October 24, 2016
Immanuel Chapel, The Virginia Theological Seminary
M.Div. Senior Sermon
Acts 15:12‐22a | Psalm. 1 | 1 Cor. 15:1‐11 | Matt. 13:54‐58
There is no time in this five minute homily for a joke so feel free to give me a courtesy laugh whenever it is convenient for you (there you go, get it out of the way early). I would like to announce a title for my homily today, which is: “Staying with the Trouble.” This is also the title of a really wild book by Donna Haraway, you might want to read sometime. In it, Haraway points out that trouble is a word with numerous meanings and connotations. Two of those meanings, for our purposes, can be illustrated by two spirituals: One we just sang, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen but Jesus.” Here, trouble means problems, adversity, hard times, oppression. Jesus is recognized as being in solidarity with those in trouble. The other meaning can be found in the song, “Wade in the Water” which says, “God’s gonna trouble the water.” This is a reference to the story in John chapter 5, of a pool in Bethseda where, from time to time, an angel of God troubled the water for healing effect. Here trouble means to stir up, to roil, to get moving. “Wade in the water” reminds us that the water that we have waded into in baptism is healing water, but baptismal water should also trouble us, roil us, and get us moving outward into the world for healing effect.
Our reading from Acts has a lot to do with both meanings of trouble. The controversy at stake in Acts chapter 15 is how Gentile Christians will related to Christians within Judaism, and indeed, if there can be such a thing as Gentile Christians in the first place. The question was, does God’s grace really cross the boundary between God’s chosen people of Israel and everyone else, and if so how? Our hero for the day, James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, is convinced by the testimonies of Peter, Paul and Barnabas, that God is indeed moving among the Gentiles. At one point he mentions that he does not want to trouble Gentile followers of Christ with excessive burdens, meaning circumcision, but the fact is: this controversy was troubling for everyone, and in many ways it is still troubling. At heart, is the question of whether and how the Gospel translates across cultures and across boundaries. It was a difficult, troubling question for the Christians of the New Testament: just compare what is said in Acts 15 about eating food sacrificed to idols to what Paul says about this in Galatians or 1 Corinthians, which is quite different; then read what the author of Revelation says about it in chapter 2. There was a lot of controversy and difference surrounding this issue. The translatability of the gospel across difference has always been trouble from the beginning. This stuff is still relevant to just about every aspect of our ministries and contexts, both here at VTS and wherever we all end up afterward, as well as the national and global networks that we are all intertwined with whether we like it or not. We ARE all tangled up, twisted up in inter-relationships across cultural, socio-economic, and racial boundaries, and these tanglings produce complex and troubling questions. Acts tells us two things about all this: first, this trouble is not new, and second, stay with it. Don’t give up on the trouble. The church is only the church when it stays with the trouble, stays mixed up with difference, stays engaged with difficult situations, and stays committed to a Gospel and a God that is constantly stirring things up. Those who choose to follow this God, and this Gospel will always get into trouble.
As followers of this God, we are called to be reconcilers, and to participate in God’s plan of cosmic reconciliation. The biggest mistake we can make is to think that reconciliation is easy—that trouble can be disengaged with, or that we can sweep it under the rug. That we can ignore difference, hide from conflict and then call that reconciliation and healing. That is constant temptation, even here on this campus, with conversations about racism, with conversations about the future of the Episcopal Church, about our inter-cultural partnerships, and many other difficult things. We can’t sweep this trouble under the rug, because this trouble is us. By virtue of the troubled waters of baptism, we are a restless people who look for the troubled, hurting places in this world, and in ourselves. In this movement, we are only following a man who always seemed to walk right into trouble, Jesus, the carpenter’s son, the brother of James and the Son of God. Jesus—the incarnate Word of God—is God’s definitive statement about humanity and all our trouble, adversity, danger, and oppression: In Jesus God says to us that God is going to stay with the trouble. The incarnation means that God is with us in the trouble. And in the midst of conflict, and difference, God is working out God’s plan of salvation and healing for all. So stay with the trouble, and know that God is with us there. God will not abandon us. God has not abandoned the world. But this truth does not allow complacency. Let us be a people who are stirred up again and again, troubled to go out and seek difference, to cross boundaries, to look for trouble, hell, to be trouble, but only and always trouble with healing effect, as witnesses of God’s love and reconciliation of all creation. Amen.