acts of the a posit a littles: initiatives of courage

Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 30

We find our disciples this morning in the middle of a longer story—
hauled before the Sanhedrin—the religious authorities—
and not for the first time.

Earlier in Acts, in chapter 4, we read that the authorities
were “much annoyed” with Peter and John
who were speaking to the people in the temple.
And they had Peter and John arrested and kept overnight in jail.
And we watch enough police shows on TV
to know that’s intimidation, right? A power play.
And we can imagine who was put in the cell with them, right?
Not someone arrested for speaking to people in the temple.
“Peter, John, meet big, ugly, mean and scary.”

And they’re brought before the authorities the next day,
at which time they were told to cease and desist.
“Stop talking to people.” And Peter and John respond, rather bluntly,
“Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God,
you must judge. Y’all are, after all, the religious authorities.
So, as religious authorities, are we to listen to you or to God?
For we cannot keep from speaking
about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:1-22).

Now I think both sides were thinking at this point they had been clear.
The high priest had spoken;
the authorities had made their expectations clear (“Don’t talk to people!”).
But Peter and John were very clear back that they weren’t going to listen.
But a lot of times, have you ever noticed this?
People who think they’re in control and are busy giving orders,
don’t really hear what anyone says back.
Because they really can’t imagine anyone would not obey them.

So it’s no surprise to us,
though maybe it was to those authorities,
that the apostles end up back in the temple talking to people.
And now doing miracles and curing people.
And the authorities, we read, are jealous,
and so have the apostles arrested and imprisoned, again, overnight.
With big, ugly, mean and scary.
Because it worked so well last time!
But an angel of God released them.
And first thing the next morning there they are back in the temple—
talking to people—teaching people (Acts 5:17-21)!
Big, ugly, mean and scary sticking to them singing “Kumbaya.”

Meanwhile as the authorities are trying to figure out
what happened to the apostles
(because they’re not in the jail cell in which they had been confined),
someone arrived and announced,
“Look, the ones whom you put in prison
are standing in the temple and teaching the people!” (Acts 5:25)
The ones you put in prison for standing in the temple and teaching people
are back standing in the temple and teaching people!

So they’re brought before the Sanhedrin again,
politely, we read, because the authorities were afraid of the people.
“I’m sorry to bother you. Would you mind coming with us?”
And then when they’re away from the crowd,
“Look. We gave you strict orders.”
“Yes. Yes, you did.
But we must obey God rather than any human authority.
Don’t you remember this conversation?”

Now amidst what I can only conceive as a sit-com,
here’s my serious question:
how do the apostles manage this—
not to be intimidated by the authorities,
not to be controlled by their expectations and demands,
not to be confined by their power,
not to defined by their assumptions—
not to mention big, ugly, mean and scary?

So we turn now to psalm 30, which we read responsively
as our call to worship.
Because however much the disciples did or did not know
of the psalms, the law and the prophets before hanging out with Jesus
surely they were steeped in it
during their time with the rabbi from Nazareth.
So we’re going to look at this psalm pretty carefully.
you might want to grab a Bible or your bulletin
and imagine the disciples’ regular Bible study with Jesus—
Jesus making the disciples memorize the psalm—

which as a song, consists of three verses
with a bridge and a refrain.

The first and second verses establish a pattern
(and so an expectation) of three examples of God’s redeeming work.
In the first verse (verses 1-3),
the psalmist/the singer is (first) drawn up from foes,
(second) healed when crying for help, and
(third) brought up from Sheol and restored to life.
And the last example feels backwards—
death to life is a reversal of the anticipated order—
though admittedly a powerful faith affirmation.

Then we hear the refrain, the chorus for the first time (verse 4):
simple, straightforward praise and thanksgiving.
“Sing praise and give thanks.”
We’ll hear it again at the end of the song.

In the second verse, the psalmist notes
(first) that anger is momentary and God’s favor lifelong,
(second) that weeping lingers for the night, but joy comes in the morning,
and then (third) that God established the psalmist as a strong mountain,
but then turned away, leaving the psalmist’s strength
as nothing—again backwards according to expectation—
moving from God’s presence in strength
to God’s absence in weakness instead of the reverse.
And not so much powerful faith affirmation either—
though perhaps experiential affirmation—
the way we sometimes feel. Yes?

Now the bridge from the second to the third verse (verses 8-10)
is a more complex variation on the refrain of praise.
I paraphrase: “How can I praise you and be thankful
if I’m dead. So save me.”
So, conditional—provisional—
I’ll praise you if you save me.
We might presume that to be less manipulative, than hopeful.
I anticipate that God will save me and then I’ll praise God.
Though within the honesty of our faith,
attempts to manipulate, conscious or unconscious,
should never be utterly discounted!

So there’s the refrain that’s simple, straightforward praise
but it brackets this bridge that’s a hope
for circumstantial reason to praise—
give me reason to praise. Make things work out for me.

When we get to our third verse (verses 11-12a),
we have the expected example number one of God’s redeeming work:
God turns mourning to dancing,
and we have the expected example number two:
God replaces sackcloth with joy.
But then we read that God accomplishes these acts of redemption
in order that “I,” the psalmist, might praise.

Not only is that not part of our list
of three examples of God’s redeeming work,
it also picks up on the conditional element introduced in the bridge,
and, according to the structure established
and the expectation created in our verses,
we have to wonder if there’s something backwards about this.
Right? Because there was something backwards
about the last example of both previous verses.

I know. It’s complicated.
The disciples got stuck here too even with Jesus teaching them the psalm,
and all you’ve got is me!
And one of the sons of thunder wanted to know if this would be on the test.
And all the disciples laughed, and Jesus smiled.
But then he said, “There is no test. There is just your life.”
They stopped laughing.

See the art of verse and of repetition
in literary and musical structure
teaches us to look so very carefully for change
(and maybe development) within repetition.

So two important observations come to us
from our careful consideration of this song’s lyrics.
First, beware the praise that comes solely as a result of God’s work.
Nothing wrong with praise in response
to what we name God’s work on our behalf,
but something suspicious about the promise of praise
if God should work on our behalf.
That’s backwards.
Praise should not be completely contingent upon our circumstance.

Second, beware the linear trajectory
in the presence of a powerful cyclical affirmation—
which sounds way more complicated than it is!
Amidst all the linear development in our song
(drawn up from foes, healed from sickness,
moving from God’s anger to God’s favor),
the strength of the cyclical image of weeping identified with the night
and joy coming in the morning, raises the question,
what happens when night falls again?
Right? Haven’t we all wondered that?

After we celebrate God’s deliverance,
what happens when we’re surrounded by foes again,
sick again, facing God’s anger again?
What happens when the joy of morning
that follows the weeping of last night in turn gives way
to the weeping of the coming night?
For as sure as morning follows night, night follows morning too.
“This too shall pass,” is an expression we hear
most often during the hard times.
But it’s true (not that we want to think about it)
in the good times as well.

It is superficially possible to take the psalm
in an everything’s-going-to-work-out kind of way.
It’s superficially possible to take the whole Christian faith that way.
And that may, in fact, be what most of us often most want to hear.
It may even be what we, at times, need to hear.
And we can hear our song that way.
But along with what we want to hear—
along with what’s easy to hear,
is embedded the deeper truth that waits for us to hear it.
It’s not pushy—won’t impose itself on us. But it’s there. Waiting.
And the best of songwriting teaches us to look beyond the apparent
to discover glimpses of deeper truth.

There’s nothing wrong—
nothing untrue about the apparent truth of the initial reading of our psalm,
but when things go bad again (as they indubitably will) and again,
the assurance we will need
is more than just that of another promise
of imminent change in ever-changing circumstance.
We will need rather the assurance of a presence
independent of circumstance
and a corresponding praise not contingent upon circumstance.

The presence of the parent
won’t always change the circumstances of the hurting child,
but loving presence can transform circumstances it can’t change.
And that’s why we have our refrain of praise again—
simple, straightforward praise at the end (verse 12b):
“I will give thanks to you forever.”

And you can show up at the temple and at work,
and at school and at the gym, at the store, at the bank,
and talk to the people and not be intimidated (Psalm 30),
and not be controlled, and not be confined, and not be defined.
Not because you memorized a psalm (Psalm 30),
but because of what the psalm you memorized affirms.

It’s not what we as moderates/progressives/
liberals/whatever we are are good at.
And it’s not just that we don’t do a good job memorizing scripture,
and that we sing all these different hymns
so you can’t ever really learn one,
so it’s not just that we don’t always have something
on which to hang a hook.
Something to recite as reminder—as encouragement—as inspiration.
Because it’s not about what you memorized,
but rather about what if you had memorized something
what that something you memorized affirms.
As moderates/progressives/liberals/whatever we are,
I’m so much less concerned about and invested in memorization
than I am affirmation.
Because we don’t always do that so well, either.

And what I want to believe
what I hope—I hope—I pray is
that week in and week out hearing the stories and the teachings
in Sunday School and in worship—studying them
in conversation in Sunday School,
listening to the prayers and praying,
singing hymns that may not be as familiar all the time,
but that are so very carefully chosen,
I hope—I hope—I pray
that what sinks into our very being
is an affirmation on which to hang a hook—a lifeline—
the consistent affirmation that God is with me—
that God loves me—
and that if I love God back, I need to make certain choices—
need to act in certain ways—live a particular way—God’s way.
And even if I’m wrong, if I’m doing it in an attempt to love,
then I think of the parent confronting the dining room wall
decorated as a love letter in sharpie!

And all the immense power of our culture
with its assumptions and values and priorities and pressure—
its attempts to intimidate and control—so blatant—so subtle—
its attempts to confine and define—
with all its seriousness—all its realism—“Here are the real problems.”
all its promises and assurances—“Here are the real solutions.”
all becomes just laughable—a joke—a sitcom—
in face of the truth of God with us.
We just have to remember.

So figure out what you need to help you remember.
So that in the midst of it all, you do remember, God is with you.
God loves you. And then, sometimes,
what you thought were your prison doors pop open,
“Oh, look, they’re not holding me inside after all!”
And big, ugly, mean and scary turns out to be just big.
And sometimes not.
Sometimes big, ugly, mean and scary’s all that!
But the way of God doesn’t change. Right?
Our circumstances change,
who God is does not.
What God expects does not.
What God expects of us does not.
So if we change in the midst of changing circumstance,
what does that say about who our god is?

So memorize psalm 30, or the Lord’s prayer, the beatitudes.
Pick a hymn that says it for you. Memorize it. Sing it to yourself.
It doesn’t matter what you memorize.
What matters is the fundamental truth
you empower yourself to remind you of in changing circumstance:
“God is with me.
God loves me.
And if I love God, then I will ….”

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