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Signs, Wonder…and Widening

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You can watch the video of Pastor Kris’ reflection “Signs, Wonder… and Widening” HERE.

This is a story of change. In first century Jerusalem, things are changing. In worship the past few weeks, we have been hearing Luke’s description of Jesus’s last days, death, and resurrection—all set in the context of conflict with the empire. Rigid structures of oppression.

Something was changing. God has continuously created a narrative of hope and started anew. In Jesus’ time people on the margins, the women, children, men tending to livestock in the fields and fishing local waters… these were jobs which did not pay a living wage. These were the people for whom Jesus’s message resonated. It was those who lived on the streets, begging for scraps of food and desperate for healing… people without access to the markets and healthcare… These were the people Jesus touched and taught. These were the people who began to see God’s Love through a new lens of hope.

These are the people who continued Jesus’s movement after his death.

There was no way to contain it.

God’s Word was widening outward.

We encounter another moment of change in the Jesus revolution today. Reading about the early faith community we are still in Jerusalem, sometime after Jesus’ death and ascension into God’s eternal Love. The situation in the Roman empire continued to be volatile. The book of Acts was written around 80-90 C.E. (of the Common Era). Matthew Skinner notes that the author of Luke and Acts provides “details (which) match what is known about the Romans’ siege of the city in 70 C.E. Evidently Luke’s description of the violence was colored by reports about how Jerusalem fell to Roman Forces, reports that were widely known after the Great Revolt… Luke 21:5-36 serves as a way in which the Gospel declares the revolt and other unnerving portents to be part of a universal historical drama in which God is hardly absent.”[1]

In those days of disruption, the number of people following Jesus was “increasing in number” (Acts 6:1, NRSV) and “the word of God continued to spread” (Acts 6:7).

God could not be boxed in.

God has never stood still.

In those life shattering days, Stephen reminds the faithful who listen that Moses and Jacob… and prophets throughout time… also offered testimony to God’s presence with the people in wilderness times.

John of the Cross, living in Spain in the 1500s wrote, “To get to an unknown land by unknown roads, a traveler cannot allow himself to be guided by his old experience. He has to doubt himself and seek the guidance of others. There is no way he can reach the new territory and know it truly unless he abandons familiar roads.”[2]

There is change afoot. God is continuously leading people, leading us, into a promised new land. This is what Jesus lived and Stephen preached.

And this is what upset the people in the synagogue.

Things should be and will be, different.

It was the inevitability of change which led the people to be “stiff necked,” to close their hearts and cover their ears… to oppose the movement of the Holy Spirit (Luke 7:51). God’s nudge into something new enraged them (Luke 7:54).

Tension and conflict in our lives can make us feel like we too are in the wilderness. It is scary. Unsettling. Uncertain. Embracing the unknown takes a lot of flexibility, care, grace, and love (and I’ll toss in the need for Holy… and humbling… Humor too).

But… this is where we are today. In the wilderness. Passing through the unknown.

Many of you have, rightly, been asking me when Memorial will be returning to the building for worship. The anticipation leads me to remember the stories I have heard from those of you who were a part of moving into this building on Lacy Street 30 years ago. Those of you who hammered, and painted… and planted… to make the change—the move from Madison to Fitchburg—happen. That is the kind of joy and celebration I anticipate for us as we reopen.

And then I remember Stephen retelling the story of Moses and 40 years in the desert. During that time, the Israelites become familiar with the weekly flow. Manna every morning. Water pouring forth from rocks as needed. Our desert story has included the past 13 months worshiping outside of the church building. Online worship services. Zoom meetings. FaceBook and email prayers. What was once an unknown place of wandering beyond the walls of the church has become the familiar. Our known.

I am drawn into these places of pilgrimage. The planned and unplanned journeys of our lives. A year ago, the pandemic tossed us out onto a new path. Christine Valters Paintner outlines the 8 sacred phases of a pilgrimage.[3] The journey begins with packing lightly, and crossing over a threshold. Midway through the journey there is the predictable practice of being uncomfortable. Recall the discomfort of the Israelites as they railed against Moses and Aaron out of hunger (Exo. 16:3) and thirst (17:3). In our current experience, as the vaccines have rolled out, I have watched as we have moved from being uncomfortable into the phase of beginning again. I have seen your FaceBook posts as some of you begin to venture out to restaurants and visit with family and friends. I have talked to a few people who have traveled after having reached that magical 2-week milestone past your second vaccination. At church, our Wednesday morning Bible study has an in-person section, Jamie and I are offering limited office hours, and the youth recently participated in an outdoor in person Easter Egg hunt. I have also restarted doing in-home visits.

We have begun anew.

In this rhythm of the pandemic pilgrimage, I believe we are on the move once again. The 7th step is the practice of embracing the unknown. Entering the 7th out of 8 steps means we are getting close to returning home!

But first, we must walk through this place of the unknown. Paintner asks, “What if we embraced the unknown as sacred wisdom for the unfolding of our lives? What if we considered them as holy guides and windows into the immensity of God?” for “The divine is that power which disrupts everything; it is at heart a great mystery at work.”[4]

What if we were to purposefully watch for God’s great mystery to be at work as we consider the move to a blended in-person and online worship?

Now, at this point of the sermon you might be wondering what the story of Stephen, which ends with his death, has to do with this sense of movement and pilgrimage. Remember the Good News is that life overcomes and Jesus’s death was not the end. God’s story widened. More people began to believe the message. Similarly, following Stephen’s death, there was another great shift.

The verses immediately ahead are difficult to read. Luke tells us “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all… were scattered…” (Acts 8:1). All were scattered. But the scattering led to a movement beyond Jerusalem. Those fleeing continued to live and tell the story of Jesus. This diaspora led to the Good News spreading far and wide.

People of God, over the past year you… each and every one of you… have been a living testimony that God meets us in wilderness places. Soon we will be on the move once again. This space, our online sanctuary will continue, but we will be finding ways to blend it with in person worship. As we step into this time of embracing the unknown, God continues to widen outward.

We are the people who are now continuing Jesus’s movement.

God works in these places of unknowing and leads us into a whole new realm of possibilities.

God is always on the move.

God is never boxed in.

~Pastor Kris

Reflection on Acts 6:1-7:2a, 44-60 offered April 18, 2021

[1] Matthew L. Skinner, A Companion to the New Testament (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017), 183.

[2] In Christine Valters Paintner, The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2015), 109.

[3] Christine Valters Paintner, The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2015).

[4] Christine Valters Paintner, The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2015), 111.