22 people shot and killed in El Paso, Texas. 22 lives cut short by a 21 year-old who had a gun.
680 people arrested and detained in Jackson, Mississippi. Children made to wonder where their parents are. Asking why mommy and daddy are being treated like criminals.
In the past week we have witnessed obscene violence targeted against brown skinned bodies. From a distance we have watched trauma endured by people and families who do not possess the right papers.
And here in Chicago, in a city far removed from El Paso and Jackson, I wonder what our proximity is to the violence and the pain experienced there?
I wonder, now that we have heard the news, what should we do?
On Wednesday, Andy DeBoer and I attended a roundtable discussion entitled, “The Immigration Crisis in Central America.” Presenters talked about the violence, the drought, the unemployment, and the fear that pushes El Salvadorians, Hondurans, and Guatemalans out of their home communities and into the dangerous journey to El Norte.
We heard about recent changes to US policy that cut monetary aide to Central America, narrowed the definition of eligible asylum seekers, and further reduced the number of refugees allowed to resettle here.
We heard both heartbreaking and hope inspiring stories about immigrants, activists, and organizations on both sides of the border.
And as I heard the information, as I heard the stories, I wondered what is my proximity to this crisis and to these people? What is my proximity to the PUSH factors experienced in Honduras, to the policy legislated in Washington? To immigrants who have arrived and live in Chicago?
Our passage today, Acts 9:19-30 explores this concept of proximity. It wrestles with the realities of difference between peoples and distance between communities. It makes us wonder how God will bridge these gaps?
Starting then at verse 19, our Scripture begins with the reminder. A reminder that the people of God were a people targeted and a people persecuted.
While the news reports have died down, Luke, the author of this story, will not let us forget Stephen, the disciple who was killed by self-righteous stone-throwers. Luke will not let us forget the tragedy of mothers and fathers arrested in Jerusalem, families separated, and children made to wonder where their parents were.
Our Scripture starts with the reminder that the community of faith was a community scattered across borders and boundaries. That people have been pushed out of their home communities and have made the journey to el Norte, to the far flung places of Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch.
In the next verses, Luke goes on to tell us that as the faith-filled asylum seekers arrive in foreign cities, as they come into proximity with different people, the majority of them stick to themselves. They speak only with other Jews. Forced out of Jerusalem, why should they cross any other social, cultural, or linguistic boundaries?
Now most stick to themselves, but Luke tells us that some of them, some of them step out. Some of them step into the city of Antioch. And some of them speak to the Greeks.
Some of them…only some were willing to step out of the comfortable and step into new relationships. Only some become the bridges by which good news can be carried to new people and new places.
And as they step into the gap, as their bodies become bridges, we are told that the very hand of God was with them. God’s hand is bringing these different people together and God is present in risky, new, uncomfortably close proximity.
We are told that those in Jerusalem heard what God was doing in Antioch. Those at the center of the religious world heard the report that God was now present at the periphery. And you know what, they want to be part of it. They want to be where the hand of God is at work.
So they send Barnabas, a Levite from Cyrpus, to at Antioch. They choose someone of the Diaspora to go out into the Diaspora and see what God is doing there.
Do you catch what is happening here in Jerusalem? Do you see the Holy Spirit movements? There is a hearing, a taking note of what is going on at the margins. And then there is a sending, a sending out of someone who can bridge the distance that separates ‘here’ from ‘there.’
Barnabas, the Diaspora Jew leaves Jerusalem and arrives in Antioch to find Jew sitting with Greek and Greek speaking with Jew. He sees the boundaries between insiders and outsiders blurred and considers it evidence of God’s grace and presence. Barnabas sees this, senses the Holiness of what is happening, and he is glad.
How important is it in these difficult times, in the midst of scattering and sorrow, to be joyful when we glimpse God’s grace and hear good news?
Now, Barnabas is not idle in his joyfulness, but he gets to work in his gladness. He lives up to his name, ‘Son of encouragement.’ He encourages the Greeks of Antioch in their newfound faith and instructs them in a new type of discipleship. Full of the Holy Spirit, Barnabas becomes a cheerleader, community organizer, and teacher. He becomes a bridge between what God had done in Jerusalem and what God is now doing in Antioch.
Antioch was a big city. Like Chicago it was the third largest city in the Empire. Like Chicago, it was a cosmopolitan city and commercial hub. And in this great big city Barnabas cannot do the work on his own. He requests a reinforcement. He needs a co-laborer. And can you guess who Barnabas wants to join his team?
Like the odd pairings of Philip and the Ethiopian or Peter and Cornelius, another strange tag-team is orchestrated in Antioch: Barnabas and Saul.
It is the “Son of Encouragement” and the “Schemer of the Scattering” now working together teaching, preaching, and outreaching. For an entire year they labor together, and slowly but surely a community of disciples takes shape. It is a congregation consisting of Jews and Greeks, women and men, old and young, rich and poor, liberal and conservative…
And do you know what people start calling this queer little church community? “Christians.”
What does it mean to be a Christian? How will the strange name shape their living and the believing?
These questions are asked as a prophet named Agabus comes up to Antioch with a presentation and predication: famine is coming. Like the famine affecting small farmers in Central America, this famine would devastate poor farmers in Judea. This famine would be the difference between subsistence and starvation, between life and death.
The Christians in Antioch hear this and they act. They collect a special offering. Each person gives as they are able. The wealthy, out of their abundance, give more. Those struggling to pay rent, they offer prayers and letters of encouragement. Each person gives as they are able and the collection is sent to Jerusalem.
Do you catch what is happening here in Antioch? Do you see the Holy Spirit movements? There is a hearing, a taking note of a suffering that is to come. And there is a sending, a sending out of Barnabas and Saul, two bodies that will carry an offering and become bridges between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’
And this is what it means to be a Christian. To hear what is happening in the world. To listen to the cries of the vulnerable. To pay attention to the reports of where God is present.
But there is more to being a Christian than just hearing. To be a Christian also means to send out and maybe even be sent out. To be a Christian means stepping out of the center, and spending time at the periphery.
To be a Christian means to be pulled into proximity to the Greek, to the famine, to the places of need. And if you can’t be there with your own body, send resources, send letters, send prayers.
It is not always easy tho, isn’t? Practicing an Antiochene Christianity is difficult because we no longer live in a world where an occasional prophet stumbles into our city every now and then. No, we meet a new Agabus every day. We hear reports of suffering every single day.
How can we possibly speak to each new Greek we encounter, or respond to each new report of famine? How do we respond to the crisis at the Southern border, when there are crises playing out on the borders between Oak Park and Austin, or Hyde Park and Woodlawn?
I don’t think we can resolve these tensions, but I know that we cannot ignore them either. So as we gather as a church community and as misisonal communities, we must continue to listen. And as we hear, we must send as we are able.
As a church community we have sought to be faithful in both our hearing and our sending. As we heard about the refugee crisis, Claire and the Al Sakkas became bridges, bridges that connected a civil war in Syria to a safe home in Chicago.
As we heard about violence and persecution suffered in Nigeria, we joined a network of churches that have supported and sent out Mike and Victoria Van der Dyke to Jos. Mike and Victoria are bridges that connect the church communities here and church communities there.
As we heard about the water crisis in University Park, we collected a special offering, we gave what we were able, and we sent $300 dollars to Rev. Dr. Reginald Williams. Rev. Williams became our bridge to that community.
And as people have heard about the bridge building work God is doing here at Loop Church, people want to be a part of it. As our newsletter went out, checks have come in. Even next week a Church in Hammond, Indiana will be taking a special offering for us.
Jerusalem and Antioch. Chicago and Hammond. It is surprising, but it is happening!
And so we rejoice in what God is doing. We are joyful because God is faithful, God is present, and God is using people to people bridge the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and to bridge the distance between ‘here’ and ‘there.’
God is using people like Rachel and Joseph; calling them out of Chicago and into Iowa. Such a move is not easy, it comes with a certain amount of loss: the loss of proximity, the loss of Rachel’s piano playing in worship, the loss of Joseph’s fresh baked bread at the communion table. Make no mistake, Rachel and Joseph you will be sorely missed here at Loop Church.
But we rejoice in what God is doing. We are filled with joy because
as you go, the very Hand of God will go with you. As you step out of this faith
community, you will step into a new faith community. And in the stepping out
and the stepping in, you will become bridges. Bridges between Chicago and Des
Moines. Bridges between what God is doing there, and what God is doing here.
And for that, we can all say, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.
Sermon title inspire by Jennings question, “How can bodies become bridges?” asked on page 116 in, Acts: A Theological Commentary.
 Willie James Jenings, Acts: A Theological Commentary, 121.
 Willie James Jenings, Acts: A Theological Commentary, 123.
 Robert E. Goss, Acts, New Interpreters Bible Commentary, 174.
 Willie James Jenings, “Acts: A Theological Commentary”, 125.
A sermon preached on Sunday, August 11, 2019 by Derek Elmi-Buursma