Poem for a Tuesday — “The Same Inside” by Anna Swir
“Walking to your place for a love feast I saw at a street corner an old beggar woman. I took her hand, kissed her delicate cheek, we talked, she was the same inside as I am, from the same kind, I sensed this instantly as a dog knows by scent another dog. I gave her money, I could not part from her. After all, one needs someone who is close. And then I no longer knew why I was walking to your place.”
— from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Czeslaw Milosz. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996, p. 200.
Anna Swir (Anna Świrszczyńska) emerged from humble origins to become one of the most respected Polish poets of the twentieth century. She served in the Resistance during World War II and worked as a military nurse in the Warsaw Uprising. She wrote frankly about death, war, and the female body. She published nine collections of poetry, as well as plays and stories for children. She received a number of literary awards in her native Poland. She died in Krakow in 1984.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Prisoners Freed” Acts 16:16-34
On May fourteenth, Payton Gendron, an eighteen-year-old white male with an assault rifle and body armor, entered the Tops Market in the predominantly African American East Side neighborhood of Buffalo. He opened fire, killing ten black shoppers and workers. Gendron drove 200 miles to commit his crime, and we know from a manifesto that he wrote and the video footage that he livestreamed of his attack that he was motivated by racial hate. Among the victims was eighty-six-year-old Ruth Whitfield. Ruth was on her way home from visiting her husband in nursing care. Also killed was sixty-seven-year-old Heyward Patterson, a deacon at his church, who was giving rides to shoppers that needed them.
On May fifteenth, members of the Laguna Woods Taiwanese Presbyterian Church came under attack as they shared lunch in the church hall following worship. David Chou was a visitor that day. He came armed with two nine-millimeter guns, a bag of Molotov cocktails, and anti-Taiwanese beliefs. Chou visited with church members and shared lunch before launching his attack. Dr. John Cheng, an orthopedist, was killed when he charged the gunman, but his brave actions allowed others to overpower and hogtie their attacker. Five people, ranging in age from sixty-six to ninety-two were wounded, four of them critically.
On Tuesday, an armed gunman, eighteen-year-old Salvador Ramos, entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas through a back door that had been propped open. Just the week before, Ramos purchased two AR-15 assault-style rifles and a lot of ammunition for his birthday. At the school, Ramos entered a fourth grade classroom and killed nineteen children and two teachers before being shot by federal officers. Among the dead was ten-year-old Jose Flores, Jr, who loved baseball, videogames, and being an amazing big brother. Also killed was veteran teacher Irma Garcia, described as sweet, kind, and loving. She tried to shield the children from the gunman.
In the wake of so much senseless violence, we are heartbroken, grieved, and weary. We struggle to imagine the enormity of the loss. We consider how we would feel if the lives lost were our grandpas, our children, our teachers. It feels like we are trapped in an endless cycle of violent attacks, followed by thoughts and prayers, followed by calls for change, followed by the failure to take action, followed by yet another incident of mass violence. It is as if we are prisoners of an epic cycle of senseless, horrific death that repeats, over and over again.
The Apostle Paul was imprisoned many times as he took the gospel out into the Greco-Roman world. Indeed, four of Paul’s epistles were written from prison and he repeatedly described himself as being in chains for the sake of the gospel. Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes Paul’s stay as a “guest of the emperor” in the Roman colony of Philippi.
It all started when Paul exorcised a pneuma puthona, spirit of the python, the ancient serpent who guarded the oracle at Delphi. We don’t know how, but this demon had taken up residence in the belly of a slave girl and spoke prophecy to the highest bidder. This poor girl was doubly enslaved. She was held in the python’s coiled grasp and held captive by men who exploited her suffering to make “a great deal” of money. These slave owners were irate when their income stream dried up, so they had Paul and Silas arrested on trumped-up charges of disturbing the peace and promoting anti-Roman sentiment. It didn’t take much to gather an angry mob to call for immediate, harsh, and violent punishment. Paul and Silas were stripped, flogged, chained, and thrown into the inmost part of the jail, the tullianum, a dungeon without light or fresh air where those who had committed the most serious crimes or were of the very lowest level of society were kept.
That’s when this story gets really interesting. Severely punished and unjustly imprisoned, we expect Paul and Silas to tend their wounds and silently languish. But around midnight, the two men were praying and singing psalms. Philippi’s deepest dungeon became an impromptu church. Paul and Silas found hope in the Lord. Other prisoners listened in, longing for good news in the dark. Next, the presence of the Most-High God was revealed: the earth shook violently, the prison’s foundations rocked, doors sprung open, chains were loosed and prisoners freed; yet, instead of making a break for it, Paul and Silas stuck around. They saved the life of their jailer, shared the good news of salvation, and baptized the entire household. The next day when the apostles were exonerated, they went forth renewed in God’s power and purpose. How is that for a Hollywood ending?
It’s a wild and hopeful story of prisoners freed, one that we need to hear as we languish in dark times of senseless violence, hate, and mass shootings. It’s a story that can speak to hearts hurting with unending grief and overwhelming fear. It’s a story that contradicts our belief that we are powerless to make a difference and put an end to the cycle of meaningless death. Would you like to know how?
It begins with what we do in the dark. Bruised by the world’s brutality, it is easy to throw up our hands and feel powerless. And yet, we are not alone in the dark. God faced the worst of human violence for love’s sake when Jesus suffered a cruel and savage death on the cross. In Jesus, God infused the world’s suffering with God’s presence. And so, we trust that God was there as Payton Gendron prowled the aisles of that East Side Tops Market. God was there in the church hall when Taiwanese Presbyterians came under attack. God was there in Robb Elementary School as children wept and teachers pleaded. God is with us in our darkness, from the inner dungeon of a Philippian jail to the hushed silence of our sanctuary. We are not alone in the dark, and that is something to trust in, to pray and sing about. In a world where we feel we are prisoners of an endless cycle of violence, we can offer a bright and lyrical hope to all who feel alone and afraid in the dark. Sing and pray, my friends.
We can trust that God, who is with us in the dark, is powerful. In teaching about this story, Professor Brian Peterson of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC points to the earthquake. Peterson writes that “this earthquake is the visible manifestation of God shaking this world’s powers to their foundations.” God was more powerful than a Roman jail. God is more powerful than the violence of this world. God is more powerful than the economic interests that make big money off the sale of guns and ammunition. God is more powerful than the powers that seek to make political hay from gun violence without effecting any change. Our all-powerful God longs to shake things up, to rock the foundations of a world that has grown numb to senseless attacks. God longs to set prisoners of violence free. Trust in the power of God, my friends.
That all-powerful God calls faithful people everywhere to shake things up. We are grateful citizens of this nation, and yet we belong to the Kingdom where Christ is King and love is the byword. We have been saved and freed for God’s purpose. In response to that amazing grace, we dare each day to nudge this broken world a little closer to that holy Kingdom that is all around us and still to come.
It doesn’t matter what your social or political beliefs may be. There is plenty of Kingdom work for those who would dare to break that horrific cycle of violence. If we believe that mental illness is to blame, then we need to be out there making a healthcare system where those who suffer from mental illness get the best possible care, provided with great compassion and medical excellence at reasonable cost. If we believe that hate is to blame, then we have a lot of loving to do, we have many vulnerable people to shelter, and we have the work of non-violent resistance ahead of us. If we believe that political agendas and gridlock impede change, then we need to find candidates who listen and use our votes to bring change to the halls of power. If we believe that greed is the problem, from DC lobbyists to arms manufacturers, from videogame designers to an entertainment industry that glorifies violent heroes, then we need to think seriously about how we spend our money, time, and attention. Never underestimate the power of collective action shared in pursuit of a Kingdom-purpose. With God’s help, we can be world-changing. Let’s shake things up, my friends.
If we squander our freedom with endless hand-wringing, indifference, or political in-fighting, we know what the consequences will be. That cycle of violence will continue. Senseless violent attacks will provoke our thoughts and prayers. We’ll fail to take meaningful action. We’ll lapse into apathy and indifference. Then, yet another mass shooting at a place like Robb Elementary School or the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church or Tops Market will again launch the same brutal and intolerable cycle. We don’t want that for our world. We don’t want that for our children.
Sing and pray. Trust in God. Shake things up.
Jake Bleiberg, Jim Venturo, and Elliot Spagat. “Gunman’s Final 90 Minutes Fuel Questions about Police Delays” in Associated Press News, May 26, 2022. Accessed online at apnews.com.
Eric Levinson, et al. “Uvalde School Shooting Suspect Was a Loner Who Bought Two Assault Rifles for His 18th Birthday” in CNN News, May 27, 2022. Accessed online at cnn.com.
AP News Staff. “Buffalo Supermarket Shooting: What Do We Know So Far?” in Associated Press News, May 24, 2022. Accessed online at apnews.com.
Damian Dovarganes and Christopher Weber. CA Churchgoers Detained Gunman in Deadly Attack” in Associated Press News, May 16, 2022. Accessed online at apnews.com.
16One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
“On the tidal mud, just before sunset, dozens of starfishes were creeping. It was as though the mud were a sky and enormous, imperfect stars moved across it as slowly as the actual stars cross heaven. All at once they stopped, and, as if they had simply increased their receptivity to gravity, they sank down into the mud, faded down into it and lay still, and by the time pink of sunset broke across them they were as invisible as the true stars at daybreak.”
from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Czeslaw Milosz. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996, p. 35
Born in Rhode Island, Galway Kinnell studied at Princeton University and traveled to Paris with a Fulbright Fellowship. He was committed to the cause of civil rights, serving with the Congress of Racial Equality and registering voters in Louisiana, where he was arrested for his efforts. Hudson Review contributor Vernon Young described Kinnell as “a poet of the landscape, a poet of soliloquy, a poet of the city’s underside and a poet who speaks for thieves, pushcart vendors and lumberjacks with an unforced simulation of the vernacular.” His collection Selected Poems (1980) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. From 1989 to 1993, he was the Poet Laureate for the state of Vermont.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Beyond the Dead End” Acts 16:6-15
We can imagine the Apostle Paul’s disappointment. The Jerusalem Council blessed his mission to the Gentiles. He left Antioch with big plans: to revisit the churches he had planted on his last missionary journey and then push on into new territory. But 750 miles into Paul’s second journey, it appeared that he was at a dead end. First, the Holy Spirit had turned him around in Asia, and then, the Spirit of Jesus had blocked his way in Bithynia. 750 miles on foot, that’s a long way to go on a dead-end road.
As Paul retreated to the busy seaport of Troas on the Aegean, he must have felt frustrated and grieved. He had gotten all the proper permissions. He had the best intentions. And still, it was a no-go. Even worse, he had dragged friends along on his folly: Silas, Timothy, and Luke. As the team bedded down for the night, Paul was certainly puzzled—maybe even a little angered—by God, who had called him to this great missionary purpose, yet thwarted his efforts at every new turn. It seemed that he had come to the end of the road.
We know how it feels to hit a dead end. We have been there in our personal lives. We’ve spent years in relationships with significant others who would never commit. We have had broken friendships that will never be mended. We have had family problems that just never get resolved.
We have hit dead ends in the workplace. Armed with a degree in our field of study, we step into a first job and find it is not at all what we had hoped or wanted. We’ve worked long years for businesses that fail. We’ve done our very best for our boss and still the promotion never comes.
Sometimes we hit a dead end with our bodies, our physical health. There’s the natural progression of age—we no longer have the legs for mountain climbing or the eyesight for fine needlework. Or a difficult diagnosis can have life-changing consequences, like medications with debilitating side-effects or doctor’s appointments rob us of our days off. Sometimes, our dead end leaves us hoping for a medical miracle.
We don’t like dead ends. At the dead end, we feel like failures and are filled with “if onlys.” If only I had apologized. If only I had accepted that other job. If only I had taken better care of myself when I was younger. At the dead end, we may wonder if we have wasted our best efforts. At the dead end, we may question God’s purpose and even God’s presence.
Paul must have felt a lot like that when he and his friends turned in for the night in Troas, lacking direction and wondering where to go. That night, Paul found new vision. A Greek man, a Macedonian from the heart of the old Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, spoke to Paul. He pleaded for Paul’s help, calling the apostle to come over, to cross the Aegean Sea. The apostle awoke with the conviction that the message was from God almighty, who was calling him in an entirely new direction.
After sharing his vision with Silas, Timothy, and Luke, they all agreed, “Macedonia, here we come!” At first light, the men went down to the waterfront. They booked passage for Neapolis, the port city of Macedonia. As they set sail, a promising tailwind pushed them on to their destination in record time. As Paul and his friends stood on the deck with the wind at their backs and the ocean spray in their faces, it must have felt like a holy affirmation of their new direction.
On some days, it can feel hard to imagine that a fresh start awaits on the far side of our dead ends. It’s difficult to see past grief and heartache, pain and loss, doubts and fears. Dead ends really do feel lousy. Yet, dead ends can be turning points or unexpected twists in a journey that continues. Sometimes, when we take stock at the dead end, we find that we have grown through our experience. There is wisdom that comes with failure, insight gleaned from our dashed dreams, fresh understanding that grants patience when circumstances are beyond our control. We may not have a spectacular midnight vision from the Lord, but newness and possibility can emerge from the ash heap of our dead ends.
There is life for us beyond the dead ends in our personal lives. On the far-side of the dead end, we may find a new relationship or discover joy in the freedom of being unattached. We make new friends, tend those kinships better, and keep healthier boundaries. We find the possibility for peace, even when our family stays stuck. We may choose to make a family of our own with those who accept us as we are and support us in our growth.
There is possibility for us beyond the dead ends we find in the workplace. Beyond the dead end, we take the time to discern our gifts and learn how God would have us use those abilities in meaningful and productive ways. Or, we find a new job with different, more meaningful responsibilities, colleagues, and learning experiences. Or, we realize that life isn’t about a paycheck. We find fulfillment beyond the unfulfilling workplace in our families, pass times, and service to the community.
There are fresh starts for us beyond the dead ends of growing age and failing health. Indeed, the dead end of diminishing ability can lead to new interests. We trade the tennis racquet for the pickleball paddle. We trade mountain climbing for trail walking. On the far side of the dead end, we learn to live with that diagnosis. We replace the burgers and fries with grilled salmon and a fresh, leafy salad – and we may even learn to like it. We find the support we need to accept our limits in small groups and the prayers of faithful friends. Even when we must acknowledge the finitude of our days—the dead end that we will all one day meet, we savor the time we have, drink each day to the last drop, and trust that with God, there is always an eternal more that awaits us in that far brighter light on that far better shore
The Apostle Paul had one more twist on his missionary journey. He spent some days in Philippi without any success to speak of. On the Sabbath morning when he left the city and headed down to the river in search of an informal synagogue, he was probably wondering about the wisdom of this “new direction.” There had been no Macedonian man waiting to greet him. On the contrary, it was the Gentile woman Lydia, an affluent merchant of imperial cloth, whom he found, gathered with her household at the riverside to pray and meditate upon the Word.
Paul let go of his expectations and followed the Spirit’s lead. He shared the good news of Jesus and God’s love that is stronger than death. And Lydia followed the Spirit’s lead, too, with open ears, open heart, and an open home. Imagine the rejoicing on that riverbank, the shouts of “Alleluia!” “Amen!” and “Thanks be to God!” as Lydia was baptized, and Paul’s first church beyond the dead end was planted. Now, that’s what I call a new beginning.
Paul’s story speaks to us, we who have languished in the cul-de-sac of dead ends and second-guessed our new beginnings. Paul reminds us that our path and our purpose ultimately belong to God and we are never alone on the journey. We can trust that the Spirit is at work in us, just as it is at work in others. God’s Spirit opens ears, opens hearts, and opens the way to the future that God holds ready. Beyond our dead ends, the Spirit beckons to us, “Come over.”
Brian Peterson. “Commentary on Acts 16:9-15” in Preaching This Week, May 5, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Jennifer Kaalund. “Commentary on Acts 16:9-15” in Preaching This Week, May 26, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Megan McDonough. “Dead Ends Are New Beginnings.” Accessed online at wholebeinginstitute.com.
Dixie Somers. “7 Dead Ends in Life and How to Avoid Them.” Accessed online at lifehack.org.
6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 11 We therefore set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed[b] there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
Poem for a Tuesday — “How I Came to Have a Man’s Name”
by Emma Lee Warrior
“Before a January dawn, under a moondog sky, Yellow Dust hitched up a team to a straw-filled sleigh. Snow squeaked against the runners in reply to the crisp crackling cottonwoods. They bundled up bravely in buffalo robes, their figures pronounced by the white of night; the still distance of the Wolf Trail [Milky Way] greeted them, and Ipisowahs, the boy child of Natosi [the sun], and Kokomiikiisom [the moon], watched their hurry. My momma’s body was bent with pain. Otohkostskaksin [Yellow Dust] sensed the Morning Star’s presence so he beseeched him:
‘Aayo, Ipisowahs, you see us now, pitiful creatures. We are thankful there is no wind. We are thankful for your light. Guide us safely to our destination. May my daughter give birth in a warm place. May her baby be a boy; may he have your name. May he be fortunate because of your name. May he live long and be happy. Bestow your name upon him, Ipisowahs. His name will be Ipisowahs. Aayo, help us, we are pitiful.’
And Ipisowahs led them that icy night through the Old Man River Valley and out onto the frozen prairie. They made it to the hospital where my mother pushed me into the world and nobody bothered to change my name.”
in Reinventing the Enemy’s Language, ed. Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird. W.W. Norton: New York, 1997, p.73.
Emma Lee Warrior is Blackfoot. She was born in Brocket, Alberta and raised on the Peigan Reserve. Her grandparents were keepers of the Blackfoot traditions and language. Warrior remembers, “The main thing I learned from them was to be good to people and animals and to look forward to summer. Animals are our relations. People, animals, and nature were given to us by the Giver of Life.” She survived ten years at a residential boarding school.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Out of Bounds” Acts 11:1-18
Canadians were shocked last May by the news of unmarked graves at residential schools. 215 graves of indigenous children were found at the Kamloops Indian School in British Colombia. A few weeks later, 751 graves were discovered at a residential school in Saskatchewan. Those schools were part of a national policy of assimilation for First Nations’ children which was in place from 1869 until the 1990s. Indigenous children were removed from their families and sent to state-sponsored Christian schools. There they received a basic education and the gospel. Seventy percent of the residential schools were run by the Catholic Church. Duncan Campbell Scott, who served as the Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs and ran the boarding school program from 1912-1932, once said, “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”
Those residential schools were often run by people with little training, empathy, or cultural sensitivity. 65-year-old John Jones recalls his experience as a 7-year-old, taken from his family on the Nahoose Nation and sent to the Alberni Residential School. There he was punished for speaking his native language or talking about his cultural heritage. At the residential school, John was subjected to daily physical punishment—paddled, slapped, and hit with belts. He remembers being regularly berated as a dirty, stupid, good-for-nothing Indian. He was sexually abused by a teacher who traded chocolate bars for illicit late-night visits.
The impact of the residential school system cannot be overstated. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined that many of the 150,000 children who were sent to the schools were subjected to the same sort of abuse as John Jones. Thousands died of malnutrition, tuberculosis, and other diseases caused by poor living conditions. Alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, suicide, and domestic violence have been rife among survivors. The Commission estimates that the 966 graves discovered last year are only the tip of the iceberg in a growing national tragedy. As Christians, it’s painful for us to hear of the church’s complicity in state-mandated assimilation. It hurts to imagine the gospel of Jesus Christ being shared in a shroud of cultural expectations and demands that have had such far-reaching, destructive consequences.
In our reading from Acts 11, Peter was in hot water for his cross-cultural sharing of the gospel. Peter’s mission had scandalized the Jewish believers because he had taken the good news of Jesus Christ to Gentiles of the very worst sort. Cornelius was a centurion of the Italian Regiment, a leader of the foreign occupation of Israel. Not only had Peter preached to Cornelius and his substantial household, but he had also baptized them, stayed with them, instructed them, and eaten with them.
It’s this last transgression, sharing the table with Gentiles, that was most troubling to Peter’s Jerusalem colleagues. Keeping a kosher diet was an essential dimension of observing the Torah. Leviticus 11 made it clear that some foods were pleasing to God (clean) and some were not (unclean). Eating “clean” foods made the people of Israel holy as God is holy. Eating unclean Gentile foods, like shellfish or pork, was a sin against God which separated you from God and your Jewish neighbor. There was more to it. As an occupied nation, that Jewish diet was a symbol of resistance. Keeping a clean table reminded the people of Israel that they belonged to God, despite their social and political realities.
In his defense, Peter shared a systematic accounting of his actions. According to Peter, his every move had been a response to the initiative of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. God had sent that crazy vision of the sheet descending from heaven, filled with unclean beasts. God had commanded him to eat. God had sent a vision to the God-fearing Gentile Cornelius, telling him to summon Peter. The Holy Spirit had fallen on Cornelius’s household, even before Peter had finished preaching. The whole mission had clearly been God’s initiative. Who was Peter to get in God’s way? There truly had been nothing left to do, other than to baptize, welcome, and affirm what God had already done.
As the apostles followed the Holy Spirit’s leading out of bounds and across the Roman Empire, one of the greatest struggles of the early church was determining what should be demanded of Gentile believers. Did they need to keep a kosher diet? Should they be circumcised? Should they be treated as second-class, lower tier Christians? Must they become Jews? After hearing Peter’s testimony, those earliest of Jewish believers in Jerusalem simply rejoiced and decided to follow the Spirit’s lead without any strings attached. That wide and inclusive welcome became official in Acts 15 when the Jerusalem Council gave its stamp of approval to Paul’s Gentile mission.
Over the centuries, as Christianity expanded and became enmeshed with the political power of empire and nation, we have struggled and sometimes failed to live into those accepting, welcoming, inclusive expectations of the Holy Spirit and the earliest church. We’ve often wrapped the gospel in a cloak of culture that demands assimilation. It played out on the geo-political stage from the moment that Constantine had a vision of the cross and sent his legions into battle with that symbol painted on their shields and the motto, “In this sign conquer.” We saw it as Galileo was forced to recant his scientific findings because they contradicted church teachings. We saw it as Spanish conquistadors forced indigenous captives to be baptized at the point of the sword. As a seminary student more than twenty years ago, I saw the devastating impact of forced assimilation first-hand, on Rose Bud and Pine Ridge Reservations in South Dakota where the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church operated government-sponsored boarding schools.
The Apostle Peter might remind us that the Holy Spirit is always way out there ahead of us. We may want to draw lines and make demands, but salvation always rests in the initiative and power of God alone. As faithful people, our task is not to insist on a kosher diet or circumcision; our job is not to judge others and insist that they conform to our way of seeing and doing things; our role isn’t to separate children from their families and rob them of their culture. When the Holy Spirit takes us out of bounds, the best thing to do may be to get out of the way, to watch, to listen, to be uncomfortable, to learn, to support, to sit down at the table with folks and break bread. As Peter so eloquently said, if God gives others the same gift that God gave to us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, how can we possibly hinder God?
Healing on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations has come slowly. Indigenous scholars like Albert Whitehat, Sr. learned again their Lakota language and developed curriculum so that it can be taught in schools. Addiction, which at its worst troubled 90% of reservation families, is slowly declining. Indigenous priests, pastors, and directors of religious education are sharing the gospel in new ways. In the suffering of Jesus on the cross, they see their own suffering. They know that their experience as an occupied nation, subjected to terrible abuse, is closer to the life of Christ than most of us could ever imagine. They know that Jesus walks with them.
Shortly after the residential school scandal broke in Canada last year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Tribe, announced that the U.S. would be conducting its own investigation into our extensive history of Native American Boarding Schools, about half of which were federally funded but operated by churches. In 1926, 83% of our Native American children were in residential schools, some voluntarily, some forcibly removed from their homes. Just as in Canada, residential schools have had devastating consequences for Native American communities.
Dzbahe remembers the day in 1953 when her parents made the difficult decision to send her to a residential school and she left her Navajo home. At the school, her Navajo clothes and moccasins were taken and she was issued a uniform. Her hair was cut. She was forbidden to speak her language. Not knowing English or American customs, she was repeatedly punished for not doing what was expected of her. Even her Navajo name, Dzbahe, was taken away, and she was forced to respond to the new name Bessie Smith.
This week, the Department of the Interior released an initial report with findings from just 19 of the more than 400 US residential schools. That report included news of more than 500 unmarked graves of children at those 19 schools. The commission warns that as their work continues, the hidden deaths of indigenous children will rise into the thousands, perhaps even the tens of thousands. Lord, have mercy.
1 Now the apostles and the brothers and sisters who were in Judea heard that the gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners, and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “From Sheep to Shepherd” Acts 9:36-43
The noise was deafening. Widows of every age surrounded me. Some cast back their heads in ululation. Others sobbed in lament. Some pressed upon me the work of her hands, pointing to a finely woven flax tunic, a weighty woolen shawl, or the fine tracery of crimson embroidery threaded along the cuff of a sleeve. “Help us, help us! Who will help us?” they pleaded. I looked over to the husband, who sat on a bench in the courtyard, nearly catatonic with grief.
I was still fairly new to this apostle thing. In fact, I had considered giving up after the resurrection. In all honesty, I had proven to be a fairly worthless disciple. I thought I knew it all. I slept when I should have been praying. I ran when I was needed to stand my ground. In the Chief Priest’s courtyard, I had cursed in fear and panic, insisting that I didn’t know the Lord, had never met him, had nothing to do with him. If the resurrection had convinced me of anything, it was of the greatness of God, the holiness of my Lord Jesus, and my utter worthlessness as a disciple.
In fact, I had returned to my home in Galilee and the familiar work of fishing. The waves on the water, the heft of the net in my hands, the rise and fall of the boat under sail. But I had proven to be a failure even at what was my birthright. Then, in the early morning on the rocky shore with the smoke of the charcoal fire in my eyes and the taste of grilled fish and fresh bread on my tongue, the risen Lord had restored me to my purpose. “Do you love me?” he asked. “Tend my flock,” he commanded. For the love of Jesus, I was trying.
Now if ever there were sheep without a shepherd, these women were it. Across the Great Sea, the Greeks and Romans do things differently, but here we live by the Old Ways. Our women do not have inheritance rights. The death of a husband or a grown son leaves a woman at the mercy of a new patriarch, and some are by no means merciful. That was obvious. A toothless crone with two canes wailed at my elbow. A cross-eyed woman with an addled brain babbled for my attention. An emaciated young mother, with two small children clinging to her skirt, sobbed hopelessly. A bald woman with a goiter the size of a pomegranate held up an intricately woven kerchief.
From their stories, it was clear that Tabitha – or I should say Dorcas – had been their shepherd. She had clothed them, fed them, and provided for them from her own purse. Her death was a tragedy for all. It started with a cough, followed by the spike of a fever. Her breathing had grown labored, her breath fetid. Within a few days, she was gone. Now these lost sheep surrounded me with their tears and the ridiculous expectation that I should raise the dead. They pushed me up the stairs, shoved me into the upper room, closed the door, and continued their non-stop racket.
The room was dark. I crossed to the window, parted the curtains, and opened the shutters, flooding the room with light and a sea breeze. Near the window, where the light was the best, stood a loom, threaded with a work in progress. Across the room, the body lay on a bed, shrouded by a woolen pall. I peeled back the cloth. Dark curls, like soft clouds, surrounded a kind face with creases left behind by years of smiles. She wore a simple linen tunic. Her hands were folded on her chest above her heart and she held an olive-wood cross. So natural and peaceful. I placed my hand on hers and shrank back from the cold flesh, inert and lifeless.
I began to pace, as is often the case when I am worried, anxious, or angry. What was I doing? Who was I to raise the dead? What would happen when I failed, as I undoubtedly would? I had agreed to tend the flock, but I didn’t sign up for this. All those expectations of the keening widows pressed in on me. I felt like I was the one wrapped in a pall, a shroud of their lament. I began to hyperventilate. “Feed my sheep?” I wheezed. “Thanks a lot, Jesus.”
“What seems to be the problem, Peter?” I knew that voice better than my own. He stood with his back to the window, his face in shadows. The sunshine, flooding into the room, seemed to shimmer and surge around his silhouette. I stopped hyperventilating.
“Jesus!” I shouted, half-angry, half-relieved. “C’mon. you don’t expect me to raise this woman. Do you? I can’t do it! I can’t!” It may have been my imagination, but the wailing in the hallway outside the room seemed to escalate.
Jesus nodded, as he often did when I stated the obvious. “No, you can’t do it, Peter.”
This wasn’t helping my confidence at all. I paced some more while he watched. I stopped and pointed at him accusingly, “You could do it! You raised Jairus’s daughter. I was there. I saw her smile. I saw her stretch her arms up to be held. How about the widow of Nain’s son, hopping off his funeral byre as if her were embarrassed to be caught napping? Remember, Lazarus? Three-days-dead and stinking, you called him out of the tomb. You can do it! You can do it! But I’m not you.”
Jesus agreed, “No, you’re not.”
I paced some more. I couldn’t do it, but Jesus could. I shot a look at him where he was now leaning with an elbow on the window sill, and I swear, he raised his eyebrows like he does when he is waiting for me to draw an obvious conclusion. I stopped.
“Are you really here, Lord?”
Now, he was smiling. “Didn’t I promise to be with you always, Peter, even to the end of the age?”
He had made that promise. He had even sent his Holy Spirit as a perpetual reminder. As Jesus pushed away from the window and took a step closer to me, I felt the Spirit ripple within me. It was obvious. I turned away from Jesus and looked over at the peaceful and thoroughly dead Tabitha—or should I say Dorcas? “I can’t do it,” I said again, “but you can.”
I moved toward the bed. The sun warmed my back and moved along my limbs. I stepped closer still to the body and my shadow fell across her face. I raised my arms with power and words of authority that were mine, but not mine, sounded loud. “Tabitha! Get up!”
The first thing I noticed was the slow throb of a vein, pulsing at her temple. Next, her chest began to gently rise and fall with the soft swell of her breath. Her mouth opened in an enormous yawn and a hand fluttered up to cover it. Here eyelids blinked open, once, twice. “O, Jesus! You came!” she smiled.
I whirled around to see if the Lord was still behind me at the window. The room was empty. The curtains fluttered in the sea breeze, the threads dangling from the loom danced in the shifting air. Beyond the door, the keening of the women was undiminished and someone had broken out a shofar, blowing long, slow, mournful notes.
I bent down and took the hand of the no-longer-dead woman. She was still clutching the olive wood cross but had kicked off the woolen shroud and was wiggling her toes. I helped her up. “Sister,” I said to the puzzled Tabitha, “I know some people who will be happy to see you.”
As I opened the door and guided her through, there was a moment of stunned silence. Then, mourning shifted to joy. There were glad shouts of recognition and fervent alleluias. Tears of joy streamed down jubilant faces. The crone brandished her canes in celebration. The fool sang a psalm of rejoicing. The two children danced, hand-in-hand with their mother. The woman with the goiter could only repeat, again and again, “Glory be to the great God of Israel, holy be His name!” Arms reached out to Tabitha, touching, hugging, holding. Tabitha was swept downstairs and out into the streets in a parade of rejoicing that they are still talking about in Joppa to this day.
I lingered in the upper room, leaning against the sill where the Lord’s elbow had rested, watching the celebration on the street below. I still felt that I was not very good at this apostle thing. Thank goodness that no one had been in the room with me to witness my panic. But I learned that it is not so much about me as it is about Jesus. Nine times out of ten, I can’t do what is asked of me. I can’t rise to the expectations that they have for me. But Jesus can, and even when I walk through the darkest valley, he is with me.
Acts of the Apostles 9:36-43
36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them, and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile, he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
What’s next? It’s the question of the Easter season. The sanctuary is still decked in Easter white, but the lilies are beginning to fade. The Easter crowd has ebbed and may not be seen again until Christmas Eve. Yet, we have rejoiced together and affirmed that Jesus has risen and God has won the victory over sin and death. So, what are we to do and how are we to live in this post-resurrection world? Our reading from John’s gospel suggests that Eastertide is all about being fed, finding grace, and going forth in Christ’s purpose.
What’s next? That question must have been on Peter’s mind. After the disciples encountered the risen Lord on Easter evening, they had made their way back to the Galilee. After the chaos and trauma of Good Friday, Peter must have felt the comforting pull of the familiar, and so he returned to the well-known rhythms of fishing. With six of his friends, he climbed into a boat, pushed out into deep water, and spent a fruitless night casting his nets.
As the sun rose above the Golan Heights, Jesus stood on the beach and guided his friends to a surprisingly bountiful catch. When the disciples returned to shore, Jesus knew that folks who have been out all night long, rowing and towing a drag net, need to be fed, so he invited them to a breakfast of bread and fish, grilled on a charcoal fire. Have you ever noticed how good food tastes when it is fresh, simply prepared, and eaten outdoors? As the disciples filled their bellies in Jesus’s good company, I suspect they felt “fed” in more ways than one.
We all need to be fed. If life is a spiritual journey, then we need good food to sustain us along the Way. In our Lenten Study this year, a dozen of us considered what sustains us along life’s spiritual journey. We all need nourishment. We all need ways in which we connect with God — because it is there that we find the refreshment and energy that are needed to live faithfully. In fact, the class brainstormed a list of things that are bread for our journey. On the list were worship, scripture, the Lord’s Supper, meditation and prayer, fellowship, nature, the arts, and more. How are you fed for the spiritual journey? This Easter season invites us to know the risen Lord and to deepen our relationship with him. As we spend time with Jesus — in church, with others, or in nature — we are filled and energized.
I am certain that, as Peter enjoyed that fish breakfast on the beach with Jesus, the apostle was struggling with guilt and shame. After all, he had promised to follow Jesus, even if the way led to suffering and death. But on the night of Jesus’s arrest, fear had gotten the better of Peter. The last time that Peter had warmed his hands at a charcoal fire, he had been in the courtyard of the high priest. There he had repeatedly and vehemently denied even knowing Jesus. Jesus, seeing his friend’s inner turmoil, gave Peter a second, third, and fourth chance—a Mulligan, a “do-over.” Peter found much-needed grace and forgiveness as he affirmed his love for Jesus three times. It was the perfect, poignant remedy to those three haunting denials.
We all need mercy and grace. We may not have denied Jesus three times to save our own skin, but we all stumble and fall short in right living. We have treated our relationship with Jesus as an after-thought to be sprinkled around the edges of our lives at our personal convenience. We have made mistakes in our personal lives. We have been impatient with our spouse, insensitive to our children, or unavailable for our friends. We have remained silent at injustice, indifferent to suffering, and unwilling to share with those who need our help, compassion, and generosity. Where do you need grace this morning? In this Easter season, we remember the enormity of God’s love for us. If Christ can forgive a repentant thief, his executioners, and the Apostle Peter, then we can trust that Jesus forgives us. In this Easter season, we can trust that grace and forgiveness abound for us.
As Peter was fed and forgiven, he learned that Jesus had a purpose for him. The Lord asked Peter to feed and tend the flock that was being entrusted to his care. Through Peter, Jesus would continue to reach out, heal, and bless a world that was desperately hungry for good news. When we read the Book of Acts, we note that Peter answered that calling. Peter would heal a lame beggar on the doorstep of the Temple. He would raise from the dead the beloved Dorcas, who had so generously cared for the widows of Joppa. Peter would venture into enemy territory, taking the gospel to the household of Cornelius the Centurion in Caesarea. Through Peter, and those other disciples who answered Jesus’s call, Christ’s love would be made known and shared from one side of the Roman Empire to the other.
Jesus continues to entrust his ministry to flawed people like Peter, to flawed people like us. Jesus’s flock needs faithful people who will love and feed them, and the Lord trusts that we, too, will reach out with healing, help, and blessing for neighbors who hunger for good news. When we plant the church garden and we bring food offerings to the pack basket at the side entrance, the flock gets fed. And when we pray for others in the Prayers of the People or share concerns with the Prayer Chain, the flock is tended. When the deacons reach out with calls and cards, or we invite a hurting friend to church, the flock is blessed. In this Easter season, we find our purpose and fulfill our calling when we answer Christ’s call to love and serve the neighbors that he entrusts to us.
What’s next? It’s the question of the Easter season. What are we to do and how are we to live in this post-resurrection world? According to Jesus, Eastertide is all about being fed, finding grace, and going forth in his purpose. May it be so.
21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”