Monday, May 06, 2013

Ordinary Folks Doing Extraordinary Things in Christ (Easter C6 Sermon)

What follows is the rough manuscript of the sermon I preached last night during Jazz Vespers at Saint Peter's Church (where I currently serve as Vicar).  It's predominately on the appointed first reading for the day, Acts 16: 9 - 15.  I'd love to hear what you think and expected video of the sermon out in the coming days.

So, I’m a really big fan of the Book of Acts. I’m a really big fan of the Book of Acts because it tells the story of ordinary folks led by the Spirit, doing extraordinary things in Christ… it tells the story of ordinary folks led by the Spirit, doing extraordinary things in Christ. And this evening’s part of the story, from Acts 16, very much follows that theme… it begins with Paul, Silas, Timothy and perhaps some other early Christians bumbling around in what we now know as the country of Turkey, trying to start new churches and largely failing… Paul had just experienced a falling out with his fellow apostle Barnabas as well, perhaps due to a rivalry between the two colleagues. Despite his previous life as a Pharisee, by this point in Acts Paul just seems like an ordinary sort of person, making ordinary human mistakes, getting into ordinary human arguments yet trying his best to spread the Gospel… the sort of person we find largely familiar to our own lives.

Luckily, God even works through ordinary folks like Paul and like you and like me though, and in this case the Spirit intercedes by leading the way for Paul in a vision, a vision of a Macedonian man pleading for help. Paul then faithfully crosses the Aegean Sea into Macedonia, into an area associated with the heights of Greek culture and learning, and through the life of this ordinary fellow God begins making the most extraordinary things happen in Christ. A few days after getting off the boat Paul meets and preaches to Lydia, a somewhat ordinary businesswoman, who after being baptized with all of her household invites Paul and his companions into her home, and prevailing upon them with her great hospitality. Eventually, this somewhat ordinary businesswoman named Lydia is lead by the Spirit to do a most extraordinary thing, creating and likely financing what would become one of the most vibrant and faithful of the early Christian communities.

My sisters and brothers, although the story of Lydia and Paul takes place nearly two thousand years ago in the Greek city of Philippi, the collective story of ordinary folks led by the Spirit, doing extraordinary things in Christ, does not end there. While there are a few chapters in between, I’ll skip ahead to talk about another part of the story, featuring another ordinary person, a member of Saint Peter’s Church in fact, a fellow named Wuigi Howard, who like Lydia and Paul before him, was led by the Spirit to do extraordinary things in Christ. When Charles Taylor invaded Nimba County and touched off the Liberian Civil War in December of 1989, Wuigi was a student at the University of Liberia in Monrovia, studying to be a teacher. As he prepared to graduate the following summer, war was engulfing the entire country, yet Wuigi took up teaching anyway. As the fighting took on deeper religious and tribal connotations and Muslims started killing Christians and vice-versa, the war eventually hit home for Wuigi when his mother was brutally beaten to death on her rice farm on February 15th, 1993. She was murdered not only because she was a Christian, but in fact a well-known Christian leader in her local community, and those who murdered her promised to do the same thing to her children. Despite the chaos all around him, Wuigi kept teaching, thereby doing the most extraordinary thing of giving hope to a new generation of young Liberians.

With only one brief reprieve the Liberian Civil War continued until 2003, leaving a quarter million people dead. Even after the war ended, religious violence continued, and on September 26, 2006, Wuigi’s oldest brother, Peter Howard, was murdered as well. Despite even the loss of his brother, Wuigi kept teaching. He even became principal of Saint Matthew’s Lutheran Church School. After being physically attacked and receiving numerous death threats himself, Wuigi had to make the hard decision to flee his native country, to cross the sea much like Paul and he eventually arrived in the City of New York on November 17th, 2007. The story doesn’t end there though, because while Saint Paul was called to do extraordinary things in a vision, Wuigi was called to do extraordinary things in a phonebook… in 2009 to be exact when looking when for a new church. As his church back home in Liberia was also named Saint Peter’s, our name stuck out to him, so Wuigi called us, spoke to our Senior Pastor, and has been blessing to our community ever since.

The story still doesn’t end there though because for over four years Wuigi has been seeking asylum status in the United States - his wartime enemies are still waiting for him back in Liberia. So this past Wednesday, when Wuigi had another in a long series of immigration hearings, five other ordinary folks, all members of Saint Peter’s Church, took what seemed like the rather ordinary action of accompanying him to court, sitting in the back of the room, praying for him and silently supporting him with their presence. And it was then my sisters and brothers, it was then that the Spirit moved to make yet another extraordinary thing happen… You see, Wuigi’s lawyer told the government representative, essentially a prosecutor, that Wuigi had five church members present with him. This seems to have encouraged the representative and immigration judge to fast-track Wuigi’s case. Instead of having his final hearing in 2014 or 2015 (that’s how long it usually takes in our broken immigration system), Wuigi will in all likelihood be granted asylum and become a permanent American resident this November. And while Wuigi has once again taken up the profession of teaching here in the city, he’s been teaching all of us here at Saint Peter’s as well, greatly strengthening our growing immigration advocacy program with his story and spirit.

So, why bother telling Wuigi’s story at all? Why bother telling Lydia’s story or Paul’s story? Quite simply put, the reason these stories are so important is because they’re all of our stories… they’re your stories and my stories, all part of the same grand collective story stretching from ancient Philippi to contemporary New York. A story of ordinary folks, led by the Spirit, doing extraordinary things in Christ. Amen.

Dustin currently serves as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in Manhattan, having recently completed his second year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

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