Isiah Thomas, Leonard Cohen, & Learning to Sing in the Dark: A Sermon on Acts 16

Today’s reading is from Acts 16:16-34.

16 One day, when we were on the way to the place for prayer, we met a slave woman. She had a spirit that enabled her to predict the future. She made a lot of money for her owners through fortune-telling. 17 She began following Paul and us, shouting, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” 18 She did this for many days.

This annoyed Paul so much that he finally turned and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her!” It left her at that very moment.

19 Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the officials in the city center.20 When her owners approached the legal authorities, they said, “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews 21 who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in the attacks against Paul and Silas, so the authorities ordered that they be stripped of their clothes and beaten with a rod. 23 When Paul and Silas had been severely beaten, the authorities threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to secure them with great care. 24 When he received these instructions, he threw them into the innermost cell and secured their feet in stocks.

25 Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison’s foundations. The doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 When the jailer awoke and saw the open doors of the prison, he thought the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword and was about to kill himself. 28 But Paul shouted loudly, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!”

29 The jailer called for some lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He led them outside and asked, “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?”

31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your entire household.” 32 They spoke the Lord’s word to him and everyone else in his house. 33 Right then, in the middle of the night, the jailer welcomed them and washed their wounds. He and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. 34 He brought them into his home and gave them a meal. He was overjoyed because he and everyone in his household had come to believe in God.

Grace to you + peace from God our creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ, Amen.

I was reading an interview recently with Hall-of-Fame basketball player Isiah Thomas. He grew up learning how to play basketball on the playgrounds of his Chicago neighborhood. He would go anywhere with a basketball hoop to practice his jump shot. He would stay out there all day and even into the night. There were no lights on the playground, but even after dark he would stay out and practice his shot. He knew he’d made it if he heard the chain link net *clink* as the ball went through.

Here’s what he knew… If you can make a jump shot in the dark, you can most likely make it in the light as well.

Paul and Silas on their way to pray when they meet a slave-girl who is possessed by a demon. The demon makes her owners a lot of money and so they continue to reinforce this spirit inside of her — as slave owners are want to do. Anything to make a few extra bucks, right?

So Paul and Silas meet her and she starts following them for days shouting that these are men of God. Finally, it says Paul gets so annoyed that he turns around and heals her on the spot. And the demon leaves her body.

But now the slaveowners economic opportunity is gone. Remember, the slave girl isn’t a person. She holds no value to her owner as a person. She is merely an economic opportunity. But now that is gone. So they do the only sensible thing.

The throw Paul and Silas in jail. But not just any jail.
They chain their feet to the floor of the innermost cell of this prison.
They’re in the pit.

Then later on that night, around midnight, they are still praying at singing hymns to God. They are praying and singing so loud that every prisoner could hear them.

All of a sudden, the earth starts to shake. But this wasn’t just a small tremor of an earthquake. It was so violent that the very foundations of the prison were shaken. The doors flung wide. The shackles around their feet broke open.

They were free.

Now this tells us a little something about God. Even in the darkest night, even in the innermost cell, even when your feet are chained to the floor the spirit of God will shake the very foundations of your captivity and move you into freedom.

God will take even the sturdiest of shackles made of the strongest iron and bolted to the firmest of concrete foundations and God will crack those very foundations until you are released.

So, my brothers and sisters, whatever is shackling you today — whether it’s addiction, perfectionism, anxiety, whether it’s racism, sexism, and or any other ism that divides and separates, whether it’s longing for the past or fretting about the future — when we pray and sing to God, God has a way of cracking the foundations of what holds us captive and leads us into freedom.

One of my favorite Leonard Cohen lyrics is from his song “Anthem.” He writes:

“Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”

Cohen LyricMy brothers and sisters, when we sing songs that compel us to “let this house proclaim from floor to rafter” that all are welcome, our hold on this community cracks open to let the light of God shine just a little bit brighter. In just a couple minutes we’ll sing praise to “the One who breaks the darkness with a liberating light.”

When we sing these songs we can feel those shackles start to crack. We can feel the solid ground in which those chains are held start to give just a little more.

There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

So next time you are chained the floor in the innermost cell at midnight and you don’t know what to do, remember that we worship a God who brings life out of death and light out of darkness.

We’re not in the perfection business. We’re in the business of showing up — showing up in all of those times when we don’t have it figured out, when things are messy and we don’t know what to do so we throw up our hands and say, “Well, I have absolutely nothing figured out, but I’m here.”

And slowly the presence of God begins to chip away at our need to feel like we have it all together.

There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

Brothers and sisters, may you be blessed this Easter season to see the light shining through the cracks of your captivity to lead you into freedom. And may we then remember to go — GO — therefore into this world to shine the light of the risen Christ to others when they are shackled to the floor, in the innermost cell at midnight.

May we do so with glad and joyous hearts, singing “Thanks and praise to God.”

Amen.

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Why Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros Give Me Hope

First off, if you haven’t seen the video for Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros’ song “Man on Fire”, please take the 4 minutes to check it out. I promise you won’t regret it!

I think this video speaks a lot to the benefits of a creative outlet. What differentiates (wo)men from (wo)men on fire is that creative outlet. Odds are these kids have school all day, homework, chores, and all kinds of other things in their lives. That’s what makes them men or women. They have obligations and stuff going on.

But what sets them on fire is having an outlet for their creative energy.

I think, particularly in my corner of the Mainline Protestant church, we can lose sight of this fire. We can lose sight of being creative in favor of the comfort and nostalgia offered by the days of old. But if we are truly living as people of Pentecost, as people marked with tongues of fire, then we must find ways to become people on fire.

And I don’t necessarily mean in that “on fire for the Lord” kind of way because that always weirded me out. But we need to have the fires of creativity stoked in our congregations in order to escape this circular pattern of “just getting by” as churches. One way we can thrive is to engage the creative energy of people of all ages to express how they see themselves in the world around them.

This video gives me home because it’s happening. It’s happening all around us. We know that it is not out of our realm of possibility. We’re actually doing it everyday. But it is always such an incredible thing to see such creativity compiled together in a video like this.

So what’s your outlet, creative or otherwise? What do you do [that isn’t an obligation] that helps you become a person on fire?

Cheers,
Eric

A Sermon on “The Bread of Life”

“So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” – John 6:24-35

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

An author by the name of David Foster Wallace wrote an essay a few years ago that mused on the presidential election in 2000. In this essay, he wondered why so many voters, especially in the younger generations, seemed so disinterested in politics. He concluded that, more than anything else, the younger generation found politics disheartening and frankly, were quite bored by it. They were put off by talking heads that seemed to say nothing of great significance. They were cynical about people who talked about “serving a higher cause”, but who appeared to only be in it for themselves. Above all, they were disappointed, because where they were looking for genuine leaders; all they found were power-hungry opportunists.

Wallace then describes what he sees as authentic leadership:

A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do, but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. … Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please…. In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own. [Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Pg. 224-225]

This is the kind of leader that we hear about in the letter to the Ephesians today. It’s the kind of leader the early church needed – someone who can motivate the earliest followers of Jesus “to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” By ourselves, we simply cannot do the things that God calls us to do. By ourselves we’re selfish, stubborn, and blind. But when we follow God’s call, incredible things can happen.

That’s where our writer of Ephesians meets today’s gospel text from John. We pick up where we left off last week in John. Jesus and his disciples have just fed the 5,000. Jesus has just walked on water and gotten their boat to the other side. The crowds were confused about where Jesus had gone so they started off to hunt him down and they find him. Jesus starts in on them right away. I can imagine the crowds were pretty confused. They ask him, “When did you get here?” He answers them by ripping into them. He says you didn’t come here because you saw the meaning behind what just happened back there. You’re here because you got enough to eat back there and you’ve come back wanting more. He essentially accuses the crowds of using Jesus as a means of getting food, while completely missing the deeper meaning behind the things he does.

We do this too, don’t we? We come to Jesus when we need something from him. We feel the need to escape our present pain or suffering – whether that’s a broken relationship, a lost job, a sick loved one – so we come to church. If we’re not careful, the church can become like a painkiller. When we gather together as a community, we sing songs, we hear readings, we experience communion, and that can leave us feeling pretty good. It can give us that escape. It makes us feel good for a while, but then we are forced to again face that downward spiral of broken relationships, lost jobs, and sick loved ones. We have to come back to church and get that relief again.

That’s what these people who come to Jesus are looking for. Jesus gave them relief from their hunger, and so they’re back for more. Jesus is well aware of this and says,

“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures, which the Son of Man will give you…. Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Now if we would’ve been reading John’s gospel straight through, we would start to see some patterns, particularly with the Samaritan woman at the well a mere two chapters previous to this. Tell me if this sounds familiar. Jesus says to the woman,

‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

Then what comes next? … The woman says to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

Flash forward back to John 6, our Gospel for today. These men come looking for bread that spoils. They look to fill a hunger that will keep coming back. Jesus tells them of a bread which comes from heaven and gives life to the world. And what is their response? “Sir, give us this bread always.”

“Sir, give me this water.”
“Sir, give us this bread always.”

When we were in New Orleans a couple weeks back, one of our dome speakers spoke to us about bread and water. His name is Shane Claiborne and he talked to us about his work in Philadelphia with his activism and work with the homeless population. The city had passed an ordinance outlawing the feeding of homeless people in public spaces.

So one night, Shane and his friends went down to the park with bread and wine. Surely the officers wouldn’t arrest them for communing people in a public park. The cops stayed back. Soon enough people got the idea and started to add on to the communion line. The people who were living in the park could come through the line and get bread and wine, the some pizza, a sandwich, some fruit, a bottle of water and other food. Bread and wine have a way of turning into more food than we could ever imagine.

It’s in this bread and wine: Two of the most ordinary substances in the world, yet when they come from Jesus, they are sustaining and give us life. Why? Because Jesus says in the following verse, “I AM the bread of life.”

Wow. What happens here is that Jesus says that he, in himself, his very own body is the only bread that will last forever and does not spoil. It’s in these incredibly ordinary things – bread, water, and wine – that Jesus pulls back the curtain a little bit to reveal who God is for us.

Jesus is the bread of life whose life ends, ultimately, so that ours may begin.

But what do we do with that life? I think that’s where the writer of Ephesians comes back around. We are nourished and sustained by the bread of life, the very body of Jesus, so that we may go out into the world emboldened to speak out of our own brokenness, suffering, and need for daily bread so that others may experience the living water and the bread of life.

And this is a journey. There are some days we’re better at this than others. I think of the John Mayer song “In Repair”. The refrain of this song proclaims, “I’m in repair, I’m not together but I’m getting there.” Those words describe us all. None of us has it completely together all of the time. None of us go through our life unflawed and whole. But by the grace of God we are given the bread of life to enable us to put one foot in front of the other as we go out into the world to spread God’s mercy and hope. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

The Dark Knight Rises & The Power of Silence

Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.” – The Dalai Lama

Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite living film directors. He’s done MementoThe PrestigeInception, and the three newest Batmans. His movies always make me think, leave me in suspense, and freak me the heck out. The more I think about it, the things that freak me out most in his movies is the use of silence. In some of the suspenseful, crescendoing scenes in movies, we have been conditioned to expect the music to build up along with the anticipation. But what Chris Nolan does is he often uses silence to do that build up for him.

And it’s terrifying.

For those of you who have seen Dark Knight Rises [and if you haven’t, this won’t be too much of a spoiler] but when Bane is about to come out onto the football field, when he’s walking through the tunnel, don’t you expect some kind of chaotic build up to the frenzy that would take place when he enters the field? Instead, literally all we hear is the voice of a little boy beautifully singing the Star-Spangled Banner. I’ll save the lecture on nationalism in the face of imminent destruction for another day.

The point is, whenever destruction happens, we flock to sounds and chaos and noise. Whenever I’m home alone and scared, I turn on the television just so there’s some background noise going around. Anything but silence.

And when something as terrible as the shooting in Aurora happens, we hurry to make noise. We blame parents. We  blame the media, the internet, rap music. We blame the shooter’s parents, we blame this generation’s parents, we blame all parents. My particular brand of noise was against guns. But we make noise all the same. Anything but silence.

It reminds me of a passage from the Book of Job. After the initial round of sufferings against Job — call it evil’s shock and awe campaign — three of Job’s friends come to him and see that he’s in terrible distress and sadness. Here’s what they do:

12When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their head. 13They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

Initially, they make noise. But then they settle into silence. This is the response of the faithful. Immediately after the tragedy in Aurora, a pastor made sweeping declarations that all non-Christians who were killed in that theater are going to hell. I wish he would have just kept silent. That kind of noise is despicable on top of incredibly insensitive.

Why can’t we simply do as Job’s friends did? See people who are suffering and sit down and weep with them? 

We don’t have to explain away their problems, or get them to laugh to escape their pain.

People yelling louder won’t change the fact that 12 people went to a movie to be entertained, and didn’t come out of the theater alive. Dozens more came out injured.

Lest we forget the shooter. We forget that someone became so broken and jaded against the world that he felt the only thing to do was to take tear gas and guns into something as innocent as a movie theater and start shooting.

Certainly as more details emerge, and more evidence comes to light, these conversations need to happen. We need to talk about available mental health resources. We need to talk about why this kind of thing happens.

But for now… we need to recognize, as Chris Nolan does, that there is power in silence. We need to learn to sit with victims of senseless violence and say that it’s terrible and senseless and appalling.

And weep with those who weep.

Cheers,
Eric

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