God, inspired by the psalmist, we ask for the gift of unity. In a world where scapegoats are made and the vulnerable are exploited, grant us the gift of solidarity, even as the cross expresses your solidarity with us.
Today our central reading is from the book of Acts. We’re going to stay in this book for a few weeks. As you probably know, the book of Acts is a continuation of the story Luke began in the gospel that bears his name. Both books are written to someone named Theophilus, a name that means “loved by God.” So the Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus, and the book of Acts begins the story of Jesus’ impact upon the world.
What we’re diving into, then, is an account of what Easter meant to the first Christians. Without the resurrection, the life of Jesus would have meant something quite different. Now, before we begin thinking about the story Luke tells in Acts, I want to put a question in front of us. It’s this: What do we hope people remember about our community of faith from this moment in time?
Status Update: Still a pastor; also, I have received a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
I’m not usually excited to share personal medical info, but I’m happy to share this good news. I know some of us are feeling a little wary of these vaccines. While I don’t want to offer any medical advice, I will say that I’m feeling fine and I’m very thankful to have had the opportunity to get a vaccine. I can’t get back to the visitation schedule just yet, but this is a definitely step in the right direction. One more thing . . .
People often used to ask me to name my favorite Bible verse. I don’t have one. I’ve never had one. So when asked, I would usually say I liked the whole Bible or I would name whatever verse I had read most recently. Or if I was feeling snarky I’d name the verse where Jesus rebukes the religious leaders for over-valuing the Scriptures. Actually, there was a time when I would piously mention Deut. 23:13 as my favorite verse. I gave myself extra points if I could keep a straight face.
In December of 1874, the naturalist and writer, John Muir explored the forests of the Yuba River watershed in central California. Muir was a tall, thin man, usually pictured with a bushy beard and a button-up coat. Now, it’s important for us to recognize that, although Muir’s thinking on wilderness preservation and nature was far ahead of his time, his attitudes toward Black and Indigenous people were not. He was retrograde in that way. But Muir’s writing on nature is luminous.
Muir was staying with a friend during his Yuba River excursion. One day a great windstorm swept into the area. Muir tells us that there is always something exciting about the sound of a strong wind in a forest. It flows like water through the trees. It brings scents and ephemera from far off places. The windstorm of 1874’s December was, Muir said, one of the most “beautiful and exhilarating storms I ever enjoyed.” And enjoy it he did. Muir left his friend’s house and began to wonder through the forest watching the effect of the wind in the trees. He saw how they bent, how the great stems pulled at their roots.
A comedian imagines a sinner coming to confession, saying, “Bless me father for I have done an original sin. I poked a badger with a spoon.” To which the priest replies, “Well, yes, I’ve never heard of that one before.” We do love originality. So it’s not terribly hard to follow the comic Eddie Izard here and imagine congratulating someone for such creativity, even if it involves sin. That’s assuming it is a sin to poke a badger with a spoon, which it may not be.
I wonder if you’ve ever had a friend give you advice on your golf swing or your baseball swing or maybe even the way you were hitting a volleyball. I’m not thinking of the annoying, nagging ‘advice’ a backseat driver might give you, but the kind of advice that’s actually helpful. Maybe you knew you were having a hard time hitting the ball squarely, but you couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Something didn’t feel right, but you couldn’t see the issue. The same kind of thing could apply to playing an instrument. You know the piece doesn’t sound right, but you can’t figure out what’s wrong. And then, a friend or a teacher, just says it: keep your front shoulder in, keep your eye on the ball, slow down. You could receive it as an insult, but you knew there was a problem.
In our reading from the gospel of John today, Jesus says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” My hope is that we can take these words as helpful advice, like a friend or a teacher getting the root of a problem we sensed but couldn’t solve on our own.
Last week the New York Times ran a story about a disagreement between residents of rural Vermont. At first glance this doesn’t sound like a topic worthy of coverage in a national newspaper. Here’s what happened: A stocky man with a bushy beard moved from northern New York State to Vermont and bought 30 acres outside a small town. He made the move because of Vermont’s lax gun laws. Vermont is a rural state with a long tradition of hunting and the like. The New Yorker bought the land in order to open a special kind of gun range. Specifically, he wanted to establish a tactical weapons training site, a place where people from wherever could come and practice using their personal assault rifles. He set up several life-like scenarios for live-fire drills. According to the New York Times he tried to sidestep the usual permit requirements by not charging admission and thereby not officially operating a business.
Mark, the gospel writer, tells us that the Holy Spirit “drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.” There he was tempted by Satan. He was in the company of wild beasts. Angles showed up to take care of him.
What a charged tableau this is. It almost feels like a screenshot from a video game. Mark packs all this energy and contestation—this fasting, battling, fearing and angelic ministering—into two sentences.
We live at a time when it’s hard to know what to believe. This is curious because every day of our life we have more information available to us than at any prior point in the history of the world. Yet it’s still hard to know what to believe.