May 12, 2019 Sermon

“God’s Power, Humans Hands”                                                                          Acts 13:1-3, 14:8-18
Rev. Sean Weston                                                                                                                           
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
May 12, 2019

“Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

These words were spoken by Dorothy Day, a 20th century Catholic. Day co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, which continues to operate homes throughout the nation and world, providing hospitality, shelter, and community to people in need of food or a place to stay. She spent her life working for justice in several ways: imprisoned while protesting for womens’ right to vote, standing against popular wars, getting shot while working for racial justice – a fierce critic of our nation’s economic system of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. She was radical, she had a famous scowl, and in life was controversial inside and outside the church.

Today, almost forty years after her death, she is a candidate for sainthood in the Romans Catholic Church. Almost four years ago, she was one of four U.S. Americans praised by Pope Francis in his speech to Congress. The Rev. James Martin is a Catholic Priest who knew her, and witnessed her kitchen table reaction one day to being included in a Time Magazine list of living saints. “What Dorothy certainly opposed, he notes, “-and what saint wouldn’t? – was being put on a pedestal, fitted to some pre-fab conception of holiness that would strip her of her humanity and, at the same time, dismiss the radical challenge of the gospel. ‘Dorothy Day could do such things (live in poverty, feed the hungry, go to jail for the cause of peace). She’s a saint.’ For those who said this sort of thing, the implication was that such actions – which would be out of reach for ordinary folk – must have come easily for her. She had no patience for that kind of cop out.” [1]

Of course, when we humans see other humans do amazing things, that is often the first thing we will do: place that person up on a pedestal and imagine that they are not human – or at least not human in the same way that the rest of us are human. This is what happened in today’s scripture reading when the early church leader Paul participated in the healing of a man who couldn’t walk. What was the first response from the crowd? It was to shout: “ ‘The gods have taken human form and have come down to visit us!’” Barnabas must really be the greek god Zeus, they figured, and Paul must be the god Hermes. And so the people did what people do in the presence of the divine: the priest brought sacrifices for the people to offer in worship and praise.

This wasn’t the reaction Paul and Barnabas were hoping for. In fact, they took it pretty hard, tearing their clothes in protest, rushing to the crowd shouting, “‘People, what are you doing? We are humans too! Just like you!” In its way, this is really quite funny. Everyone is getting ready to offer sacrifices to them, joyfully celebrating the presence of gods on earth while the supposed gods themselves are freaking out and tearing their clothes off and shouting back at a shouting crowd and wow, just look how fast misunderstandings can lead to some really weird situations.

“We are humans too! Just like you!”

It’s not hard to understand the crowd’s confusion. After all, it’s not every day that they – or we – see someone who cannot walk stand up and walk. We humans don’t have that sort of power, do we? So they took what they were experiencing and fit it into a box, a box we could call: “what they thought they knew about the world.” Humans don’t do that sort of thing, so they must not be human. They must be gods, and what do we do with gods? Sacrifice. Worship.

But Paul and Barnabas didn’t want sacrifice or worship. They wanted the people to turn to the living God. They wanted the people not to follow them or worship them but to follow Christ and worship Christ. Like Dorothy Day, they didn’t want to be put on a pedestal. They wanted companions on the hard journey of discipleship, to follow Jesus together.

(Given the times in which we live I feel the need to point especially to one way that Paul was very human, and that is in the way he treated the beliefs of those to whom he was speaking: calling them to turn away from “worthless things” to God. As Baptist pastor the Rev. Lia Scholl writes while exploring this text, “no religious practice is worthless.”[2] Paul could have invited the people to follow Jesus without bad-mouthing their beliefs – and so can we.).

Paul and Barnabas and Dorothy were only human, with shortcomings and limits and getting things wrong. Yet they each in their own way had somehow tapped into something powerful – the power of the Holy Spirit. With the Spirit’s power they were able to do amazing things. And since they were human like we are human, we too have access to the power of the Holy Spirit, by which we can do amazing things with our very hands and hearts. If we accept the call.

Thought she was reluctant to be called one, Dorothy Day taught about the importance of the saints, like Paul and Barnabas and so many more, for providing examples of faithful living in the world – not as superhuman, not as gods, but as flesh-and-blood people like you and me. “We are all called to be saints,” she wrote, “and we might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the name. We might also get used to recognizing the fact that there is some of the saint in all of us. Inasmuch as we are growing, putting off the old man [sic] and putting on Christ, there is some of the sane, the holy, the divine right there.” [3]

To be a saint, or to use more usual Protestant language – to be sanctified – is to accept the powerful faith that the Spirit offers each person. This is the calling of every Christian, not just a few saints, not just the pastors, not just the leaders, not somebody else with more smarts or more time or more faith or more energy but me and you and us. We are each called to ministry in Jesus’ name, to works of healing and mercy, justice and peace. And when we accept that calling –truly accept it – the Holy Spirit offers us the power we need.

A powerful faith – like the faith of the saints – is different. Such a faith comes from the Holy Spirit. A powerful faith is rooted in a commitment to relationship with God and one another. A powerful faith bears fruit in loving actions each day, with Christ as a model. A powerful faith refuses to accept the way things are as the way things will always be. A powerful faith is healing and liberating. A powerful faith will take risks for what is true and good and accept the suffering that often comes as a result. A powerful faith turns our lives upside down, and as powerful people will say just a few chapters later in Acts, turns the world upside down.

It might be easier, as the people in Lystra [LIS-truh] did, to keep our distance from that calling and focus only on what we might call the “Sunday Worship” aspects of faith: the singing and celebration and prayer and music and sacrifices. But the calling is to worship Jesus in the Sanctuary and to follow Jesus outside the Sanctuary. Faith that looks like Sunday morning rituals only is not really faith; neither is faith found in a life filled with deeds and action but without nurturing relationships with God and others. If we do just one or the other our faith is like a bag with no bottom: it looks a lot like a bag and could even pass for one in certain situations, but it doesn’t do what a bag is supposed to do.

Even so, God sees our baby steps, our one step forward two steps back version of following Jesus, our lukewarm response to the burning fire of the Holy Spirit. God is gracious, as Paul and Barnabas said, so God gives generously even to those whose faith leaves much to be desired. And for that I thank God every day. Yet God in Jesus Christ offers so much more. A powerful faith. As John’s gospel says, many people did not accept that offer. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood of or the will of the flesh or of the will of humankind, but of God.”

Yes, it might be easier to keep our distance from that calling, easier to protect what we have, to fit everything in a box called “what we think we know about the world.” Our lives may be dissatisfying, our church may be declining, our world may be disintegrating, but at least we know what we’re supposed to do each day. If we were to accept our calling to powerful faithfulness and truly give it our all, who knows where we could go? Who knows that changes we’d need to make? Who knows what would get turned upside down? After all, scripture says “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” It is a terrifying thing to step from the known into the unknown, to leave behind what we have and seek what God has, to let go of our need for human power and make room for God’s power.

The saints have showed us the way. They have showed us that when we answer God’s call, when we truly receive Jesus into our lives, we are given the power of the Holy Spirit. Power to help a man walk; power to move mountains and topple kingdoms and raise the dead; power to feed all who hunger and thirst, power to move from the way things are to the way God wants things to be.

Can we answer the call?

Can we receive Christ?

Can we accept the Spirit’s power?

We can, if we will step forward in faith, from the known into the unknown, from the way we’ve always done it – whether at home or work or here at church – to the way God wants us to do it; from watching and worshiping the saints to becoming sanctified with them, looking to Christ, who leads the way.

We can do this, if we will. Amen.