Seth E. Weeldreyer, First Presbyterian Church of Kalamazoo
May 7, 2023 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2:1-10; Acts 17:16-32
I wonder what’s in your little blue book. Spirals bent, cover creased, edges worn, still hanging together. Handwriting and pens used vary, for better or worse. Inside quotes from voices that touched the heart and linger years later. Maybe it’s not a little blue book. Frames on a wall. Lines at the end of an email. Social media posts. Paper scraps or books collected, stacked, crammed on shelves, stuffed in a drawer. Or maybe a collection of stones and shells, candles and statues, more than nick-nacks, sort of icons of memory, emotion, inspiration that still shape who we are, how we live in the world. Listening, connecting, engaging, responding, bearing witness in our own ways, at best, to what we hope is goodness, love, joy, peace. In my little blue book, I scrawled lines from movies, poetry, theology, literature like Victor Hugo’s Les Mis, and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s The River Between. Truth is, I haven’t scribbled in those tiny pages for decades. Maybe now it’s sermons, for me. I pulled it out of my drawer again this week. Wow. Yeah, still the core of what I believe and try to live.
I wonder what’s in your little blue book—the heart of living faith. Beyond big words, clear or muddled ideas, what’s the core of what we give our heart to trust? What’s the central good news we share with others? As I questioned and scribbled it was amid trying new churches, Berlin Wall falling, LGBT awakenings, Gulf War I, normal human longing for love and purpose. Growing up I’d got some variation of “You are loved.” Then I heard others talk about giving my life to Christ, literal biblical truths, hellish fiery eternal judgment, Jesus’ torturous sacrifice so God won’t punish me, all the sin in the world. Warning: better not do that! “Evangelical” … proud people claimed to be. Except I often tried to work out where’s the good news? Evangelical = spreading good news. Truth is, that’s what Jesus calls us all to be and do. I came to value personal connection with Jesus. I’m grateful for the challenge and gift. Still, at times it seemed like idle babble; or worse, pushing some foreign God, so alien to what I knew. If nothing else, it compels me to discern and express what I really do believe. How I live it and thereby share it with others. Much of that theology, songs, worship, what I heard didn’t touch me much, because I didn’t get how it helped me face and resolve realities of our world. More feel-good escape than helpful explanation. More shackling indoctrination than liberating inspiration. More magical fantasy than meaningful faith.
Friends, the whole point is not to demean anyone else’s faith as not good enough. Precisely the opposite, as that’s what I resisted. Rather to affirm we all work on these questions and come out at various places. And what matters ultimately is what we give our heart to, knowing it will evolve, as we share authentically with others. In the end, whether or not we’re cursed like me to perseverate on analytical ethical conundrums, any faith seems meaningless if it’s not connected to real life as we know it. Things we love and fear. Experiences that hurt and haunt. Inspiring hopes and dreams. Collected in a little blue book, inscribed upon the heart as the Bible says, as much an old, lined page.
Paul walked around Athens, engaging with people in their ordinary lives and practices of faith. He’s living evangelical, trying to spread good news of Holy Love. People get intrigued. He gets taken to the Areopagus, a natural mound of rock, also called Mars Hill. More than a slab of whatever stone geology, it was lively place to seek theology, wisdom, education. There people became living stones as Peter says. Here’s what I cherish about this story. Paul’s upset, agitated by all the idols—how people focus on things more than loving one another as God wants. Still, he doesn’t whip out a bullhorn on a street corner or post caustic attacks online. He looks with grace, finds goodness, voices complements. He tries to connect as humans. He observes and listens, before offering his perspectives. When he breaks out the little blue book of his heart, he’s added a few of their own lines. “God, in whom we live and move and have our being.” We are God’s offspring—children of God.” Now Christian classics, that began as Athenian poetry. Athenians were all about liking, re-posting, passing on latest juicy news and shiny ideas. They’d probably be right at home in our cable news, Facebook, Tik Tok, find anything on the internet world. Years after Paul’s proclamation on that stone stage, as the early church was getting built in Catacombs and secret meetings of someone’s home, Peter (who’s name means Rock) urges people like us to be living stones in God’s magnificent sanctuary of life. He calls us to be a rock like him, to bear witness like Paul. In all his letters of ordinary life with people, Paul didn’t give us a one and only special sequence of codes for the password-protected gates to heaven, the special recipe for secret sauce to win all competitions, a paint by number picture of life the same for everyone, single blueprint for every home. No, he shows us how to explore fun culinary exploration, how to splash and stroke our own creative masterpieces, build a home stone by stone that suits each of us, as we open source code God’s reign of love in our life together. I’d like to know what is in your little blue book to guide what we say and how we live?
At a previous church, a visitor came in one day and asked me to tell her everything I believed. Because if she was going to come to that church and sit at my feet she needed to know what she’d be absorbing, or something like that. I told her I wouldn’t tell her everything I believe, because the point is that we’ll talk and share life and work on it all together. She never returned.
You see, more than me or anyone dictating particular points of dogma we all mindlessly recite and repeat, it’s about nurturing our minds and hearts to think for ourselves, together; valuing the voice of all people as we work out what holy love really looks like in our everyday way of life. In a world so rife with conflict. In a society, where faith in its many expressions faces so many questions and revision, much rightfully so as we receive new revelation. As we follow Jesus, entering the world of others to connect, relate, respond with grace, question, scribble … here are some basics of our faith we all try to express in our way. It really is all about Love—beyond sentimental affection, how we put it into action. Compassion and forgiveness in personal relations—what situations come to mind? Justice, that is ordering our community and world with this Love as God wants—what passions move our hearts? Hope, Joy. Reconciliation. Peace. What does it look like in the streets, workplaces, shops, homes where we live and move and exist with purpose? Here’s the central challenge of our faith we all face somehow. Jesus calls us to live that love with integrity beyond all bounds, even to the point of sacrifice, pouring ourselves for others. And here’s the core promise the Bible repeats. Holy Love brings new life even where it seems impossible, maybe even when we don’t even recognize a need. Grateful for this grace, we try to live that Love. And so, what we receive blesses others. And the power of resurrection revealed in Jesus’ life and ministry beyond his death continues to touch others and transform the world. I wonder what that looks like in your life. I wonder how we’d tell the story.
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o spoke to me in the Areopagus / Mars Hill of a college classroom. Two rival groups lived on opposite ridges with a river running between. It’s an age-old tale so sadly human in all cultures (just change the names)—could be Montagues and Capulets, Sharks and Jets. In colonial-era Kenya it was Christian zealots and a traditional tribal council. Which way was absolute truth? Waiyaki was deemed to be Savior of the people. The River Between. For him that meant education to bring unity among all rivals. Though on the tribal council, Waiyaki did not choose sides. He opened a successful school, branching out to others and became revered as Teacher. (Thiong’o was raised Christian. Not hard to get narrative similarities.)
He falls in love with the daughter of the Christian minister, and so is accused of being a traitor by the traditionalists. Tensions escalate. Violence breaks out – tribal council on Christian. A climactic confrontation nears, a grand tribal meeting—call it an Areopagus, when like Socrates and Paul on that ancient rock, Waiyaki essentially gets tried for betrayal. Spoiler alert: He loses the war of words, political machinations (betrayed by a friend), the pendulum swing of public opinion. He’s bound for execution. Yet in that penultimate moment, still, he seeks a way of reconciliation. He reviews what else he could have done. How his intentions and decisions turned out so opposite the salvation he desired. Waiyaki knew that not all white man’s ways were bad, not even the religion, Wa Thiong’o writes. “Some good, some truth shone through it. But the religion, the faith, needed washing, cleaning away all the dirt, leaving only the eternal. And that eternal that was the truth had to be reconciled to the traditions of the people. A people’s traditions could not be swept away overnight. That way lay disintegration.… A religion that took no count of people’s way of life, a religion that did not recognize spots of beauty and truths in their way of life, was useless. It would not satisfy. It would not be a living experience, a source of life and vitality. It would only maim [the] soul, making [one] fanatically cling to whatever promised security, otherwise [one] would be lost.”[i]
Dear friends, unless I’m reading it all wrong (surely, there are some who think I am), that’s a pretty good summary of what the Bible tells us Jesus tried to live. Here at this table, we remember that way of life. We receive the challenge and gift of that holy friendship, opening our hearts to be inspired, nurtured, guided, empowered amid all the history, news sources, science, literature, life experiences, art, sports, wandering in the beauty of creation, lamenting bias and exploitation, feeling all our normal human longing for love and purpose. Here we give and receive Holy Love. Here we celebrate the hope of new life. It’s our sort of collective little blue book. I wonder … I’d love to hear what’s in yours.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, The River Between (New York: Penguin, 2015), 106-107. [Originally published in 1965 by William Heinemann Publishers, UK.]