Sermon 004 Groceries

A couple of summers ago, my wife and I were walking with another couple in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. We had spent the weekend with them and were going to head back home that day, but we had a few hours to kill and so we decided to find out what we could discover downtown.

There were a couple of things working against us that day, though. First of all, Grand Rapids was one of the red, hot centers of the economic meltdown. Unemployment was through the roof and all the closed business were proof of that fact. Secondly, it was a Sunday, and so a lot of businesses that could have been open weren't. Finally, it was a scorching hot day, and I believe the humidity was somewhere in the six hundred percent range. Something like that.

Needless to say, after only a few blocks of hiking the seemingly abandoned streets of Grand Rapids, we were hot, we were thirsty, and most of us - not me of course - were grumpy. Grumpy, sullen, and uncharacteristically silent. Our few hours of hoped-for adventure had been turned into a bust.

As we rounded a street corner we came across a little park with a cement fountain--dry, of course--and some benches. We sat and rested for a while, catching our breath, and trying not to say grumpy things to each other. Eventually, as we were getting up to start walking again, a woman came up to us. You know the sort of woman I'm talking about--tattered clothes, unkempt hair, a face that looked somehow hollow. She was clearly homeless. We averted our eyes and our attention, hoping that just by our motion of walking she would get the hint and turn away. But a homeless woman is nothing if not persistent. "Excuse me," she said politely, "do any of you have any change so I can buy something to eat and drink."

I hate to repeat the thoughts that passed through my mind after that question. "She just wants the money for booze." "I need the change in my pocket to pay for tolls." "I'm thirsty too." "I'm hot and I just want to get into my car and go home."

Car. Home. Two things this woman didn't have, and I wouldn't give her the change in my pocket.

All four of us walked away without a word to that woman. It was as if she was less than human to us, more like a squirrel on our birdfeeders that we shoo away. A woman, already at the bottom of the social totem pole, without a job, without a home, without the money to buy some clean water to drink on a hot, sultry day in Michigan and we simply ignored her.

In one of the first history books ever written about the early church, we come across a story of a man named Simon. In those days, nearly two thousand years ago, people believed in magic, and would even say that the magic someone could perform was from God Himself. Simon was a magician. Some sources--probably exaggerating--say that he could levitate and fly at will. He had so impressed the people of his town that they would listen to whatever it was he had to say. And magicians weren't exactly known for being poor; for where there was a crowd, there was money to be made.

But if a magician was known for his wealth, crowds are known for being fickle. One of the first Christians, Philip the Evangelist, came to the city where Simon did his magic and--instead of trading magic for money--began to heal people. Men and women who were paralyzed or somehow mutilated began to be able to walk. And as Philip brought healing to the sick, he also began to teach them the good news about the Kingdom of God that Jesus had brought into the world. Unsurprisingly this first history book of the early Christians says that the city was filled with joy. People believed Philip and his message and were baptized &even Simon the Magician.

Now when we reach this point of the story, we hope that the story would just end on this happy note. But things never stay simple. Our history book goes on to tell us that the capital church in those times--Jerusalem--sent the apostles Peter and John to go and check up on things. Peter and John begin to pray for the people of the city and even lay their hands on them as a sign of solidarity and this sense that they are being anointed and appointed for something much bigger than themselves.

Now at the moment when Peter and John laid they hands on the people of this city, the history book writes this angeringly vague phrase about what happens to the people: they receive the Holy Spirit. Now if we look at other stories in this history book about what happens when people receive the Holy Spirit, it's pretty alarming. There's stories about wind and fire, and people speaking languages they don't even know; people start confronting political and religious authorities; someone gets stones thrown at him until he's dead because he sees a vision of Jesus and our history book connects that with the fact that he's filled with the Holy Spirit.

So whatever happens when Peter and John lay their hands on the people, and they receive the Holy Spirit, it's visible enough that our friend Simon the Magician wants a piece of the action. And at this point in the story we're not surprised. His primary source of income has dried up, because who is going to follow a magician when people have seen the miracles of God?

So Simon, in his wicked naivete, gathers up whatever money he has left, presents it to Peter and John, and says, "Give me this power so that whoever I lay my hands on they too may receive the Holy Spirit." And the way this story is written we're not to think that Simon just wants to help or that he's wanting to selflessly give people the Holy Spirit; he is in it for a profit. If his crowds have left his magic for the Holy Spirit of God, then if he can buy the Holy Spirit, he can have his crowds and his money back.

Have you ever had a friend who, right after some disaster or tragedy in their life, asks you, "Where was God in that situation?" Or maybe you have a friend right now who is dealing with some hardship in their life. The basement is flooded, the cupboards are empty, the kitchen table is a mess of bills, and their husband or their wife is threatening to walk out. Call it quits. Or maybe, maybe, you don't have a friend in this situation. Maybe it's you. Maybe you are up to your neck in disaster, dismay, and despair. And _your _question, the question that keeps on coming back to you, haunting you, is "Where is God?"

Paul, one of the first leaders of Christianity, while writing to a gathering of Christians in a city called Corinth, explains to them why they are to avoid immorality. And he doesn't give them the reason that a lot of us would expect. It has nothing to do with impressing God; it has nothing to do with trying to prove ourselves. Instead, the reason that Paul gives is that the Holy Spirit is living inside of you. You are the Spirit's temple. God resides in you.

Now we've heard some pretty weird things from books and television. Some people say that God is nature. Some say that God is the universe. Others yet say that you are your own God, or that if you are good enough and moral enough you can become God. But Paul writes something even more controversial, more bizarre, and more exciting than any of that. He says, "Do you not know that the Holy Spirit of God is living inside of you and that you are His temple?"

Well, if that's the case, if that's true, that God Himself is living inside of us, then how radically different should our lives look compared to people who don't even know this God, much less have Him living in them.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, once wrote a letter. And he said, "If you know the good you ought to do and do not do it, to you it is sin." He said, "If you see a brother or a sister who is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go and peace; stay warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that?"

Now Simon the Magician, when he saw the Holy Spirit, all he saw was dollar signs. All he saw was how he could profit, how he could gain, how he could increase his own standard of living. Are any of us so much different? We, the church, filled with God Himself, walking around, seeing people in need, having a brother or sister say, "I'm hungry. I can't pay the bills. My parents are sick. My basement is flooded. I am up to my neck in disaster, dismay, and despair." And is our best response, the most God-filled thing we can do is say, "I'll pray for you"?

When the homeless woman walks up to me, my wife, and my two friends, each of us completely and utterly filled with the God of the universe, is our best Holy Spirit-inspired act only to ignore her and walk away?

So may you come to realize that being filled with the Holy Spirit is not for your own benefit; that we are not to be like Simon the Magician asking, "Can I buy this power for my own good"; and the next time one of your friends asks you, "Where is God?", may you be able to say, "Right here."

Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC