Monday, May 26, 2014

Act. Reflect. Repeat.

Preached at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple on May 24, 2014 on Acts 17:22-34.

I have a confession to make, First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple. I’ve been cheating on you with another internship. No, no, let me finish. It gets worse. My other internship is with a campus ministry…sponsored by the Episcopalians. And the Lutherans. Yes! There it is, out in the open. Let me explain…
             I’ve been on staff at South Loop CampusMinistry since early 2013, and it’s been an exhilarating roller coaster ever since then. See, the pastor of First Trinity Lutheran Church on the South Side started working as the official campus pastor in 2012, and he offered me, a professing Methodist, a job. I’d been attending his church for a couple years, and I figured that if someone would pay me to work with college kids, I better take the offer. The thing is that Pastor Tom needed some help. See, one program he had started was a free community meal on Sunday nights at Grace Place Episcopal Church. I guess Pastor Tom remembered his days as a college student and figured that if you cook it, they will come. Well, they came, but they happened to be homeless folks from the South Loop and not students. Somehow he didn’t see that one coming.
            Instead of casting out the homeless folks, he had dinner with them. It was small group, and one night
Takin' it the stairwells at Lower Michigan
with South Loop Campus Ministry.
they had so much food left over that he and a few other people packaged the leftovers into plastic bags and wandered into the streets to see if anyone would take food from a plastic bag being carried by strangers. The answer to that quandary is yes, and that’s how SLCM’s “Takin’ to the Streets” program began. We still have free community meals at Grace Place, but now we only do them on the last Sunday of the month. We focus a lot more on preparing 60 bagged lunches of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a piece of fruit, a small bag of chips, and a doughnut from a friendly local bakery. We walk with a couple carts overflowing with paper bags up State Street and then down to Lower Wacker and back, offering food to anyone we encounter along the way.
            Then, when we get back from our 2 mile journey through the Loop, all the time looking for the people that society tries to ignore, we get to the really exciting part. We evaluate our experience. We borrow our evaluation structure from community organizing, and we do it in three parts. In the first part, each person shares one word that sums up what that person is feeling after the evening’s experiences, after which we open discussion for unpacking people’s words. The second part is what we call points of tension. When did you feel tense throughout the night? It’s very rare that a Sunday evening passes without some tension. I mean, really, just wandering into that subterranean mess of streets beneath the Loop is enough to put your stomach in a knot. We call the last part our “theological learning”, which corresponds with community organizing’s “political learning” which ends most meetings. Theological learning means anything you learned about God, faith, or even humanity, because we recognize that some people aren’t well practiced in looking for God. Then we pray.
            So let me recap this program for you. We act. We reflect. Then we repeat.
            This action-reflection model is called “praxis” in some academic circles, and it’s how we do theology at SLCM. It is also, historically speaking, how we do theology as Methodists. A lot of scholars have called John Wesley a praxis theologian, and that’s why the United Methodist Book of Discipline, our official church rule book, has “a theological task” instead of a distinct confession or catechism. Methodists act, then reflect on what we just did, and then we repeat, only a little more perfectly or holier than the previous time.
            So in the spirit of praxis, I really want to join the Athenians in heckling Paul. Maybe not for the same reasons as the rest of the crowd in Athens, but dude, Paul, can’t you see that your speech just didn’t work? Let me set the scene a little bit more. Paul has been traveling around the Aegean Sea to different cities proclaiming the lordship and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and he’s been getting into a lot of trouble for it. The keepers of first century civil society keep putting him and his comrades in prison to stop his blaspheming against the emperor in Rome—or at least to stop bothering people in the marketplace. In fact, Paul’s hosts in Beroea sent him to Athens because his own people, the Jews, were going to politely ask him to shut up before they impolitely shut him up.
            Now Athens was a different kind of town than the other places Paul had visited. It was a college town, and it attracted people who liked to learn for the sake of learning. Basically, Paul had been in the South Shore, and his friends gave him bus pass to Hyde Park. The Athenians at this point were an open-minded, academically-inclined bunch. Sure, they had forcibly poisoned Socrates a couple hundred years earlier, but they had matured since then. They even had a place called the “Areopagus” for crazy religious fanatics to entertain them. You know, crazy folks like Paul. So Paul got into Athens, did his Jesus thing, and the open-minded Athenians said, “Hm! This guy seems crazy to us. He would be perfect for the Areopagus. Let’s give him a soap box and let him go to town.” And so Paul did, and the Athenians politely humored him, at least until Paul started talking about how they would be judged by a man whom God has appointed and resurrected. That’s when the less polite Athenians, probably the ones who were only there for the extra credit for their religious studies class, started heckling him. Some were polite, but Paul had had enough of this over-educated crowd and left. Clearly Paul had not gone to the same evangelism workshops that I’ve gone to.
            Then again, maybe any critique I have of Paul’s performance at the Areopagus is really about my hang-ups with Christian evangelism and not about Paul at all. I grew up in rural, central Pennsylvania as a very active member of my little United Methodist church in Marysville, and I became quite evangelical by the time I was a teenager. I even once turned down a romantic relationship by using the excuse that I wanted to focus more on a revival in my high school. Yes, I was one of those people. I continued in my holy rolling ways during my freshman year of college in dormitory hall of drunks, potheads, and other inhibition-less people. By my second semester, I was ready to start witnessing to them. I had a pretty good relationship with one atheist engineer two doors down—his name was James—and I got my opportunity to witness to him one night while I was on crutches and I had his sympathy. We went to the cafeteria for a late supper, and I started questioning him about why he didn’t believe in God. And you know what? My hallmate didn’t want to talk about his atheism. Drats! Foiled again! I kept trying to bring up the subject again, but all James wanted to talk about was how difficult it was to maintain a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend. Girlfriend, shmirlfriend, James. Don’t you know that your soul is in peril? Flee from the wrath that is to come, James! Fleeeee!
            I had my evangelical Christian agenda, and it was not meeting my hallmate’s need for care and support that night. James didn’t need an evangelist. He needed a friend, and I wasn’t being a very good friend. I was lucky that a year later when my somewhat long-distance relationship fell apart, I did have good friends who were willing to give me the love and support I needed. In the middle of a deep, dark depression my friends brought me bit by bit back into the light. They were witnessing to me through their actions of care and love and support. They were preaching the good news to me.
            You know, Paul got this kind of good news once, too. Not the proclamation kind, but the knock-you-on-your-keister-and-accept-help kind. Back when Paul was still known as Saul and was holy rolling his way through Judea, putting Christians in prison and generally being a jerk, Jesus came and literally knocked him on his keister on the road to Damascus.
            I don’t think Jesus gave Paul all the instructions that he gave his disciples the night before his crucifixion, but Jesus still got the point across. “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” That’s one of the things Jesus told his disciples in the upper room that night long before Jesus revealed himself to Paul. “They who have my commandments and keep them…” Jesus only really gave one commandment that night to his disciples: “Just as I have loved you, you also ought to love one another.”
            Love one another. Maybe Paul received some tough love on the road to Damascus, but he got the more caring, supportive kind of love from the Christians in Damascus. They housed him and fed him and cared for him while he was sorting out his life. Even though this guy, still known as Saul, had a record of Christian’s lives living hell, they still loved him. Paul witnessed the good news through the loving action of that Christian community in Damascus, and so he witnessed Christ among them. That love brought Paul out of the darkness and bit by bit back into the light.
            One maxim I’ve learned about preaching is to avoid preaching what I don’t know. I shouldn’t try to make gleaming metaphors about astrophysics and faith because I barely passed my behavioral statistics class. I’ll leave the astrophysics to my dear friend Elizabeth who is getting her PhD in that field, and who was a great friend when I needed one after a certain nasty breakup. So I’ll leave astrophysics to her. I can, however, preach about love because I have witnessed an awful lot of love. I have witnessed love in the support that my family and friends give me even when I act like a knucklehead. I have witnessed love in how a little Lutheran church on the South Side welcomed me as a Methodist missionary and let me live in their former parsonage for nearly four years. I have witnessed love in how my fiancĂ©e, Kacie (who will be my wife in one week), is okay with me preaching tonight even when we still have SO much to do between now and our wedding.
            I have witnessed love among you, too, First United Methodist. I have witnessed love in how you help each other out when in hard times, like when someone’s mother dies or when finances are running really low. I have witnessed love when you not only provide a free breakfast for homeless guests on Saturday mornings but also when you cross lines of economic class and really listen to someone’s story. And I am witnessing love as you struggle with how to care-fully, that is, full of care, host marriages of same-gender-loving people in your building. These are acts of love, and they preach volumes about who God really is.
            Friends, we can love because God first loved us. That love very often comes through the actions of other people, but it is God’s love, nonetheless. This is God’s righteous action—to love us. As my boss at the campus ministry, Pastor Tom, likes to say, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us—me, you, and everybody else—more. And there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. God just loves us. Period.” Whether you experience that love on a mountaintop or on Lower Wacker, it’s still God’s love. God meets us wherever we are, however we are, because God just loves us.
            I think that’s what Paul was getting at while he was on his soap box at the Areopagus. He was just doing his best to witness to the love he had received from God through a faithful community of Christians. Maybe he would have done better to just get out of the way and let God love some people, but God loved the Athenians anyway. I know I would have done better back in college if I had gotten out of the way and let God love my hallmate, James, but God loved James anyway. It’s just what God does. It’s just how God acts.
            God acts. Yeah, God acts. Then we reflect. That’s what I’m really doing right now. I am reflecting on how God acts. That’s what we really do when we gather to worship. We reflect on God’s holy, righteous, and loving action. That’s what we’re really doing tonight. It’s good. It’s really good. Let’s keep doing it.
            Act. Reflect. Repeat.