Sunday, April 30, 2023

Sermon: “Silent and Unsettled", Acts 14:8-18 (April 30, 2023)


[Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that this sermon is going to touch on some tough subjects, like sexuality and abortion. If you need to step away because these topics are too personal for you, I encourage you to do so. But if you find yourself squirming in your seat just because these topics make you uncomfortable, I encourage you to try and stick it out.]

I find this to be an unsetting passage. Do you? I don’t find it unsettling because it’s especially disturbing; it doesn’t contain anything particularly sad or violent or dangerous, as some Bible stories do. No, I find it unsettling in the literal sense – it just ends without any sort of satisfying resolution; it’s unsettled. Paul and Barnabas aren’t able to convince the crowd of their own humanity, there’s no successful conversions recorded, no minds or hearts changed. Just a failed attempt at evangelism. Especially after last week’s wonderful example of living out the Great Commission from Acts 10, this story is more disheartening than anything. Where’s the good news?

In my attempts to find something to say about this story, I poured over several scripture commentaries and podcasts, which is usually enough to plant a seed of a sermon idea in my mind. But this week, instead of reflecting on the early days of Paul’s ministry, the significance of Zeus and Hermes, or the meaning of the apostles’ reaction, I found myself increasingly distracted by the one thing that WASN’T mentioned in any of these commentaries, the one thing that consistently DIDN’T make it into the discussion: what about the man who was healed?

Why isn’t anyone talking about him? Why don’t we even know his name? He’s certainly not the first unidentified figure in scripture, but since his miraculous healing kicks off all of the events that everyone DOES seem to want to talk about, the least the writer could have done was record his name for posterity. But no; this man doesn’t seem to be anything more than a plot device to the Church at large. The only reason he gets mentioned at all is to explain why the apostles found themselves in this uncomfortable conflict with the crowd in the first place.

I picture this man watching silently as the events unfold around him. One minute, he’s just another anonymous face in the crowd; the next, he’s the absolute center of attention as he jumps up and begins to walk for the first time in his life. But then, before he can even process what’s happened, he’s unceremoniously pushed back into the background again. All the air in the room is now taken up by the crowd insisting that Paul and Barnabas are gods and the apostles trying to convince them that the Lord is the one true God. That certain man has served his purpose and is no longer needed by either side.

I wonder if the man WANTED to say something. If he wanted to describe what it felt like to walk for the first time, or to reflect on what had just happened to him, or to give thanks for the miracle. Maybe he wanted to offer a testimony about God – scripture does say that he heard Paul’s message and believed. It might have even been in the apostles’ best interest to let him speak; he could have lent important credence to their claims that the Lord was responsible for the miracle. But they never stop to make room for the man’s voice. No one does. And so he remains silent. And the argument continues. And the story goes unsettled.

I’m sure there are plenty of sermons on this passage that celebrate Paul and Barnabas’ refusal to be worshiped as gods, and even a few reflecting on the crowd’s determination to do so in spite of their refusal. But how many are there that focus on that “certain man”? How many uplift HIM and explore HIS place in the story? Based on my research this week, I’d venture to guess not very many. Not only have Paul, Barnabas, and the crowd forgotten about him, but it seems that biblical scholarship has, too.

This man is a victim of our own hunger for conflict. We get so caught up in whatever debate erupts, the “issue du jour,” that we forget the very real people who are directly impacted. We immediately become so wrapped up in our own opinions and reasoning that we forget to LISTEN to those at the heart of the issue. In this case, the dispute is about the source of a miracle, but you can insert your own argument of choice into the story: climate change, gun control, minimum wage, gender-affirming care, abortion…no matter the issue, we still see this exact same dynamic playing out again and again: the two sides shouting over each other while those dealing with the actual consequences of the debate struggle to make their voices heard.

In each one of these passionate disputes, both sides truly believe that they’re right. We each believe that if we can only convince the other side of the larger truth lying behind our perspective, it will settle the issue once and for all. But this altogether is the wrong approach for people of faith. Not because the truth doesn’t matter. It does, of course. But Jesus has made it clear that there’s something else that needs to be more important to us. He proclaims that the greatest of all commandments has nothing to do with being right, with winning, with being the loudest voice in the room. According to Jesus, the Greatest Commandment of all is to love God with all that you are, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

The thing is, we make assumptions about what it looks like to love our neighbor. Like Paul and Barnabas, sometimes we assume that the most loving thing we can do is to lift our own voices and stand up for what we know in our hearts to be right. But if lifting our own voices drowns out the voices of those with the most at stake and makes the argument more about what WE believe, then we’re failing to follow the Greatest Commandment – no matter how “right” we may be. One of the best ways to love our neighbor is by stepping back and encouraging those with firsthand experience to have a larger role in the discussion than those of us who only have opinions.

Sometimes – well, let’s be honest, often – clergy can be the biggest offenders in this. The nature of our profession gives us a ready-made platform from which to share our own perspective every week. While a good sermon is grounded in scripture, all theology is colored by personal experience, and sometimes, preachers forget to give other experiences the opportunity to speak. Both the priest of Zeus and the apostles were guilty of this in today’s scripture reading, proving that this tendency isn’t unique to one “side” or another.

It’s certainly not lost on me that I’m standing up here offering MY perspective with MY words on this topic, so I decided to literally practice what I preach and offer space in my sermon to anyone with experience living at the center of a divisive topic. Not many took me up on the offer – it is a hard thing to share the most vulnerable parts of yourself, especially when you’re used to being talked over or ignored – but here are some of the things that I heard:

One woman told me the story of how the American Healthcare system robbed her of her ability to have children. She’d had to put off a simple surgery for four months, until she was able to afford it. By then, a malignancy that the surgery would have detected had spread to her uterus, taking away her ability to carry a child.

A doctor who ultimately left Idaho said of our abortion laws, “Every time I was on call since the ban went into place, I had so much anxiety. What if I get that call and they’re previable? What are we going to do? There’s just fear there. And anytime you insert fear into medical decision-making, it’s not a good situation.”

Another woman shared, “Bringing a new life into the world would have led to both of us suffering indefinitely. I wish I didn’t have to make that choice, but I did. And I’m grateful that it was my choice to make.”

Another woman shared, “I very much want children. But since I’m over 35 years old, I know that pregnancy carries higher risks for me than for someone younger. And with my state’s abortion laws, I’m terrified that these risks could wind up being a death sentence for me.”

A parent told me, “I'm scared for my son to start kindergarten in 4 months because of the rampant gun violence in my city. The shooter in the most recent mass shooting had volunteered in our local elementary school across the street from us twice in the last 6 months. Our local high school has been on lockdown twice this year, both after finding guns in the building. Really, it's getting to the point where I’m just scared to leave the house, but there is something about my almost 5-year-old going out into this world and starting school that makes me sick with stress.”

Another parent of a trans teenager said, “The ‘issue’ that you think you have such a problem with is my son. A real human. How can you debate the right to his existence?”

A bisexual person shared, “I want people to know that whether you believe it or not, my sexuality is not an ‘issue’ or an ‘opinion’; it’s a part of my very being. For you, it may be a matter of ‘principles’, but for me, my life and well-being hang in the balance. I’m tired of being the target of attacks that scapegoat who I am in order to avoid the harder conversations about inclusion that you’re afraid of having.”

A queer Methodist clergyperson told me, “The biggest thing I want people to hear is that people are not issues. I am not an issue. My family is not an issue. We are people. It’s extraordinarily painful to hear people repeatedly lamenting the pain ‘on all sides’ caused by ‘this issue’ (which will always be heard as, ‘the pain caused by you’).”

These are the stories that we should be lifting up. Not the narratives that our politicians pedal or the abstract morals that our clergy teach or the preconceived notions that we all cling to. God doesn’t care about slogans or polished speeches or perfectly cited lines of reasoning. This is what God cares about: not ideas or rules, but PEOPLE. People who pray day after day that their testimonies will be heard, that their experiences will be acknowledged, that their fears and frustrations and struggles will matter to someone. God hears each of their stories. Do we?

I still can’t help but wonder what the healed man would say if anyone had stopped to ask him what he thought. There’s no way of knowing for certain whether hearing him speak would have changed things at all. Maybe this story still would have ended on an unsettled note. But at least he would have known that his voice mattered. He would have known that he was more than a prop in a theological argument. He would have known that someone cared about him.

We may not ever be able to hear this man’s story, but we have the opportunity to do better here and now. Don’t stop speaking up for justice and mercy, but don’t forget to take the time to listen, too. If you claim to love your neighbor, make sure that they get the opportunity to speak their truth. It could be that their voice is just what the world needs to finally find a way forward. Amen.

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