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The Holy Detour

The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 16:6-15
Psalm 67
John 14:23-29
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Caine

16: 6They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.9 “During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.” (Acts 16:9-15, NRSV)

Let us pray: Gracious God, through a vision you sent Paul to preach the gospel and called the women to the place of prayer. Grant that we may be like Paul and Lydia, our hearts responsive to your word and open to go where you lead us. Amen.

I remember it very distinctly. It is one of those moments that adds perspective to life, to work, and to faith. It was nothing particularly earth shattering. As a matter of fact it happened in a meeting of all things. Imagine that something worth remembering happening in a church meeting!
It was a community meeting of the local clergy, civic groups and service agencies to discuss the growing need of hungry children in the County I used to live in Tennessee. No one knew the exact number, because there are never exact numbers when people are in need. This was seven years ago, in a county of roughly 30,000 people. It was reported that there were something like 50 children who were homeless. This was in addition to the staggering number of students in the city and county schools who received free and reduced lunch. There were 15 schools in the system and over 90% of the students in each school qualified for federal aid and free or reduced lunch. For many of these students these were the only meals they ate each day; the free breakfast and lunch they ate at school. So, they had nothing to eat when school was not in session.

Many of the churches partnered together and started a backpack program for the school system so these at risk children were given a backpack filled with food to take home for the weekend and over holidays.

The harsh reality of these statistics only told part of the story. A school teacher spoke in the meeting and shared how difficult it was each day to see the faces of these hungry students in her classroom. She went on to state that even the best teacher in the world cannot teach a hungry child. Later in this same meeting she made a very insightful revelation: “what was going to happen this summer when these hungry children aren’t going to be in school getting at least breakfast and lunch five days a week?” Her revelation hit us all, the magnitude of the situation and the need suddenly was overwhelming.

As silence filled the meeting room, her statement hung in the air. All of the usual suspects, educators, civic leaders, clergy, and government officials, used to talking and having answers were stunned, sitting there with our pads of paper and pens ready to plan out a strategy of how to solve this problem. But nothing! Sitting in the meeting was an African American woman, who had been quiet and then she said that feeding hungry children was on her heart. All on her own, she had been working on this problem of hunger of serval years. She applied for and received a grant, for feeding about 200 children every day all summer long for the past few years. The rest of us in the room sat in stunned silence until finally someone asked her how she did it.

“Well I just knew there were hungry kids who needed to be fed and I decided I wanted to do something about it. So I did.”

The rest of us in the room, we organized and by the book, educators, civic leaders, clergy, and government officials started trying to figure out how we could get involved. People started throwing out options and ideas only to be shot down the cynical realization on why this option or that idea wouldn’t work.
• We don’t have the money for it
• It would too hard to organize
• We have to run it by legal first
• We don’t have enough volunteers
• We can’t possibly do that

These were all very real and very legitimate concerns. And here was this get it done lady just listening. We with our pens and papers trying to calculate how many kids we thought we can realistically feed. We discussed the safety of the small kitchen and room where she fed them was, what would the Fire Marshall do if he saw it? What about safe church training and background checks on the volunteers? Someone looked at the lady as we are all planning and thinking and calculating, “So how many kids would you like to feed?”

Without skipping a beat she says simply, “Oh I’ve never thought about a number. I just want to feed every child who is hungry. However many that is.”

And that is when it happened, it hit me, this woman of faith had it right. She had a vision and passion and the faith to make it happen. I am not sure how it all came about. I don’t know if she had a dream, or a conversation with a child who was hungry, or if it was the Holy Spirit coming alive in her as she was reading her Bible, but I truly believe listening to her and watching her that the Holy Spirit was working through her to feed hungry children in that community. That is often how God works, we plan and we calculate and we prepare to go this way while the Holy Spirit works through someone such as this dear lady of faith goes that way. And she simply did it, she started to feed hungry children. She just trusted and did it.

Visions come in many forms and fashions. Visions are all over the Book of Acts. Our story today begins with a vision. Paul and his companions Silas and Timothy are at a loss for where to go next with the gospel. They stumble around the region, running into one barrier after another set up by God. Barred by the Spirit from going south and west into Asia or from going north into Bythinia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.

Don’t you wonder why? Why didn’t they go? I don’t know. No one knows. All we know is whatever happened they attributed it to the work of the Spirit. The spirit opened the doors that needed opening and shut the doors that needed shutting. There is something comforting about such trust in the spirit. A trust so real that if we have faith the Spirit will lead us where we need to go and we will be where we need to be.

So for whatever reason, Paul and his disciples went to Macedonia instead. Because they had faith in and followed God – Christianity came to Europe and down through the ages to you and to me.

God had something greater in mind than Paul did. God can imagine things that we cannot, and God, invites us to be a part of it.

Much like the lady feeding hungry children. “I don’t know how many kids I want to feed. I see hungry children and I feed them.”

So, here we are, the Indian Hill Church two millennia later, about to receive names for a new Rector to lead our church. We will also be looking for a new church secretary to replace Karen Pauly, who is following and trusting in God in her own life. Change seems to be the one constant we have. Who will the search committee call? What kind of leader will they be? Who will be the new welcoming presence of the church now that Karen is leaving?

Then we read a story like this that call into question our attempts at control, to plan so perfectly, that we lose sight of the work of the Holy Spirit and where we are being lead to go?

This is really a hard message for a church full of planners; now please understand me; I truly believe that planning is good. We need plans and we need to be organized to keep the chaos to a minimum. But… it is often that the Spirit of God works in spite of our best laid plans, our preparation, and our meetings and deliberations. Just when we think we are supposed to go right, the Spirit in whatever ways the spirit works pushes us instead to go the left or to go up instead of down. Maybe it’s an urging or a pushing or a prodding. Maybe the Spirit is disquieting and unsettling our comfortable existence. It is the most difficult aspect of this endeavor called faith…it is trust. But if we trust that urging, that prodding, trust that the correct doors will be opened and the wrong doors will be closed, then we can trust and know that God is leading us every step of the way. To be still and know that God is God!
And how truly terrifying to is to think about trusting someone else or something else, to trust God or is it?

I will close with this quick example. I hope that each of you has had the opportunity to introduce yourself to our new youth Director, Randall Davidson. He is not exactly what we were looking for to replace Michelle as our youth leader. He is quiet and reflective, he is outdoorsy and a vegetarian, and he is bald and has a beard. He is not an Episcopalian nor a Presbyterian but he is exactly who we need even though he was not who we thought we needed. He is very engaging and has quickly made connections with the staff but most importantly with our youth.

So you see we just might find that it is actually extremely freeing to trust and to rest secure that God is in charge and we don’t have to have control over everything.

Thanks be to God for it. Amen.

Let us pray:

What’s love got to do with it?

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
John 15:9-17

15: 9 “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (John 15:9-17, NRSV)

Let us pray: Faithful God, make our hearts bold with love for one another. Pour out your Spirit upon all people, that we may live in your peace and walk in your ways. Amen.

 

Love is such a difficult word, emotion, sense to understand. I mean I love Monnie and I love my children, but I also love chocolate chip cookies and ice cream. I love sports and summer vacations so when Jesus talks about love and loving him it seems somehow to be different.

 

My mom told me she loved me and my dad often did so without actually using the words; my brothers and I did not say it to each other while we were growing up but we knew it and now we end each conversation and or visit with I love you. Growing up in the church, adults and others shared with me about their love of Jesus.  I really did not know what that was all about loving Jesus…how could I do that when I didn’t really understand love?

 

As a teenager I didn’t date a whole lot and I certainly didn’t have many girlfriends but when I did I was certain that she was the one and I was in love with her and it was going to last forever because that is what love means isn’t it?  My heart skipped a beat when I saw her, I was sure that this was love. Boy, did I have a lot to learn about girls, dating, attraction and love, but that is for another sermon. I never had those sort of feelings towards Jesus. Sure, I invited him into my heart and gave him my life and asked him to be my Lord and Savior but I did not have the same feelings towards him as I did my first crushes and girlfriends. And when you are a teenager, those first brushes with love and romance are not only intoxicating, all-consuming but they are also very confusing.

 

As Church goers we hear about Jesus and love all the time. One of the gifts my parents gave me was to raise me and my brothers in the faith where the truth of the gospel that God so loved the whole world and even you and me was taught. But love was not a word that was easily understood in the world that I grew up in not this kind of love. We believed in Jesus; we tried to live according to God’s Word; we learned the difference between right and wrong, we took great comfort and strength in the promises of Scripture and Jesus to us and for all the world, but love him? I am not sure I knew what that really meant.

 

You see, I don’t remember too many people saying out loud how much they loved their husbands, wives, significant others, their parents or even their children. It seems that that kind of love was far too personal, much too intimate to be talked about in public. Today maybe a bit different with social media where you can tell the whole wide world just how much you love him or her or pizza or the Reds or anything for that matter.

 

So, I began to wonder why people didn’t have such emotions and feelings for Jesus like we do for our boyfriends, wives, or children.  Did I miss something because I didn’t feel all tingly or obsessed about Jesus?  Could it be that I was taking Jesus for granted?

 

Sure I remember being taught that there are three different types of love in the New Testament. The first is agape, which is a verb. It is the highest of the three types of love in the Bible. Jesus showed this kind of selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love to all humanity. The second type of love is Phileo, which is also a verb. It is the friendship kind of love and affection for others. The final type is Eros, which is a noun. It refers to sexual, erotic love or desire. Obviously, Jesus is talking about a different kind of love than the hot and bothered teenage kind of love but what is he talking about.

 

In the scripture passage we read; Jesus is sharing his last meal with his disciples in the upper room. They are worried.  They are worried about being left behind. So, Jesus takes this last opportunity to prepare them for his departure. He tries to calm their fears and ease their anxieties by telling them how to carry on, to live in his absence so he says to them “if you love me, keep my commandments…The love he is talking about here is not a sentimental passion, or a romantic infatuation or obsession, or even an attraction or lust. The love Jesus is talking about is behavior, it is an action not a noun.  Jesus is telling his disciples not simply to say the word but to live it out. Don’t just talk about love, show me love! It is not about feelings, it is behavior, and it is defined by what we do, more than what we say!

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

 

Think about what this means, how in the world do we “show” Jesus we love him?

  1. When we love our neighbor
  2. When we show compassion
  3. When we do justice, love kindness, show mercy and walk humbly with God…

 

In my pervious church there was a guy named Clint. He had grown up in the church and he was there every time the church doors were open. In fact, he had his own key so he was there even when the doors weren’t open. He was known to sit in a chair next to the secretary’s desk for hours on end, he also walked down the center aisle with the family at a funeral procession when he wasn’t even a member of the family.

 

He was a bit off. He was an alcoholic. His life was in shambles. He was a good hearted person but he was very hard to love.  It was hard to love him because he was difficult, he often did not bathe, he was not appropriate…he was tough but one day a group of the men in the church showed they loved him.

They went to his apartment and found him dirty, sick and very much alone. They cleaned out all of the liquor bottles, empty beer cans and trash in his filthy living space. They cleaned out the shower and then gave him one. The scrubbed him head to toe and then they took him to the doctor for a check-up. The next day they went with him and checked him into an alcohol rehab center. I know that they never said the words, “Clint, we love you but they certainly showed him just how much they loved him.”

 

I read in the Enquirer this week the tragic story of the young man, Travis Livers-Gowdy, the Cooper High School student who was tragically killed in a car accident last week in Northern Kentucky. A classmate told a story about him. She was new to the school and she was often teased and bullied. She described the first day that Travis Livers-Gowdy came and sat next to her at lunch. “Last year, I was the girl no one liked. I was sitting by myself at lunch every day,” “This popular upper-classman (Livers-Gowdy) came and sat next to me, and he sat there with me every day… To know that I was a nobody. For him to make me know that it (wasn’t) OK to be bullied because someone like him who was known and popular and loved could help someone like me.”[1] He kept doing it every day.

I don’t imagine Travis Livers-Gowdy ever uttered the words, “I love you,” to her but he showed it. Not romantic love, not ever-lasting love, but the deep and abiding love for another child of God.

 

I don’t know if Travis was a Christian or not but he sure seems like it not because of anything he ever said but by his love.  Jesus asks, “Do you love me? Then he commands us to love one another as he first loved us. This is the call and command of the Risen Christ to all of us, so let us all show him. Not merely by our words but more so by our actions.

 

Let us pray:

[1] Henry Molski and Patrick Brennan, pbrennan@enquirer.com, School mourns loss of 18-year-old crash victim May 8, 2015 Check out this story on cincinnati.com: http://cin.ci/1Rhahm0

 

Congregational Hospitality: The Risks and Rewards of Hospitality

 

Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Acts 10:23-48
Matthew 15:21-28

 

10: 23The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. 24The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshipped him. 26But Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal.’ 27And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28and he said to them, ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?’ 30 Cornelius replied, ‘Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31He said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.” 33Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.’ 34 Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’  44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (Acts 10:23-48, NRSV)

 

 

This is the third sermon in the series on Hospitality.  Today we have a couple of long readings form the New Testament.  This sermon will focus on the reading from Acts and more specifically the movement that takes place in this scripture passage.  Peter moves from Joppa to Caesarea, he also moves from clean (Judaism) to unclean (Gentile), he moves from guest to host and from risk to reward.  Cornelius, another character in this story moves from a position of power to a position of powerlessness, from host to guest and from outsider to insider.  There is also another much more subtle movement that is deeper and behind this story; it is the movement of God.  As we have seen throughout this sermon series God is active and on the move throughout the Bible and the world.  God is active and on the move spreading his love, grace and mercy through individuals and communities and through the offer of hospitality.  Specifically in the book of Acts we learn that the gospel spreads from the Jewish world into the Gentile world and on to the ends of the earth. God’s activity continues today and sometimes it happens through our sharing hospitality.  We the church bear witness to God’s hospitality when we share God’s welcome with others who may be new to us.

 

Let us pray: Holy One of Israel, covenant-keeper, you restore what is lost, you heal what is wounded, and you gather in those who have been rejected. Give us the faith to hear your word and to live it out so that all may be welcomed and all people may be blessed. Amen.

 

Darla and her daughter were living in their car, because they had been evicted from their apartment.  They came to the church for worship one Sunday, and they were welcomed and respected and a relationship was started.  Without going into all the details of how it transpired, and it took several years for the outcome.  Darla became an active member of the church, she sang in the choir, she has a job and home.  No one person did all of this, but rather a community of people extended the hospitality of God and together with the work of the Holy Spirit, Darla and her daughter found a church home.

 

Mike and his wife and daughter were new to the church.  Mike was raised in the faith but never really “bought into” the church and its teachings.  Over time he became more inquisitive and, through what can only be the work of the Holy Spirit, he recently asked to be baptized.  Again it is hard to quantify how this transformation happened in his life.  But I cannot help but point and affirm the work of the Holy Spirit and the hospitality of the congregation in sharing the transforming love of God with Darla and Mike.

 

These are but two examples, among many, of how hospitality changes lives. The lives of both the ones receiving it and the ones extending it.  The point of hospitality is to invite others to experience the living, welcoming and transforming God.

 

But sharing God’s gracious hospitality is not without risk.  I shared two positive stories of sharing hospitality but I could share more stories than I care to count of hospitality being extended in honest, faith filled ways, and the outcome not being so positive, happy, and fruitful.

 

Some of these outcomes were rejection. “What if we offer a warm welcome and hospitality, and it is rejected?” “What if they don’t come?” Jesus own life and ministry was an invitation to new life, and it ended on the cross in the ultimate act of rejection by those he came to serve.  Another risk of offering hospitality could be we get no return on our investment? “We did all of this work, and we have gotten no new members?” There is a danger of seeing hospitality as a means to gain new members or more “pledging units,” and we miss the point of God’s hospitality all together.  Another potential risk could be our gracious hospitality works and it works well but we have welcomed “the wrong type of people”? In the biblical sense this is what I believe God’s hospitality challenges: a welcoming of all. “What will we do with those who don’t fit in?”

 

Offering hospitality or inviting someone into your life can be difficult.  It is much more than what we think of today as having family or friends over for a meal or hosting guests in our home for a night or two.  Luke, the writer of Acts, and the other writers of the New Testament, had a very different understanding of hospitality.  The ancient custom of hospitality revolved around the practice of welcoming strangers or travelers into one’s home and providing for them provisions and protection.  Hosts were also obligated to meet their guests’ needs by supplying them with meals, water for cleaning their feet and with new clothes if they needed them.  When the guest was ready to leave the host would also “send them off” with enough provisions for at least a day’s journey and where possible they would provide a guide to accompany the guest until the guest traveled safely out of the region.  Over time, this biblical understanding of hospitality has become skewed.

 

In the Greco-Roman world, citizens lived with a great fear that the stranger requesting help on their journey could be Zeus, the god of hospitality, in disguise presenting himself as a test of one hospitality.  There was also a strong desire to create political alliances with others by offering them hospitality on their journeys.

 

In Hebraic and Christian contexts, however, the motive for hospitality more often grew out of the desire to please God by showing love toward a fellow worshiper. The Jewish and early Christian followers of God showed their love for God and others by extending hospitality to complete strangers.  Then in the New Testament we read of Jesus turning the concept of hospitality around as he commissioned his followers to minister to their host families and communities. Rather than merely receiving provisions and protection, the traveling missionaries were to meet the needs they encounter along their journeys and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

 

In our passage today from Acts, Peter accepts the hospitality of Simon the tanner in Joppa.  This is quite remarkable because tanners work with leather, animal skins.  Tanners were thought to be extremely unclean and one would not interact with them.  For Peter, a good Jew, to stay in the home of a tanner was unheard of.   Then when Peter is invited by messengers to come to the home of Cornelius Peter extends hospitality to them.  He accepts their invitation and travels to stay at Cornelius’ home.[i]

 

Once Peter arrives at Cornelius home he explains the good news of Jesus Christ to him and the gift of the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and the other Gentiles gathered there.  Through this wondrous act of God Cornelius and the members of his household who are also Gentiles asked to be baptized.

 

These stories of hospitality become the vehicle through which God acts to open up the church to the Gentiles and from there to the ends of the earth. Hospitality throughout the book of Acts functions as the bridge through which Jewish Christians are able to see Gentile converts in a new way — no longer as “profane or unclean,” but rather as partners in the community of faith.  If ever so slowly the extension of hospitality is the bridge that covers the gap between people of different regions and cultures and their being integrated into the life of the Church.

 

So what does this mean for us, here today?  We do not find ourselves in the same situation as the early Christians, nor do we have as many barriers but we still very much live in a world of insiders and outsiders. It is vitally important for us today to offer hospitality to one another.  We must keep risking, even when all signs say it won’t make a difference.  We must share hospitality not because we will be able to get new members or because God will smile upon us or because we will get another pledging unit.

 

And we don’t do it to put another notch in our belt of conversions or increase our number of baptisms. No!

 

We offer hospitality because it is who we are as Christians.  We do it and we trust in God because it is God at work in and through our lives and our hospitality. Sometimes it won’t work.   People won’t respond to even our best efforts.  But sometimes it will.  But not because of us for we are mere mortals, but because of God, the creator of heaven and earth, and all that is, God is the one who can change hearts, transform lives and even raise the dead! So let us trust in God and share God welcome because you just never know what might happen.

Thanks be to God.

 

Let us pray:

 

[i] Reverend Dr. Andrew Arterbury the Ancient Custom of Hospitality, the Greek Novels, and Acts 10:1-11:18. Reverend Dr. Arterbury is Assistant Professor of Christian Scriptures at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Left Behind

June 1, 2014 (Easter 7/Ascension)

Psalm
Acts 1:1-14

 

1:1 “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Acts 1:1-14, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O God of glory, your Son Jesus Christ suffered for us and ascended to your right hand. Unite us with Christ and each other, in suffering and in joy, that all your children may be drawn into your heavenly home. Amen.

 

It is hard to believe but it has been over 40 days since Easter.  I realize this because Thursday was Ascension Day, not exactly a big day on the calendar, no hallmark cards to mark the event, just us religious types to take notice. A day to sing some special hymns like Crown Him Lord of All or Crown Him with Many Crowns.  It is such a difficult concept to preach on much less to believe in.  That Jesus ascended up into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the father.  We say it in the Apostle’s Creed every week.  Mystery and all, this is where that statement in the creed comes from.

 

One thing is certain about Jesus ascension is that we will never work out the physiology of Jesus ascending into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father almighty…nor will we figure out the physics of it either.  The theology on the other hand is pretty clear about what theAscension is all about.  You and I have heard the story of Jesus starting way back at Christmas, going through Lent and Easter and now 40 days beyond.  This is one of those stories that people on the outside love to point out as pure fantasy, you don’t really believe that right?  They ask. “I mean come on, a man, Jesus, goes straight up into heaven and his followers watched.” They have a point you know. I can never prove it but then again I can’t prove much anyway.

 

So how and why Jesus Ascended into heaven is not really that important to me because this story has something much more valuable to tell us.   It is the Promise.   

 

You know what a promise is, a statement telling someone that you will definitely do something or that something will definitely happen in the future.  We all make promises – good promises, well-intentioned promises.  Life happens and our promises often go by the wayside.  And so when we read in this story of Jesus Ascending into heaven we may be all caught up in the special effects of that scene that we miss out on the promise in verse 8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

 

Dare we promise makers and promise breakers trust such a promise that has had over 20 centuries of life happens to get in its way of being fulfilled?

 

We seem to focus on Jesus going up through the clouds.  Then we notice the disciples that small fragile community of followers. They were anxious and bewildered, watching their Lord leave them. Much like any of us when we say goodbye to a loved one.  So, there they stand, looking up staring into heaven and waiting.  They have let the promise that Jesus told them sink in.  The promise that God will send the Spirit to be with them and to give them power to go on. It is not until later, when the two visitors come and speak and offer another promise from God that the forlorn disciples even move.  They don’t go far because they are very cautious as they wait.

 

But their waiting is not passive.  They gather with women who had followed Jesus.  They pray.  They look for a replacement for Judas.  And they wait for promises to be fulfilled.  For soon Pentecost will happen and it will fulfill the promise of the Holy Spirit.

 

What they learn as they wait and what we learn is that God’s promises can be trusted.  God’s promises are often fulfilled in unexpected ways.  We may not be able to deliver on all of our promises but God can and God does. What God’s promises God can deliver.

 

All of us make promises – good promises, promises that are full of good intentions.  A parent tells a child still shaken from a nightmare that she won’t ever let anything harm the child, not imagining all the traumas or tragedies that child may have to face in life.   A young couple stands before a congregation of family and friends and say to one another that together they will persevere through sickness and health, in plenty and in want…not able to perceive the stresses that a serious illness or a lost job, will impose on their promises.  Changing circumstances and demands, like our own frailties and faults, sometimes force enormous pressure and strain on even the best promises we make.

 

The fact that God keeps promises does not make our own promises more reliable.  Neither does God’s trustworthiness make our failed and broken promises any less painful to us or to others.  No, what God’s promise keeping does is mean that our broken promises are not what will define us. God promises that something good may come from us yet.

 

God’s promises mean that even failure isn’t the last word. God’s promises mean that even death is not the last word. God promises that weeping may linger for a night but joy comes in the morning. God promises that no matter what befalls us we are never alone, that Christ gives us strength we did not know we had, hope that seemed impossible, and joy that seemed lost.  God is a God of promises giving us the power to live the faith and face each day with confidence and courage knowing that we go not alone.

 

Let us pray:

What Do You Believe?

May 25, 2014 (Easter 6)
Psalm 66:8-20
Acts 17:16-31

17:16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. 22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:16-31, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Living and gracious God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ you have brought us out to a spacious place where we are called to live as those redeemed. Empower us by your spirit to keep your commandments, that we may show forth your love with gentle word and reverent deed to all your people. Amen.

 

I never really liked Paul.  I say this fully aware that my sermon today is about Paul and that many Protestant pastors love to preach about Paul.  I used to think Paul was such an authoritarian, a know-it-all and real blow hard.  Over time my opinion has softened, and it is through texts like this one today that the Apostle Paul becomes more palatable.   In the past I have read this story and interpreted it as that Paul was mocking his Athenian audience when he says “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way for I went through your city and looked carefully at the objects of worship.”  This statement seems to be filled with Paul’s infamous attitude of superiority with a dash of a mocking tone thrown in for good measure.  Paul does tend to do that a lot.

 

But then, you have to realize that for all of his faults Paul was intelligent, courageous and committed to his faith.  So, I believe that this story of Paul will show just how committed he is.  He walked around the city and noticed all of the idols on display in the public areas of the city.  It would have been offensive to a Jewish Christian like Paul to see those idols because it was a violation of the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith which, begins, “The Lord our God is one God,” and “Thou shalt have no other gods before me and thou shalt not make graven images.” They even had an idol to an unknown god hoping to cover all the bases.  You just never know what kind of god you might need, so they include the unknown god in their list.  Whatever need might arise, this unknown god can be the one to worship.  So, even though he is put off by what he sees he also appreciates they are religious, but he knows that handmade gods and idols have their limits.  He shares with them that they don’t need an unknown God – they have a God who knows everything.

 

In reality, I believe that Paul wasn’t speaking down to the Athenians or mocking them.  I think that he was actually sincere.  He saw how they were a searching people, groping for something to believe in, something to hold on to.  Paul appreciated their searching.  He understood that aspect of their lives.  And he also saw their searching as a connection, a way to relate and understand them and for them to understand him and his God.

 

He starts in the synagogue, and from there he moves into the marketplace. He speaks with intellectuals and philosophers.  They must have liked what he had to say or at least they were intrigued because they invited him to speak at the Areopagus.   Which was a kind of gathering place for public dialogue.  It was Paul’s kind of place.  He told them about the God he worship, the God who created all that is, the God who satisfies all our searching, the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

 

Just imagine if Paul were here today speaking with us, because we are no different.  We too are searchers and seekers.    All of us are searching for something, whether it is a search for meaning, or for joy.  Some seek health and happiness, some look for family and belonging, some seek peace and solitude.  There are people who want to be in the limelight and others want nothing more than quiet anonymity, some want to be rich, and others just want to simplify their lives.  So, I imagine that most of us, at one time or another have had that feeling that something is missing in our lives.  So we search, maybe only in our minds, looking for something to fill the void.

 

Searching isn’t a bad thing.  It signifies that we care about something deeper something more than what is on the surface. It is all in what we are searching for.  I wonder, do we search for God?  Do we see God in our searching?

 

Today in United States we live in what philosopher Charles Taylor proclaims as “A Secular Age” — a time in which belief in God is no longer the default, but is rather one among many options; God must be actively chosen and no longer assumed.  So it is an interesting time for Christianity and the Church because we are no longer the default belief system.  To the culture, God can be everything or nothing or as Pastor Rob Bell describes, to many people today, God is “Like a mirror, God appears to be more and more a reflection of whoever it is that happens to be talking about God at the moment.” It sounds like the philosophers, Feuerbach and Freud and Marx thought, our ideas of god are just projections of our own hopes, dreams, fears, and angers, and so, understandably, many people are turned off by ‘God.’ Many have been turned off to church and religion because of the recent church scandals and political agendas.  But our culture is still searching and seeking, just think of how many people claim to be spiritual but not religious saying they can find god everywhere and anywhere but the sanctuary.

 

So what can we learn from Paul about how to be a follower of God in a culture seeking lots of gods?

 

We can begin by noticing how Paul speaks to the gathered Athenians. There is no harshness or superiority.  His whole message was one of courtesy and kindness.  He did not demand that they change their minds and believe as he does.  Instead he begins where they were.  He gives them room and doesn’t present a narrow understanding of God.  He sees their searching as the open door to their minds and hearts.  It was as if he said to them, “You have looked everywhere for God, but have not found him.  God is nearer than you thought.  You have looked everywhere and missed him.”

 

And what of the response to Paul’s sermon?  Some scoffed, some doubted, but others believed.  From church history we know that the church at Athens would produce some of the greatest Christian leaders of the next century.  Some of Paul’s hearers mocked him, others ignored him, but through his openness and the work of the Holy Spirit the church and the faith grew.

 

Churches today need to spend some time listening and learning from those who live around us.  We can learn what they are paying attention to and we just might find that they are some of the same social issues and problems that we are passionate about. We just might find that they care deeply about spiritual connection and community, even about their relationships with God. I believe that we in the Church can listen and learn from the language and the lives of people outside the church well enough to be able to say, much as Paul did to the Athenians, “We see that you are extremely thoughtful and sincerely spiritual people in your daily lives.”  Paul communicated the truth about Jesus in a way that resonated with the Athenians’ own search for truth.

 

Paul did not enter into dialogue with the philosophers of Athens without risk.  It is a challenge to all of us, to learn new methods and new vocabularies, because the Church can no longer remain what it had always been if it was to become what our world is so desperately searching for— God’s love, grace and mercy.

 

If we can instead stop feeling so threatened by the outside world, stop living so fearful of people who believe differently than us, then maybe we can live true Christian lives of being open and outward focused, living and kind, humble and grace filled.  So that we can genuinely engage this pluralistic and ever-changing world, we might just find new ways of telling the world the good news of Jesus Christ the one in whom we live and move and have our being.  May we live and treat others as Jesus did with love and compassion so that they too might believe in Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, the son of the living God.

 

Let us pray:

A Hope Filled Vision

May 11, 2014 (Easter 4)

Psalm 23
Acts 2:42-47

 

2:42 “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

 

One of the many quirks of being a pastor is the type of mail you receive. All kinds of letters, flyers and full color high glossy mailings about church growth, stewardship and my all-time favorite church pictorial directories.  I guess it goes with the territory, whatever one does in life defines the type of mail you receive. Since I am new here the junk mailers have not gotten up with me but it used to be that, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I used to receive some sort of material about the latest fad in church growth ideas almost every week. These mailings claimed to reveal the secrets of the mega churches and they could teach even me how to grow a church overnight for the low price of $495.  The elusive secret of success to growing a church can be mine if I respond to this letter.

 

We all want our church to grow. We all want to add to our numbers. We want to know that our church is vibrant, vital and faithful to God’s mission. We just had three baptisms which is a big deal but in the book of Acts we hear of 3000 baptisms.  Just imagine what it would be like if, as in the early church, everybody was so deeply involved in Christian education and worship? It would be like Easter Sunday every week.

 

 

Today we read these five short verses from Acts and it makes me wonder. This description of the early church sounds almost utopian.  We have a picture of the early Christian church and apparently they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  This is looking at church through rose colored glasses.  Come to think of it…it sounds like a description of home — because at home these things take place, we share, we eat, we pray, we fellowship, we spend time together.  Imagine the church as a metaphor for home.  This is the type of church we would all love to see. This hope-filled vision represents the best of what God’s people are capable of, guided by and filled with the power of the Spirit,

 

These verses tell us what can happen to believers when moved by the Holy Spirit to follow our resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. The life and work of a Christian community can reflect – even if only dimly – the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed while on earth and secured through his death, resurrection.

 

But then again, can you imagine any pastor getting up before the congregation and saying, “I sense the Spirit is leading all of us toward a communal ethic of sharing and caring, so if you would, please cash out your savings and trade in your cars and next week we’ll pool our resources to help those in the community who may have need”?

 

What would be the response? My guess…”the Pastor Nominating Committee will be gathering on Monday evening to begin the search for our next pastor.”  I just think we all have limits to what we’ll give to the church.  I know I do.  I have to think about paying bills, the tough economy, getting my kids through college, and I really need to get one of those new flat screen TVs.  I just can’t imagine giving it all away. Because if it were up to us it would never happen.

 

So, this story shows us what God can do and I think it would take all of God’s power and muscle and might to get people like me and you to part with our hard earned standard of living. It would be some miracle.

 

But it is exactly that miracle that Luke writes about over and over and over in the book of Acts. The coming of Jesus brings dramatic change!

 

The early church was not perfect. They did not set out to gain 3000 new members in the next year. They did not seem consumed by numbers, budgets, attendance and such things.  Rather they remained focused on Jesus and they simply lived out their faith, as best they knew how:

They spent time together in fellowship

They helped one another in service

They taught and studied in Christian Education

They broke bread together

They prayed for one another and they prayed together

 

The by-product of all of this was that others wanted to be part of their movement. Others saw their commitment to and passion for God and one another.

 

You know now that I think about it I have never received any mail that states anything like this; so let us learn from the lessons of the early church committing ourselves to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer. I pray that God will increase our wisdom and faith.

 

Let us pray: Mighty God, we pray that we may continue to have the power of the resurrection at work among us. May we be energized by your Holy Spirit to give you joy and praise, to see how much we have been given and how much we can give away. Help us to be miracle workers so that the hungry are fed, the poor are lifted up and everyone has Good News brought to them. In your Son’s names we pray. Amen.