheyenne nation has said without Soule and Cramer’s actions, the descendents of those who died probably would not be around today (2). Soule was assassinated two years later, in the line of duty.
Many people know the story of US Army Major Hugh Thompson, who with Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn helped stop the My Lai Massacre in Viet Nam in 1968. There is another more recent story that I want to share: unnamed military personnel who have been trying to confront the abuse of power by Navy Seal Edward Gallagher. Gallagher was known to shoot unarmed Iraqi civilians; the courage of people under his command both to report him (for which he retaliated) and to take warning shots if they saw civilians because they knew Gallagher would shoot to kill. Gallagher also has been accused of stabbing to death an injured Iraqi fighter. I am troubled first that the brave people who have reported Gallagher are not named, though perhaps for their sake it is best. I am also troubled that the President is now considering pardoning Gallagher who is scheduled to go to trial for as many as 12 alleged crimes. These military stories about courageous acts of humanity are important on this weekend when we honor those who give their lives for this nation; it is important perhaps especially for those of us who mostly oppose war because they challenge some of our assumptions and remind us of the human beings that make up the armed forces.
Today we celebrate the visions, the reversals that spiritual life calls us to; we celebrate the water of life, the gatherings by the river or the pool, where we might find courage and inspiration and community to seek healing and wholeness for ourselves and our world. Amen.