Delivered at Ames UCC on May 12, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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I am not talking about when things went well and then to assign God the credit. You know how sometimes when things go poorly for others we say “there but for the grace of God go I”? That makes me very uncomfortable because it implies that God has denied grace to others.
Instead, have there been times in your life when you knew peace, breath-taking love, or unexpected strength? It likely lasted only moments and you may not yet have the words to explain it.
Or maybe nothing comes to mind.
Maybe your experience of God is at enough of a distance, or comes with enough skepticism, that giving credit to a holy other feels uncomfortable or even wrong. After all, I’m the one always saying God isn’t a master puppeteer so how could God be behind or within the minutia of our daily lives?
I will assume, though, that because you are here today, you have felt something. You have had an awareness of a something that does not fit into any other category and you are open to calling it God.
But which God?
Out-of-town apostles, Paul (formerly known as Saul) and Barnabas, eager evangelists for their new understanding of God, come to Lystra, part of modern-day Turkey. There they encounter an unnamed local who cannot walk. Paul speaks to the paralyzed man, softly enough that his words are not recorded. Then Paul gives the Lystran an assessing gaze, and now with a voice now loud enough for all in the crowd to hear, Paul tells the Lystran to stand. The man who had never walked, now stands steadily on his feet and moves about.
While that miracle is shiny and dramatic, it is nothing new.
Remember that Jesus also healed a paralytic, in the gospel of Matthew, also in front of a crowd. In that case, the local leaders who were present reacted with shock and suspicion, but the rest of the crowd was moved to glorify God. The Lystrans are different in that there is no skepticism recorded, but they are otherwise the same in their response: Look at what the gods have done! Get the priest, get garments of honor and an animal to sacrifice, let us praise our gods! When the people of Lystra see the same power in Paul that those of Israel had seen in Jesus, they likewise identify that power as divine and want to show proper thanks and obeisance.
The problem that emerges for Paul and Barnabas, is that rather than the God of Moses and Ruth, the god of Eden and Exodus, the Lystrans see the miracle as coming from the god of Olympus, Zeus, and Zeus’ divine herald, Hermes. In both Israel and Lystra, witnesses are quick to identify that something greater than themselves is at work, it’s just that their framework for how to describe the greater-than diverges.
Which freaks Paul and Barnabas out.
They were simply doing as they had been commissioned, spreading what we call good news about God in Jesus Christ. They seem unprepared for their audience to not understand who or what they represent. Apparently shocked that the Lystrans, people of a different land and culture than either of them, would fall back on their own divine classifications, would give credit to their own understanding of divinity, the apostles begin running around and rending their clothes. They try to explain that, no, they are not Zeus and Hermes, the reversal of paralysis was not the work of the Olympians. What the Lystrans witnessed was the living God at work, the author of creation and giver of sustenance.
In their panic, it seems for Paul and Barnabas that if the God of Israel does not get credit for this healing, all is lost.
Now, this passage is often used to teach evangelical missionaries—missionaries whose work is only to spread gospel, not to be of assistance—what to expect and as a lesson in the intransigence of “false” faiths.
Neither of those move me.
I am not concerned with the God of my stories being the one exclusively recognized and worshiped. My concept of God leaves room for the myriad means holiness has found to reach people, and people have found to describe that encounter. But it does have something to teach us about how, and if, we see God moving in the world, and for what do we give God credit.
Here’s why that matters: We are at every moment of every day interpreting cause and effect, assigning meaning. Someone cut us off in traffic—they must be an idiot, for example. That is a fairly harmless interpretation, unlikely to impinge on our well-being or that of others.
But there are interpretations of the world that do cause harm, grievous harm.
The white supremacist interpretation of the world by the gunman in Charleston allowed him to murder African Americans at Bible study. The Christian supremacist interpretation of the gunman in Poway allowed him to murder Jewish people at worship.
What we credit for the fabric of our shared lives will determine whether we will be able to continue to share this life at all.
So I invite you to consider your concept of God, what you give God credit for, and whether those might help us stop freaking out about our differences and learn to live together.
What do you know about God? Not what have you been taught and what you have learned.
This is a church that loves to study, that eagerly engages in and with all manner of theological perspectives and quandaries. But that kind of learning can stay filed away with other curiosities and philosophies without changing how we live or who we are.
There are other ways of knowing. Your heart knows about God. Your body knows about God. Those two loci of knowing, interdependent and ultimately beyond our control, retain raw knowledge of holiness, because that is where holiness lives, incarnate.
Ask the you that is a part of God for an image or a word or two about the nature of God’s self. Some of my words are constancy, enormity, intimacy, and hope.
How do your God words, your theo-logos, frame your interpretation of the world? How do they help you live it in a way that heals rather than hurts, that unites rather than divides?
Does your concept of God give you the power, like the paralytics in Matthew and Acts, to move through the world with otherwise impossible strength and praise? Because that is what the world needs now.
The world needs what we have failed for millennia to do on our own, what I believe can only come from the divine and for which I give the divine in all her names credit for: apostles for a joy so strong, so resolute, that all of our partisan and parochial hate gain no more ground.