Jeff Sessions, Lydia, MLK, and the Bible

This week Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, spoke “to our church friends” reminding the nation of Paul’s injunction to “obey the government.”  Sessions did not keep on reading in Romans 13, where he might have heard Paul call us “to pay taxes” or to the deepest moral law  to “love our neighbors as ourselves”. Now, how do we deal with people, who cite one Bible verse, and expect us to sit back and adhere?  Well, today, lets us open our prescribed text from Acts 16 and consider how to deal with proof texting.


How do we deal with one-citation-wonders? I will suggest three or four methodologies.  First, we need to know the Bible ourselves in order to deal with our friends, who pull one verse out of the air and say “the Bible Says…”   So I would suggest you read a Gospel this week and maybe Paul’s letter to the Romans the next week, and maybe the Acts of the Apostles the next!  And then start that cycle again and add Genesis or Exodus.


We can read the Bible in two basic ways.  We can read it as an ancient rulebook that we mechanically apply to our lives,  or we can read the stories as inspired by the Holy Spirit, believing that that same Spirit guides us into all truth today. (JOHN 16:13)   We either believe that the Risen Lord comes to us today, or we read the Bible like a history book. Methodists interpret the Bible with three tools: reason, tradition, and experience.  Now if someone says they do not interpret Scripture but simply reads it, know that any English translation is an interpretation of the Greek and Hebrew originals. Furthermore, no one believes Jesus’ is grape flavored, because he claims to be “the true Vine”.   Finally, there are places where we must decide between two verses- did Jesus send the disciples to Galilee or ascend in Jerusalem! (Matthew 28:7-16 or Luke 24:47-49/ Acts 1:11-12) It is intellectually dishonest for anyone to assert that they do not interrupt Scriptures.


So how do we respond to those, who like Mr Sessions, reach up and pluck out a verse or two and expect us to sit down and obey? We need to know the Bible for ourselves.  If we know our Bible, we would could say: “Mr Sessions, Jesus-our Lord, said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me… and whatever you do to the least of these you do to me” (Matthew 25) And we might note that Jesus was painting a portrait of the final judgement. So, if someone defends separating a little child from their mother, you might gently remind them that one day they will need to explain to Jesus why they did this to him!  If we know our way around the Bible,we might mention, Leviticus 19:33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. We might remember that sometimes, God says, “Go down Moses, way down in Canaanland. Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people Go!” Additionally, we might remember, that Jesus broke the Jerusalem city ordinance by overturning the tables of the money changers. Finally, we would do well to know that Christ was crucified by a coalition of popular preachers partnering with government leaders.   So, first let is know our Bibles and avoid reading verses in isolation.


Second, God wants us to think! In our prescribed text, in Acts 16, we see the church figuring things out.  Paul and his companions traveled throughout Phrygia and Galatia because the Holy Spirit kept them from speaking the word in Asia. They tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them. They went down to Troas instead. A vision of a man from Macedonia came to Paul during the night. He stood urging Paul, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” Immediately after he saw the vision, we prepared to leave for  Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news there.


We do not know what it means that “the Spirit of Jesus prevented” our missionaries. The text does not spell that out, leaving the details to our imagination.  No matter the exact meaning, Luke calculates this missional setback as a factor in God’s guiding the team to Philippi. Paul has a vision, but we read that Paul, Luke and Silas try to figure out what the dream means! They talk about the dream, doing theology together in a community.  We may focus on Paul’s visionary experience, but Luke counts the two unclear spiritual denials as factors helping reveal God’s plan. “Concluding God had called us” matters: God wants us to draw some conclusions!  We often falsely separate prayer and reason. However, spirituality and rationality go together. God speaks through our thinking.  God speaks within our life story. Paul and Silas think about at least four tools to see God’s plan for their lives. 1)There is a vision- God speaking.  2) There is reasoning and discussion- God speaking. 3) There is their experience of two denials- God speaking. 4)There is a community to unpack these factors- God speaking. Experience, reason, and community are pretty good tools when handling spiritual texts.


Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., challenges Christians to think: “Rarely do we find people who willingly engage in hard, solid-thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think. Our minds are constantly being invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, propaganda, and false facts. Soft-mindedness often invades religion. This is why religion sometimes rejects new truth with a dogmatic passion. (For some) reason is looked upon as the exercise of a corrupt faculty.” King goes on to talk about the Gospel calling us to maintain tender hearts and sharp minds: compassion and rationality. (“The Strength to Love” Chapter 1)


So God wants us to use our minds to ask questions.  We might ask Mr. Sessions, if he would encourage the North Koreans or Iranians to obey their “appointed” governments or are we  guided by a deeper moral law? Do we assert obeying rulers or beleive in certain unalienable human rights like life, liberty, the chance for happiness, justice, and equality?    


We might think about what Rev Dr. King wrote from a Birmingham Jail cell: “There are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’ Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law…. Any law that uplifts human (dignity) is just. Any law that degrades human (dignity) is unjust….. We can never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was ‘Legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany…” Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, April 1963, by Martin Luther King, written while jailed for parading without a permit.


Now, I was planning to preach about Paul’s understanding of women in ministry today, but as my sermon crept towards seven pages, perhaps the “spirit of Jesus” told me to save those points for another week.  You see our passage today, challenges our thinking. Paul had a vision of a Macedonian man calling for help, but God leads Team Paul to Lydia, a merchant and powerful importer of high end fashion. Lydia will presaude Paul! She urges Paul. She wins the argument! Lydia owns a home, likely a villa, and she will lead a church there!  She will support Paul’s work in Corinth! Luke describes Lydia as the head of her house and everyone is baptized under her name. How does this image square with the Pauline rule found in 2 Timothy 2:11-12? We will need to think about that July 8, just know this, in Romans 16, Paul lists of a bunch of church leaders, half of whom are women. Paul speaks of “our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church… Priscilla and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. …Mary, who has worked very hard among you…Junia, my relative, who was in prison with me; and is prominent among the apostles.” Paul names a woman as an apostle.   We will get into that later this summer! Just know those who sling Bible verses claiming the most legal authority tend to lose touch with the Love of God, manifested in Jesus Christ, who died at the hands of a big crowd fired up by hard-hearted preachers.  


Third, we read the Bible, knowing that God speaks through experience. Our human encounters with God fill the Bible!  As the Holy Spirit drove the story then, God is speaking to us, today! We are not alone- when we say “the Lord be with you..and also with you,” we believe it!  In Acts 16, Luke records “The Holy Spirit kept them… the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them… a vision came during the night … concluding that God called us…”  Do we believe the same Spirit still leads today? Do we believe that the same Spirit of Jesus pokes us today? Was God moving as Darren was commissioned? Did Jesus get all the delegates in a standing ovation when Belmont’s Carlos Uroza was the first Hispanic Elder ordained in Tennessee Conference? Did the Holy Spirit speak to us as Bishop Bill McAlilly spoke of his three hours listening to the  stories of “our LGBT church members” ?Is the Holy Spirit opening hearts, opening doors, and opening minds? Or do you believe the Spirit stopped speaking at the end of Acts?


God works in the everyday!  “Concluding that God called us…we sailed to Philippi, a city of Macedonia’s first district and a roman colony.  We stayed in the city several days. On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the riverbank, where we thought there might be a place for prayer. We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered. One of those women was Lydia, a Gentile God-worshipper from the city of Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. As she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message. Once she and her household were baptized, she urged, ‘Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house’. And she persuaded us.” Now the story moves along until it says in verse 40, “Paul and Silas left the prison and made their way to Lydia’s house where they encouraged the brothers and sisters.


However, even in our passage, we see the Spirit working in imprecise fashion.  Paul saw a vision of a Macedonian man calling for help, but God leads him to Lydia and other women practicing centering prayer by the river. Has God ever spoken to you through a question, doubt, or longing? Has the Spirit of Jesus given you an unclear, incomplete or imperfect vision? Paul envisioned a Macedonian man calling out in need, but God led Paul to Lydia, a persuasive single power broker, who only needed to meet Jesus. Upon encountering a women’s prayer circle, did Paul say, “Oh shoot, Silas, this is not quite right, guess we need to try down at the sportsplex.”  Does God ever speak in unclear circumstances?  So when, Jeff Session pulls out a verse, we need to know that real world imprecision and imperfection is part of our Biblical story.  


There is a messiness within our Holy Text, because the Jewish and Christian Scriptures speak of God being involved in our everyday lives. The Spirit speaks through the ordinary, the common, the broken and the sublime. The Magi follow the star, arrive in Jerusalem and tip off Herod. The Holy family must flee to Egypt. Peter walks on the water ten seconds before sinking. Moses tosses down the first set of Ten Commandments in disgust.  We see the divine revealed inside this broken world. God does not just offer holy utterances, God speaks in burning bushes and post-Easter conversations along the road to Emmaus. Our Jewish and Christian Scriptures tell stories of God working in our imperfect lives. Only on Mount Sinai and the book of Daniel do we see God writing something. Jesus drew something in the sand, while using silence to stop an angry crowd, but we do not know what he wrote.


Our Methodist Constitution asserts that “We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New testaments” reveal the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit …”  We do not worship the Bible. Our Risen Lord is not locked inside the pages of a book. God still speaks!  God speaks to us as we think about the stories of the faith. So as we imagine, the entire scene of Jesus stopping the crowd from enforcing the literal law, using non-violent doodles in the sand, that is God speaking before Jesus finally speaks, “You without sin, cast the first stone.” The Holy Spirit stirs us today as we ponder this text! As we engage in holy reflection, the Spirit of Jesus comes alongside us, guiding us today. Christ is risen, and going ahead of us, even to the ends of the age. ( Matthew 28)      


Now, I imagine, if Jesus had wanted to leave us a line by line life instruction book, he would have written that book. There is no Jesus-authorized version!  We believe Jesus is bigger than the letters on the page, the rules about pork barbecue, or Titus’ words on slavery? God is still working today. The Spirit of Jesus is preventing, stopping, and speaking in our everyday lives, right here in Nashville in 2018. The Living Christ comes into our midst. This freedom, this God at work in an imperfect world troubles some people. Some  can only imagine revelation in terms of divine dictation- where God speaks and someone writes down the very words of God. They reject the messiness of our incarnational faith. However, if we have a Holy Creator, why would the Creator put down the divine paint brush?

So know the Bible, start thinking, trust the Spirit and Remember God is working in our midst for:  Abraham counted the stars, Sara laughed, Joseph forgave his brothers, Myriam sang of freedom, Moses gave the law, Ruth embraced Naomi, Hannah prayed, Samuel dreamed, David wrote hymns, Solomon built, Jeremiah prophesied, the captives wept, Persian King Cyrus freed the exiles, Ezra rebuilt, Mary sang, Joseph dreamed, the holy family became refugees, Jesus got lost in the temple, the tempter offered power, John baptized, Jesus preached, Jesus healed, Jesus fed, Jesus forgave, Jesus called, Jesus sent, Peter sank, 72 preached, 72 healed, Jesus wept, Jesus shared a last supper, a woman broke a jar of undiluted perfume, Jesus prayed in the garden,  Judas kissed, Peter denied, Jesus hung on the cross, Mary wept, Jesus arose, Jesus forgave, Jesus restored, Jesus ordains Magdalene, Mary, and Salome, Jesus appears in the breaking of bread, Jesus stops Saul along the Damascus Road, Peter welcomes those once called unclean, Paul dreamed of a Macedonian man, Silas concurs, Lydia prevails, Phoebe preaches, Junia becomes an apostle, John Wesley’s heart is strangely warmed, Sojourner Truth proclaimed “Ain’t a woman”, and Doctor King prophesied from a Birmingham jail…

So friends, where is God speaking to you? It may not be a perfectly clear vision.  It will not be in just one Bible verse! It may seem like an impulse or vague dream.  Get in a Sunday school class and see if Silas affirms your vision or maybe Lydia might persuade you!  Your faith may feel more reasonable than Spirit-filled; that is fine, but pray about it. If you hear God calling you to love your neighbor or stand up for justice, don’t say, “what can I do or God could not use me.” God’s Word was revealed though Peter, Paul, Silas, Lydia, Phoebe, Magdalene, Esther, Ruth and Rahab. The Spirit of Jesus longs to write a chapter in your life. The spirit of Jesus is still working in our world- writing new stories! This Is the Biblical story of our God, will you be part of it?  Amen.


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