Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Diaspora Politics and Risky Hospitality (Sermon by Rev. Dr. Melodie Jones Pointon August 26)


Our text for this morning is likely one you’ve

never heard a sermon preached about…or a Bible

study focus on…in fact, while it’s one that I

certainly must’ve read before, it never stuck out to

me before. After all, why would it, sandwiched

between the text where the great Apostle Paul and

his faithful sidekick Silas display their faith

by…singing hymns in prison….

(You remember this story, about how Paul

and Silas are locked up in prison after preaching

the gospel at the synagogue. They are accused of

causing trouble – political unrest – and so are

imprisoned. While the are in prison, there is an

earthquake, and the doors of prison swing open.

All the prisoners leave, something the guards will

certainly pay for. All the prisoners except Paul

and Silas. They are the only prisoners to stay,

singing Psalms and praising God for what has

happened. The guards are so stunned that they

become followers of the way.)

…and the story of Paul in Athens, preaching at

the Areopagus. (Again, if you’ll remember, while

Paul is in Athens, he preaches in the synagogue, to

Jews and Gentiles, but he also widens his audience

by going to the marketplace. Athens is a place of

philosophy and learning, and Paul is soon taken to

a large rock by the Acropolis called the Areopagus

(or Mars Hill), where his message is engaging to

those learned philosophers in Athens. In fact, it

stands out today as the “sermon to the unknown

God,” where Paul is forced to leave the “proof” of

scripture behind as a way of explaining the Gospel.

Instead, he must translate the importance of the

Gospel using the Greek “unknown God” to explain

who Jesus is.)

So, you see, this story has some pretty tough

competition for our attention! And yet, when I

was reading it, I was intrigued. And after

spending the week studying and exploring it, I’ve

decided it may be my choice for our now

completed summer series, “I can’t believe that’s in

the Bible!” Or, rather, maybe it’s part of a new

series, “I didn’t know that’s in the Bible!”

In fact, my very (very) informal poll this week

revealed that no one I polled knew that Jason was

in the Bible. And, after learning that fact, three out

of four made jokes about horror movies. And one

Gen-Xer made a reference to a musician I’ve never

heard of.

Perhaps a better title for this sermon than the

thesis title you’ve got is a tale of two cities. That’s

really what this is…Luke here is telling how the

Gospel was received in the two cities of

Thessalonica and Beroea. A super short summary

is that it didn’t go well in Thessalonica, and it went

extremely well in Beroea. On the surface it’s a

“good day at work vs. bad day at work” kind of

story.

In both cities, Paul uses the same preaching

methods that the disciples have used to spread the

Gospel – pretty successfully, I might add!

Remember, this is the way the early church spread

so quickly…in Acts 2 we’re told that thousands

were being added to the church daily. The

message was new, the time was right, the Holy

Spirit powerful, and the Gospel spread. But here,

the great missionary, the Apostle Paul, struggles

(that’s right) in Thessalonica. Or at least that’s

what Luke wants us to believe.

Willie James Jennings, the late leading African

American theologian makes the case that Luke tips

his hand here, shows his prejudice. In

Thessalonica, the Jews become jealous and easily

find thugs in the marketplace. They form a mob

and attack a house church, in Jason’s home,

searching for Paul and Silas. “When they didn’t

find them (they’re not there!) they dragged Jason

and some believers before city officials. They

were shouting…. This provoked the crowd and

the city officials even more.” Thessalonica, it

seems, according to Luke, was a tough town.

But Beroea! Oh, things were much easier for

Paul and Silas to Beroea! Luke tells us that the

“Beroean Jews were more honorable…evident in

the great eagerness with which they accepted the

word and examined the scriptures each day.”

Fortunately, Luke ties it all together by

pointing out that in both places, men and women

mostly Greek God worshippers and prominent

women.

It’s an odd accounting here…this tale of two

cities.

I understand here, that when we step back, we

can see the importance of the story overall. Here

is where the Book of Acts takes a swing from

Paul’s missionary activity with the Jews to his

quest to win the gentiles. It’s completely

understandable that he would leave the

synagogues and go instead to the Areopagus!

But a little bit of digging here, and we can also

understand just why it is that Paul finds it

necessary to write not one, but two letters, to the

church in Thessalonica. In fact, as scholar

Matthew Skinner aruges, these are not only the

earliest letters of Paul we have, they are the most

pastoral. Paul really cares about this church and

these people in Thessalonica. A fun little exercise

this week or this afternoon would be to go back

through Thessalonians and see what evidence or

trace you can find that Paul is writing to a church

whose people are struggling, who are dealing with

difficult real life issues, and yet whose faith is

commendable and strong.

And it all began with rioting by ruffians.

Unfortunately, an all too familiar scene to us.

I have these images, in my mind. I only have

to go back one hundred years to name

unspeakable pain and struggle, all summed up by

simple words. World War II, the Holocaust,

Hiroshima; Korea and Viet Nam; apartheid, South

Africa, We are the World; Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran,

9-11; Lybia, Egypt, Jerusalem, Lebanon, Syria;

Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, the Freedom

Rides, and Charlottesville.

Willie James Jennings wants to defend the

rioters a little bit here, offer a little bit of humanity

and understanding. It’s important for us to

remember who the Jews are, as God’s people – to

remember their history as a people who are

displaced, in diaspora, spread all over the world.

Paul and Silas go to the safest place for them, the

one place where they can be unapologetically

Jewish, to the synagogue, and tries to replace their

God, YHWH, with a new God, Jesus. Jennings says

this, “We understand that this opposition does not

spring from pure evil or hatred of God, but for

Diaspora people it is rooted in perceived

theological insult, disrespect, and fear.”1 Big idea

– new God competes with old God. For three

weeks, Paul and Silas preach in the

synagogue…three weeks before they are run out

of town.

It leads me to wonder if some of their success in

Beroea is because of their struggles in

Thessalonica. If they learned something about

presenting the Gospel to a people whose identity

is so embedded in who they are as God’s people

that they can’t imagine a new God. Maybe it really

is easier to preach to people who’ve never heard

1 Jennings, 170.

the Gospel before than to people who are

suffering, and whose only hope comes from their

faith.

Duke professor Will Willimon, in his

commentary of Acts brings us hope by pointing

out, “Here is a new possibility of faithful life in

Diaspora where the risk of loss can be

overwhelming. This new possibility is a form of

discipleship that welcomes the reality of a new

word from God and examines the Scripture as

inseparable actions of faithfulness to the God of

Israel.”

I have to tell you, one of the major topics of

conversation in the office has been the work of

Sharon and Lynn Kandel, missionaries to South

Sudan, and the horn of Africa. She brought to us, I

think, a message about the suffering of South

Sudan, and many other places in the world. She

brought to us the reality of new governments

placed over tribal lines. She brought with her a

new term I hadn’t heard before - ….Dependence

Syndrome. Displaced persons, refugees, those

living in places other than their homes, in camps

mostly, suffer from post traumatic stress

syndrome, move to places where basic food,

shelter, and safety is provided for them, and are

left with a sense of childlike dependence on those

who provide it. What can we do? We asked?

Because we, as a church, want to be a part of the

world neighborhood. We want to love our

neighbors as ourselves. Yes, of course, those next

door. But also those in the next state, country, and

continent.

And I think, in this text, there’s an intriguing

message for us, one that Sharon Kandel shared

with us, and I think can apply to every headline in

our newspapers today, from the front page to the

back page, the top of the screen to the bottom.

I think we need to be trained to listen instead

of speak. Whether it’s a story of abuse, or neglect,

or violence, or prejudice, or injustice. What

Sharon really said was that the South Sudan needs

trained trauma counselors. It’s a theme I heard

echoed when our dear Catholic friend, Joe

McKeown, was interviewed on the BBC about the

Papal visit to Ireland in the midst of scandal in the

church. Joe responded by sharing his suffering,

and saying that suffering is suffering. Perhaps it’s

time for us, as members of the Christian church, to

go back to those places of suffering, and sit with

those who suffer.

I have to be completely honest this morning,

and confess that this text really troubled me. For

much of the week I carried it around, praying, and

thinking, what is the message here? What can we

learn from this? How can we apply it to our lives

today? And then it occurred to me…Paul, not only

learned from his experience in Thessalonica…the

people of Thessalonica stuck with him. He

couldn’t let them go. He wrote letters to them.

Lovely, wonderful, inspiring letters, to a people

immersed in Diaspora politics, in the throes of

displacement and all that means.

And I wonder…no, I’m convinced…that we are

called to do the same thing. For the neighbors

who live next door to us, and the neighbors who

live on the other side of the world from us. Amen.

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