On Turning Faith Into Practice and Policy
May 29, 2022
Psalm 97: 10-12
Let those who love the Lord hate evil, for he guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
Light shines on the righteous and joy on the upright in heart.
Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name.
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
Today’s sermon is titled On Turning Faith Into Practice and Policy.
It’s been a really difficult week on top of a really difficult couple of years. As I sat down to write this sermon, I found myself wishing I could give the entire world something…something to offer a little comfort, a little respite, a little hope, perhaps? And then I thought of something I hadn’t thought of for probably 30 years. Remember that ad for Coca-Cola from the early 70s? It was filmed on a hillside with young people from all over the world, all smiling in the sunshine, holding bottles of Coke and singing, “I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love; grow apple trees and honey bees and snow white turtle doves. I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony. I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.”
The idea for the commercial came from one of the marketing executives that worked for Coke. He and other airline passengers were stranded in an airport in Ireland because of the fog. When airline personnel announced that it would be the next day before the flight would depart, many of the passengers were irate. The next morning, the executive saw some of the same passengers that had been so angry the night before now sitting around a table in the airport drinking bottles of Coke and snacking on peanuts, sharing stories, and enjoying themselves. In that moment, the executive saw that a bottle of Coke “not as it was designed to be- a liquid refresher- but as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes.”
The executive returned with his pitch to his boss to create a commercial based on this new concept of sharing and bringing everyone together and the idea fell flat. The conversation went like this:
His boss said, “Well, if I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke.”
“What would you do?”
“I’d buy everyone a home first..I’d want to give the world peace and love.”
And that’s how the song begins, “I’d like to build the world a home and furnish it with love…”
The commercial was a raging success, even though at that time it was the most expensive commercial ever produced. The Coca-Cola corporation received over 100,000 pieces of fan mail. Not everyone was thrilled, though. South Africa, still under the yoke of Apartheid, asked for an edited copy of the commercial that would not show any black people. Coca-Cola refused the request and began a five-year plan of divesting from the country.
It seems we can not escape from the inevitable confrontations between what we so desperately hope for in our world and what we see unfolding before our very eyes. Friends, it is exhausting. I just have to name that today. Like I said, it’s been a difficult week on top of a couple of difficult years and it’s going to take a lot more than a feel-good song and a bottle of soda to turn this ship around.
The story we are offered today from the book of Acts reminds us that the confrontations between what we know to be right and what we see in the world is long standing. Paul and Silas are beaten and thrown in jail for interfering in the business dealings of two other Roman citizens. Paul should have been protected because he was a Roman citizen himself, but because he was also Jewish he was not spared. My church history professor said this is “a case of anti-semitism, from start to finish.”*
This is one of two confrontations recorded in the book of Acts that help us to understand the challenges that the early church faced. The other confrontation is found in Acts 19, when a metalsmith by the name of Demetrius started a riot by convincing the other metalsmiths their jobs were in jeopardy. The metalsmiths worked outside the grand temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the world. They fashioned representations of Artemis to sell to temple visitors. “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself will be robbed of her divine majesty.” Demetrius stirred the crowd into a frenzy of fear…fear that their livelihoods were in danger and fear that foreigners were a threat to their religion. Fear of “the other” is nothing new.
Paul, Silas, and many other disciples, both men and women, sought to fight such fears with what they had learned from their teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. But the radical teachings of Jesus were not welcome among those who made their living exploiting others. The radical teachings of Jesus, calling for justice and freedom from oppression were not welcomed in empirical palaces any more than they were welcomed by those slave-owners in the streets of Rome. It would take centuries for the early churches to grow in number to such an extent that the emperor would begin to notice that if he changed his policies and ended the persecution of Christians, he could court quite a following that would in turn be loyal to him and support his staying in power.
Two thousand years later we find ourselves chafing against the very same power dynamics. We appeal to our lawmakers to pass common-sense gun laws that would require background checks and raise the minimum age to 21 to be able to purchase a lethal weapon. For example, the legislators who are in a position to approve safer gun laws received, just last year, over 15 million dollars in campaign donations from gun rights groups. That was more donations than almost any time in history. The record year was 2013; that was the year after Sandy Hook.
I’m tired of sitting down with my kids to try and explain senseless violence against schoolchildren, churchgoers, and people walking the aisles of their local grocery store. This week, the conversation was different. This week we talked about the laws in place that made it legal for an 18 year old to walk into a gun store and purchase an assault weapon and 300 rounds of ammunition without question. We talked about how, in 44 states, including New Hampshire, 18 year olds can’t buy a beer but they can buy a gun. We talked about how that makes no sense whatsoever.
It makes no sense that Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown in jail for healing that young slave girl. And it makes no sense why South Africa would want to air a Coke commercial featuring everyone in the world except for black men and women. No, these things don’t make sense because these things are motivated by senseless fear and bigotry.
In closing, I wish I could offer you more consolation on this solemn Sunday. I hope it provides some solace to remember that for millennia the injustices of every age have been met with the higher moral consciousness of individuals that could not be silenced. Tomorrow we will turn more full attention to honor those who gave their lives in service to the high ideals of democracy and liberty. That will be a good reminder for us. For today, I hope our time together has given us all pause to remember the importance of a community of faith where we can practice the teachings of Christ and advocate with one voice for more humane policies at every level of our government. So be it. Amen.
*Rev. Dr. Steve Johnson, New York School of Ministry. Email 5/19/22.
God of our hearts and minds, we pray your blessings over all of humanity this morning. We have so much to learn about living with one another. Speak to us and guide us in Your divine ways, that we may in some way become agents of positive change. Remind us, Lord, to start from within, to nurture ourselves without guilt and to make choices that foster health and strength. In the places we are hurting, shine your light of healing. In the places we hold fear, shine your light of assurance. Help us to make room for the Holy Spirit to work in and through us so that in our giving, we give love; in our sharing, we share peace; in our talking, we offer encouragement, and in aspects of our being, we testify to a God who is the source of all goodness. When we pray, may it be with all the sincerity of Jesus Christ, when he gave this prayer to his disciples…. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I’d like to build the world a home and furnish it with love; grow apple trees and honey bees and snow white turtle doves.
I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony; I’d like to hold it in my arms and keep it company.
I’d like to see the world for once, all standing hand in hand, and hear them echo through the hills, for peace throughout the land. -Bill Baker, 1970