April 10, 2016 – Third Sunday of Easter
Proclaimer: Rev. Dennis W. Foust, PhD
Sermon Series: Living the Resurrection
Worship Theme: Proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God
Sermon: Going Along
Scripture: Acts 9:1-20
God is NOT in the chain-making business.
However, it seems as if some people, who profess to be followers of Jesus, are quite confused about this biblical idea and reality incarnated by Christ. The recent House Bill 2, passed by the North Carolina legislature and signed by our governor proclaims a chain-making God. HB-2 limits the rights of some of us and treats some of us as if we are second-class citizens. This legislation is ungodly because it suggests God is in the chain-making business.
Do you remember what motivated the ancient Egyptians to put shackles and chains on the Hebrews? Exodus 1:8-10 gives us the answer: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them…’” A new political leadership blind to past progress and filled with bias and fear, established structures where one group of people was subjected to ridicule, shame, mistrust, prejudice, suffering, and disempowerment. The Hebrews had done nothing to harm the Egyptians. However, a new political leader came into power in Egypt who did not know Joseph. In other words, peace and understanding were diminished because of the new leader’s ignorance of the past progress which prior generations had made on relational equality based on unity through diversity and goals for the common good. Fear and bias motivated the Egyptians to enact policies placing the Hebrews in chains; limiting their freedoms and human rights. The Egyptians even convinced themselves their gods approved. But, friends, God is NOT in the chain-making business; not then, not now.
Bias and fear have been around so long that many people have determined it is just part of the status quo for some individuals to be put in chains or kept in chains. And, if we are not careful, we, as followers of Jesus will just go along with this status quo. God knows that “Christians” have invested in and sanctioned chain-making through history. Of course, if a person, a group of people or a movement are seeking to cause harm or do evil, chains are apropos. However, we know very well that The St. John’s Way is to avoid living under the control of ignorance, or bias or fear. St. Johnsians are followers of Jesus; so we do not just go along with anyone or any idea unless it reflects the teachings and lifestyle practices of Jesus.
In civilized societies, we have moved beyond enslaving people who are different from us by use of chains and shackles. In civilized societies, we draw lines which become paths and then trails and then wide highways for social life. We create structures and systems that shackle entire segments of our population. Civilized people get caught up in the busy-ness of living and ‘go along’ with the status quo by drawing people outside circles of acceptance, denying them opportunities or limiting their rights by law. Some go so far as to suggest it is God’s will for ‘people who are different’ to have limited lives. But friends, when people are limited or chained just because they are different, the will of God is not the motivating vision and The Spirit of God’s Holiness is not the empowering force. God is NOT in the chain-making business.
Let’s approach this subject from another direction. Do you know anyone who is nice and kind, maybe even religious, yet afraid of those they do not know or understand; those different from themselves? If you know anyone like this, then you know your friends are not in the chain-making business. They’re just afraid and they are merely ‘going along.’ Most of the time, these people do not mean to be mean or cause pain. However, by refusing to alleviate suffering or by affirming the status quo, their fear is paying dues to the chain-makers. They are like people who used to defend separate water fountains just because it was the status quo.
Dr. David Gushee is one of our trustworthy Baptist and ecumenical voices today in the area of ethics. He is a professor at Mercer University and a frequent writer for Baptist blogs and publications. Last week, he wrote an article entitled, “When Religion Makes People Worse.” Here I quote from his article:
“Religion can do a great job of helping believers discern right from wrong. Religion can help believers relate kindly and justly to other people. And, religion can stiffen the will of believers when they face unjust suffering for their faith…But, now I see that religion can sometimes do a poor job helping believers discern right from wrong or relate kindly and justly to others. And religion can easily persuade people that the rejection they experience for their hurtful or ill-considered convictions is martyrdom for “God’s truth,” leaving them even more entrenched in their destructive beliefs.”
‘How else can we explain thousands of Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer dying resisting Hitler while many Christians followed Hitler and murdered children and Jews in the name of God? How else can we explain some “Christians” being members of the Ku Klux Klan while other Christians strive to put an end to slavery and later to segregation and lynching?’ How else can we explain how some Christians in Charlotte are filled with Islamaphobia while the senior minister of St. John’s, who also proclaims to be a “Christian,” sits on the board of directors for Charlotte’s interfaith initiative, MeckMIN, and on the Interfaith Relations Commission of the Baptist World Alliance?
Again, I quote David Gushee who pronounces, “A faith that stands with the crucified is very different from a faith that does the crucifying. The question becomes not whether you say you say you follow Jesus, but which Jesus you follow.” St. John’s, many of us have discovered in recent years, “…versions of Christianity that actually make people worse human beings than they might otherwise have been…if they were just good old-fashioned pagans.” I cannot tell you how often I have heard of someone choosing to become a member of ‘such and such church,’ and my reaction is “oh no; another biased and afraid ‘Christian’ is being baked.”
When bias and fear take control, we are not protecting freedom; we are protecting hate. When bias and fear take control, we are just going along with the chain-makers. The chain-makers profit from keeping other people in chains. By keeping people who are different in chains, the chain-makers protect their profits made by promoting bias, increase their power over those who are different and manipulate those who live in fear.
Consider why the angels of biblical literature always greet their guests with the words, “Be not afraid.” Consider why Jesus repeatedly encouraged his followers, “Fear not.” It is because God’s message and Jesus’ ministry always dispel fear.
God IS NOT in the chain-making business! God IS in the chain-breaking business!
In addition to Exodus, there are many stories in the Bible that proclaim this message. Today, we consider Saul of Tarsus, a young and deeply religious man. Saul was giving his life to his understanding of God. We are introduced to Saul in the 7th chapter of Acts, verse 58. As Stephen was being stoned to death because he professed Jesus to be the Lord of his faith, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of Saul indicating he had a position of religious leadership. Saul approved of this killing of Stephen and was a central leader in the severe persecution of the early church. Followers of Jesus scattered. Acts 8:3 recounts: “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” In other words, Saul’s religious bias and fear put him in the chain-making business. He was just going along with what had always seemed to him to be the religious right.
Saul, while breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord went to the High Priest filled with biased hate and angry fear. Saul asked for letters of authority so he could enter the synagogues at Damascus and if he found any men or women who belonged to the Way, he could arrest them, put them in chains and bring them to the Jerusalem prison.
AND, THEN, AS HE WAS GOING ALONG, THE LIGHT OF GOD HAPPENED!
It was the last day of Saul’s journey, from Jerusalem to Damascus, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the ancient world. As he was ‘going along,’ he was interrupted by an experience that spiritually transformed his life; in religious language, he was converted.
Some suggest Saul was converted from being a non-religious person to being a religious person. But, he was not. Saul was already devoutly religious. Some suggest Saul was converted from being a Jew to being a Christian. But, he was not. The word Christian was not even being used as of yet. Followers of Jesus were called the Way.
So, how was Saul converted? He was converted in his understanding of God and in his commitment to follow the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus. Saul was converted from following a ‘chain-making God’ to following the ‘chain-breaking God’ revealed in Jesus Christ. Ananias and other followers of the Way in Damascus taught Saul about Jesus’ message; emphasizing the importance of a teaching community. Possibly, Ananias told Saul about Jesus’ words, “inasmuch as you have done this unto the least of these, you have done this unto me.”
As Saul opened his life to God through God’s Self-Revelation incarnated in Jesus, he realized that he was not persecuting people who were different; he was persecuting the Lord. Saul stopped following the chain-making God and started following the chain-breaking God. The rest of Saul’s life was lived as The Apostle Paul. The word, ‘apostle’ means ‘sent out.’ Paul was sent out to join God in breaking the chains that imprison humanity in bondage to sin, bias, prejudice, injustice, hate, fear and on and on.
Today, many people are confused about the following ‘The Way of Jesus.’ These confused folks are supporting the chain-makers. They criticize Pope Francis as he incarnates compassionate servanthood while praising a self-promoter who reads ‘Two Corinthians’ and mocks true Jesus followers using phrases like, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
Today, friends, God continues to convert people who are just ‘going along.’ God continues to break forth in light – blinding people who are just ‘going along’ with the status quo, pretending it to be the will of God. The God of Jesus continues to convert people from the evils of the chain-making business to the Kingdom work of chain-breaking. Even today, God’s Light may blind you to the ways you have been seeing and give you a new vision of how God’s Kingdom work is breaking chains of bias, prejudice, fear and hate in today’s world.
Now, I do not believe that our governor and legislators are evil people. However, I am convinced they need to be spiritually converted, like Saul, from following the chain-making God to following the chain-breaking God. They need the Light of God to blind them so they can begin to see others as creations of God. They need to hear Jesus’ voice, “Why are you persecuting me?” and realize they cannot follow The Way of Jesus and persecute human beings.
So, I commission you, Christ’s Church, to follow in the footsteps of Moses speaking to the chain-making powers, “Let my people go!” As followers of The Way of Jesus, I send you forth to labor with God in the chain-breaking business. As Jesus touched the marginalized and outsiders of his context, let us touch the marginalized of our context; and let us break free of the cultural laws and religious chains which can enslave us. Jesus called his followers, “The light of the world.” So, go forth ‘light,’ to follow Jesus in God’s law of love. And, in your ‘GOING ALONG’ with Jesus, remember Jesus reveals to us that God is NOT in the chain-making business; God IS in the chain-breaking business. Amen and AMEN!