Friday, May 8, 2015

For the Sake of the Song

Sermon preached May 3, 2015

Texts: Acts 8:26-40

            Townes Van Zandt, “For the Sake of the Song”
            “Maybe she just has to sing for the sake of the song.”  Townes Van Zandt (1944-1997) is not necessarily a household name, but he is considered among many to have been an exceptional songwriter, even if his life was often difficult.  Van Zandt was born to a wealthy oil family in Ft. Worth, Texas, and suffered with alcoholism and depression.  Yet he had a song to share and shared it.  Please put a “bookmark” in that idea of for the sake of the song.
            I want to quick cut to this morning’s Scripture reading.  Like all Christians, we United Methodists find the heart of our faith as we engage in the Scriptures of our faith.  The promise is that as we grapple with these texts, God’s Spirit will touch our lives in special ways.  We share that with all Christians, but unlike some, we do not think these readings are best understood simply or literally.  These are complex texts that are best read knowing something of the history behind them and something of their literary background.  We are not biblical literalists or non-contextualists, but there may be some exceptions, and I think this morning’s reading is one of them.
            This is a text about sharing faith, and I am guessing that for many of us we are willing to be just like Philip in this story.  The very next time God sends an angel to tell us to walk along a particular stretch of road, and on that road we encounter an Ethiopian eunuch riding in a chariot and reading the Bible, the very next time that happens, we will be more than willing to talk about our faith.  Until then, well…
            Our hesitance and reticence to talk about our faith is understandable.  Many of us have had those encounters with persons we don’t know who boldly ask us, “Are you saved?” “Are you born again?”  They know nothing of our lives and yet presume to judge us unsaved, unredeemed if we cannot answer in a way that fits their liking in thirty seconds or less.  Sometimes these people exude a sense of self-righteousness that is quite unbecoming.
            I remember attending a church growth seminar a number of years ago, led by someone whose work I tended to respect.  At the workshop this person said, “When you get to heaven, the first thing that Jesus is going to ask you is ‘How many did you bring with you?’”  That leaves me a little cold.  I don’t want people to be seen as notches on my “how many I led to Jesus” belt.  I do want people to know the God I know in Jesus, but that goes beyond numbers.
            Then there is the dynamic of not wanting to have our lives out there as some kind of example, causing us to feel we have to be perfect and pious.  If you share your faith in some way, will people be constantly watching to see if you mess up somehow?  Ish.  Or what if someone asks you a really tough question and you can’t answer it?
            Maybe it’s best to wait until you find that eunuch in a chariot on a road an angel has sent you too before you say much about your faith.
            Except, I think we have a story to tell.  I think we have a song to sing, and we need to sing it simply for the sake of the song.  Recently, I bought some stamps and I decided to buy newly minted Maya Angelou stamps, on which are printed the words: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”  Turns out that while Angelou used this line, its origins are with an author named Joan Walsh Anglund.  Regardless, the thought is important.  A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”  We have a story to tell, a song to sing, and we should sing it for the sake of the song.
            So what’s our story, our song?  There are a lot of ways to answer this question, but I want to look at another New Testament passage. This past week in our Philippians Bible Study, we read chapter 2, which begins, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, and sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy.”  Paul is engaged in a rhetorical move here.  He thinks and believes that those to whom he is writing have experienced just that in their relationship to God through Jesus and in their life together as a community seeking to live the Jesus way: encouragement, consolation, love, sharing in the Spirit, compassion, sympathy.  He goes on to say that if you have experienced such things, continue to grow in them.  I would say if you have experienced such things, share them, because others need them, too.
            We have a song to sing, a story to tell, good news to share.  The good news is that we can be different – we can grow in love, compassion, sympathy, in the Spirit.  The good news is that the world can be different. Part of the power of the story in Acts 8 is hidden unless we know some of the history here.  The person with whom Philip is sharing is an Ethiopian eunuch.  This particular person has become a Jew, for he has been in Jerusalem for worship.  Yet he has unanswered questions.  He continues to search.  What is particularly remarkable is just how much of an outsider this person is.  Here is a note from one of my study bibles: His outsider status is indicated both geographically (he is a foreigner from Ethiopia) and religiously (he is a eunuch whose castration in service of a pagan ruler excludes him from pious Israel, according to Deuteronomy 23:1-2 and Leviticus 21:17-21) [Discipleship Study Bible]  The good news is that we can be different, more welcoming, caring, accepting.  The God of Jesus works to change hearts and minds.  The good news is that the world can be different, barriers can be broken down, understanding across diverse experience can be built – and we desperately need that kind of good news in light of all the tensions in our country and in the world today.  The God of Jesus works to change the world.  Both are part of the song we sing, the story we tell, because both are needed.  In his most recent book, Faith, therapist Michael Eigen writes: We can try to solve all the social problems we can.  Relieve poverty and hunger, racial and sexual inequalities – all to the good.  But do not be surprised if the loose card in the deck, emotional life, finds ways to sabotage at least part of what is built….  Without work in the trenches of our nature, we may wreck what we try to create (6-7).
            We have a song to sing, a story to share, good news to share, but the song must be sung, the news shared with compassion, with listening and generous hearts.  Philip begins from where the Ethiopian is.  I love the words of Henri Nouwen about hospitality.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place….  It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. (Reaching Out, 51).

            Have we experienced in our relationship to God through Jesus, and in our life together as this Jesus community encouragement, consolation, love, sharing in the Spirit, compassion, sympathy?  Have we experienced that our lives can be different, and that the world can be different?  Share the story, which is your story, with gentleness and care.  Sing the song, which is your song, sing it because it needs singing, with tenderness and care.  When we do that we will open up space where change can take place for others, too.  May it be so.  Amen.

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