(and John 14:1-6)
Chances are, most of sitting here today have never heard this story before. It doesn’t show up at all in the lectionary, and I would suspect that even most preachers – while perhaps racing past it in a reading of Acts in seminary – have never heard it and certainly don’t remember it, and I know this because this week at text study, while we spent a good amount of time talking about the widow’s mite - the woman who gives two small coins and Jesus calls her blessed - when I piped up, “Well, I am preaching the Riot in Ephesus!” I got a round of hearty laughter but not a single look of recognition or word of insight.
To be honest, I’ve been distracted by this text. I find it distracting. And this in a week where I see God moving all around.
My facebook feed is flooded the electricity of this thing that is going on over at the website Momastery where some 49,000 people are connected, and through something called “Holiday Hands” they are posting small and big needs – for a Christmas gift card for a daughter, a new bed for a son, a month’s mortgage for an unemployed single mom, books for grandchildren, help for someone who lost their home, thousands of needs- but rapidly appearing are the responses –People all over the country answering one need – I have a gift card to Target I can donate, I can make you a quilt, I will give you money for your mortgage. To strangers. Just because.
I responded to one – mom of new triplets in MN needs help – I answered asking what she needs – meals? visits? someone to help with diaper changes and giving mom a nap? And I heard back that her need had already been met by another stranger. Day and night it is going on over there on that website- It’s updating as we speak – needs, responses, gratitude flowing onward, lives touched. The Spirit of God is reaching out, reaching in, reaching between strangers in their abundance and need.
And to be honest, when I come up for air after reading that, this text is a distraction to me.
“Who is this God? And what is God up to?” I ask it, hoping to see something that I hadn’t seen before, to catch a glimpse of God at work in the story before me just as God is at work in the lives around me. But I don’t see God, really, instead I see a noisy, dramatic, pulling-people-all-into-its-vortex kind of distraction.
The hubbub is begun by a wealthy guy whose business is threatened by the implications of these teachings of Paul and followers of the Way, and so he drums up drama. He draws together the artisans who make idols out of silver and starts to tell them that their livelihood could be at risk if this message of Paul’s spreads. If these followers of the Way are saying there is no god made by human hands, and clearly we are in the business of making gods with our hands and selling them, if this thing catches on, we are sunk. No mention, by the way, of the fact that the clientele purchasing silver idols was a rich fraction of the population – and the majority of those responding to the message of the Way were regular folks who couldn’t have afforded their own silver idol anyway. But no matter, this is a possible threat. So he summons the artisans and warns them of the risk. This isn’t enough to get everyone as incensed as he is, though, so he extends the argument. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.’
I love the word fake newsperson Stephen Colbert has coined, “truthiness” – it means something that “feels” true. In other words, it doesn’t have to have a bit of real truth in it; it just has to get you riled up. This is a new word, but not a new concept. truthiness is what Demetrius uses in this story to stir up controversy thousands of years ago and worlds away from our own abundant use of it in personal arguments, politics and public discourse today.
So now he’s got their attention. How dare these people? Dishonor the goddess for whom we are known, the temple for which we are respected – that which defines us as a city and gives us standing in the rest of the world? How dare these people! So some followers of the Way are grabbed and thrust into the throng, And the rumble starts, and the riot builds, and pretty soon the mass of humanity gathered is shouting and the crowd is swelling and the rage is building and the majority of participants- it says – have no idea what is going on, but no matter, they’re yelling anyway – for hours, and in unison!
Until the town clerk – bless his soul – finally quiets them down – no small feat. And points out to the huge throng of shouting people that this isn’t even their argument. That this guy Demetrius is upset about his business and has stirred their passion and frustration to his own end, and that they are all rioting about nothing in particular, about an imagined threat, a trumped up charge, a vague dismay. So he tells them in his clerky voice that if this is a business disagreement – take it to court, and the rest of you, go home before you embarrass yourselves further or get into some real trouble with this illegal assembly. And the whole thing dissipates and the scene closes with the sweaty, chastised and sore-throated chanters shuffling home, self-conscious and probably more confused than ever.
Who is this God, and what is God up to here?
Well, stepping back, we see all around this text God is up to all sorts of things. People are being healed, people are being freed – released and empowered and delivered and welcomed into the Way of belonging and truth. Lives and communities are being changed a person, a family, a town at a time.
Before this scene we see Paul encountering people who were followers of Christ but had not yet been given words for this faith they already knew, and he prays for them and they receive the Holy Spirit, and then he teaches in lecture halls all throughout these towns and the text says, “This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.”
And then there is this crazy story where the gospel of Jesus Christ and the practices of the Way come up against the practices of magic, and again, people are released and set free and transformation happens for many people and the story ends,
“So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.”
And right after our text is this description:
"After the uproar had ceased, Paul sent for the disciples; and after encouraging them and saying farewell, he left for Macedonia. When he had gone through those regions and had given the believers much encouragement, he came to Greece, where he stayed for three months."
So stuff is happening. All over the place. God is right here doing things left and right, backwards and forwards.
But in front of us is our riot scene. And when we ask the question, it echoes back to us from the hollow walls of this empty story. Who is this God and what is God up to here?
But to be honest, I don’t see God here. And there are plenty of real crises and struggles in the book of Acts, real drama – hey, we’ve got a shipwreck coming up soon - and where God is is right there in the middle of things, but this isn’t one of those stories. And so maybe we just need to concede that this story might not be about God. Perhaps this story truly is a big distraction from all that God is doing.
And that is not to say that the distractions don’t sometimes take up a lot of our time and energy. That we don’t get swept up into them too – either yelling with the crowd, or mediating the madness, or, God forbid, tossed around in fear, the very focus of others’ wild riots of rage - so much so that our very lives may be in danger in the midst of it, or that others would tell us not to even show up, seeking to protect us from the heat.
That’s not to say that the power these distractions hold isn’t in some way real power- it’s power to stir, power to invigorate and whip up violence; it’s power to do real damage, not imaginary, nothing to be trifled with.
But it’s not where God is. It’s not where the truth is. It’s not where the life is. It’s not the Way.
Whether when the drama dies down the frustrated business man goes to file his paperwork to bring his complaint to the courts through the boring proper channels, or goes home in humiliation to lick his wounds and accept the failure of his efforts at vengeance by mob, we never know. Because that isn’t where the story is. That is not where the Spirit is.
That might be the thing that looks really big and important in the moment, that seems to demand your loudest shouts and your longest hours, but in the end, means you go home anyway and everything’s the same, and all the while the Spirit is blowing and lives are being changed all around you and you’ve been distracted from the real thing for the flash and fervor.
What are the distractions that would pull you from the real?
Because the real is really there. While people are venting and yelling about fiscal cliffs and holiday sales, and impending crises and weight loss crazes and finger-pointing political fallout, and a quarter of a million people in New Jersey are still without electricity and finding strength to carry on in the solidarity of their neighbors and the help of strangers, and people in local shops and churches letting them plug in cell phones and giving them hot coffee and warm meals and free wood for their fireplaces.
And while the rat race wants to pull me into thinking I have so much to do or worry about and things can seem so pressing and overwhelming – I have been living all week long in the miracle of this particular community of followers of the Way- the faith of you people and your prayers, and the reality that on Tuesday morning our Barb Day got in her car and drove down to Kansas City to the house of my sister, where she has been bathing babies and scrubbing floors and breathing hope into my sister and her husband by simply sharing their burden for a few days and letting them know they are not alone.
That is where God is. When I see that I can totally answer, Who is this God and what is God up to?
You can see it too, can’t you?
Who is this God? This is the God who shares life with us! This is the God who is made known when one person says, I can do that, and reaches out to another. When one person says, I’ve got your back. I’m with you here. Or, I will hold your story sacred.
This is the God who is not hindered or deterred by our riots or our truthiness or our impressive reputations or grand institutions or our persuasive arguments or our imposing crowds. Kind of doesn’t need to even show up there – too busy doing the loving and healing thing in the real life margins of our trumped up drama.
And what is God up to? God is up to something really really big in a billion really small ways. All the time. This very second. And we are followers of the Way, remember? That means we’re part of it, people. We are right in it.
So breathe deeply, church and listen to this one more time. Heaven and earth will pass away, but the word of our God stands forever.
How will we know the way, Jesus? we ask.
And he answers, because I AM the Way. I AM the Truth and I AM the Life. And you belong to me. So look for where the Holy Spirit is moving and join there. Find out what God is up to and jump in.