5/27/2012 Sermon: “The Fire Spreads”

Acts 2:1  When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  2  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  3  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  4  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5  Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  6  And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

7  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  8  And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  9  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10  Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11  Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12  All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  13  But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14  But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  15  Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16  No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17  ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19  And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  20  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21  Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

 The Burnt Hills.   Every year, around this time in May, the leaves on the trees behind our house, and all the vegetation growing around those trees, becomes so dense that we can no longer see our neighbor’s house.  Of course, I’m trying not to remember that in a few months, much of that growth will be on the ground and will have to be raked up.  For now, it’s green and lush.  And beautiful.  And thick. 

Like most people my age (I think), I’ve held onto a mental picture of the old-growth, pristine forest that must have existed here in New England before our Puritan ancestors arrived 300-400 years ago.  Now I know that this is a myth.  Scientists can tell from looking at tree rings that there were regular forests fires – and many of these were intentional.

One of the Connecticut churches I’ve served has a summer tradition of a “Blueberry Festival.” Originally, the blueberries were local; small, wild blueberries found in the hills nearby.  Many of you know the difference between those blueberries and the larger ones that are easy to find in grocery stores.  They aren’t just smaller; they have a much stronger taste.   As the festival grew, the church had to start getting its wild blueberries from a “farm” in northern Massachusetts.  The farm was an area near the border of Vermont where the blueberries have been growing naturally for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.  

In early August, “Burnt Hill” is frosted with blueberries on bushes about 2-feet high and the aroma is amazing.  At the top of the hill is a place that the owners say was used as a kind of shrine by Native Americans.  Every two years, these people would burn parts of the hill in the spring and this is still the practice.  The bushes have to be burnt to keep them healthy.  This is not only true for wild blueberries; there are many of species of plants and animals that flourish after the forest has caught fire.

This was something that made no sense to the Europeans coming to New England, but the Indians on the East Coast all knew this: there are some plants that seem to thrive after they’ve been burned.  It’s one of those things that’s strange but true.  Have you ever wondered how people would travel from one place to another when the underbrush is so dense in the forest around here?  We have always had so many permanent wooden homes that this kind of intentional burning is too dangerous, but in the places where Native Americans lived, they used to burn the undergrowth regularly.  The fire had a cleansing purpose.  It pruned and fertilized the forest, made travel easier, and kept harmful insects and animals at bay.

Jesus Lights a Fire.  Today is Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, when we remember how the first Christians saw the Holy Spirit come among them like “tongues of fire.”  Usually, the part about that reading that gets people’s attention is how everyone started speaking in different languages.  But I’d like to think for a moment about the fire. 

If you ever go camping in a state park, you might drive by a sign on the way in that says, “fire alert low today.”  Or it might be moderate or high.  And Smokey the Bear is holding the sign.  We usually think of fire as bad.  But the fire today is friendly fire.  It’s fire that’s good for us.

I think that friendly fire is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  (Luke 12:49)

The match that starts this fire is what he calls his own “baptism,” which we understand as his crucifixion, when he cleared the path between us and God.  When the followers of Jesus have faith in what he has done, the Holy Spirit comes.  And Luke sees this Spirit over the head of each believer as fire; a little piece of God’s fire.  The fire catches and spreads around town, around the country, around the world, changing people one by one, giving them life and making them different people than they were before.  All from that one match.

When that fire was sitting on top of the heads of those first Christians, I wonder what that felt like.  Could they actually feel it?  Was it warm or hot? Or was it something they could see in each other, but couldn’t see themselves? 

I think that one of the things God does when you give yourself to Christ, is send friendly fire, and the fire is doing certain things….

It’s that warmth you feel when after you’ve heard a reading or a song and you know God spoke to you.

It’s also the nagging awareness that there is something you need to stop doing because it’s interfering with your relationship with God (or other Christians).

It’s also the awareness that there is something you need to start doing in order to improve your relationship with God (or other Christians).  The gifts that came with the Holy Spirit, like speaking another language, was (and is) always about helping someone else.

The fire of the Holy Spirit is that sense that you are no longer alone in your spiritual life.  God is with you.

In scripture, God sets fires to clear out the underbrush that’s getting in the way.  God destroys the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire in Genesis, and then evil is thrown into a lake of fire in Revelation.  When God is first “seen,” God is speaking to Moses out of a burning bush.  Then God leads the Hebrew people out of slavery in a pillar of fire.  God could have picked something else, but God picked fire. 

Have you ever sensed that God is burning some underbrush out of your life? It can be a hard thing to accept, but sometimes God allows the fire to burn away the things that keep us from growing, from being better Christians, from being closer to God. That fire over our heads is the Spirit of God saying, I know you’re struggling – let me help you deal with that.  Let my fire burn away the thing that keeps you from growing.

The Fire Spreads.  When Luke made the list of countries the visitors to Jerusalem were from, he was making a sort of counter- clockwise circle of about 600 miles around Jerusalem.  These were all the places Christians were going to talk about Jesus.  About the time the book of Acts was written, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the city burned.  Those first generations of Christians did not have the chance to stay in one place and get comfortable.

Eventually, they came to your church and to you….  Someone came and made the message of faith in Christ accessible to you.  They would not have come if they were allowed to stay in one place and get comfortable.  The Christian faith is always about moving from one place to another, moving on toward a promised land.  God helps us burn the underbrush and move on.  Somebody somewhere needs your faith.

When we believe in Christ, God goes straight to the heart of the relationship and says, “What can I do for you?  You know, I could help you a lot right now.”  God speaks our personal language.  God is all about relationship and communicating.  “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (v. 4)

Take a look at how God did this.  We start with a small group of country people from Galilee in Jerusalem, hiding in a big room somewhere in the city.  This is a little like saying the church started with some Wisconsin dairy farmers on vacation in New York City.  It would take a miracle, and that’s what happened, a miracle.

First, God gave all these believers something in common: a Savior.  No matter who they were, or “where they were on life’s journey,” their age or background; strengths or weaknesses, their faith in a resurrected Jesus made them equal.  Having been with Jesus also gave them a good idea of what to do with the power of God once they had it.  Do what Jesus did.  Tell people about God’s love and heal them!

Secondly, God gave them the ability to spread the message, the ability to communicate once they knew what they had to do.  For at least a brief moment, they were speaking in other languages.  In those days, Greek was a “universal” language, like English is today – a language of commerce.  Many people had a home language and also spoke Greek.  This was probably the case with the people at the Pentecost festival.  They could communicate with each other in Greek, but what was unusual was that they each heard the good news of God being spoken in their own personal language.

This is amazing not just because these Galilean people were suddenly speaking in languages they hadn’t learned, but because of how this event worked into God’s plan, God’s long-range goals. The last thing Jesus told them before he left was that when the power of the Spirit came to them, they were going to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (1:8).  In one fell-swoop God met the deepest need of the world: an open door to a relationship with God.  The new church believed in the resurrection of Jesus, they talked about it, and people from other countries understood – in a personal way.  The Spirit gave them the power to talk about Jesus.  And this is what the church continues to do: talk about the living Jesus; and as we do, the Spirit gives us power.

Most times I give a sermon about the Holy Spirit I include this little story:  I once read a story in the newspaper about the custody trial of a deaf teenage girl.  Custody was given to her interpreter instead of her parents.  Custody cases are always tragic and damage families in some way.  This one had a lesson attached.  Actually, the story said that it was her father who wanted custody, and although he apparently had some problems with alcohol, the main reason the judge chose the interpreter was that the father refused to learn sign language.  He didn’t want to learn her language, and may as well have been saying that he did not want to understand or be understood.  The underbrush of his life was this attitude of resistance.

Without the Spirit of God, we only have some rules and traditions and church buildings.  We need the power of the Spirit to be the church God intended us to be.  We need the Spirit to be followers of Christ.  With the Spirit of God living in us, we see the world and we see each other through God’s eyes.  We sing about Christ, we speak about Christ, we eat together to honor Christ. Through all these things we grow closer to each other as the Spirit teaches us how to love; how to care for our church and each other; how to reach out to our world and communicate the most important person we know.

Prayer 

God, we pray for our own day of Pentecost.  Fill us with your power, speaking the truth of your love in a language our families, friends, and neighbors understand.  Show us where to go, what to do, what to say, and when to be quiet.  Use your Spirit to help us make a deeper commitment to following Christ.  Help us see the world as he sees it, feeling his joy at the good things happening in his church, his weeping at the sight of sick or hungry children, his anger at the injustice of senseless war.  Use your Spirit in us to bring forgiveness and healing to a world you love.  Amen.

5/20/2012 Sermon: “In the World”

Next week is Pentecost Sunday, when we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and the spiritual power now available to those who believe.  It is the fulfillment of the promises of Jesus (John, chapters 14-16) and of this prayer Jesus prayed for his followers:

John 17:6  “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.  7  Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8  for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.  9  I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10  All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

11  And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12  While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.

13  But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.  14  I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  15  I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.  16  They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  17  Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  18  As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  19  And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. 

In the World.  For many people, this time of year is wrapped around a graduation.  If you are graduating this year, congratulations!  I believe that most of the you gathered here have graduated from a school of one kind or another at some point in your life.  You’ve probably graduated multiple times.  It’s a distinctive part of our culture, this notion of graduation – a rite of passage.  I’ve even attended graduation ceremonies at nursery schools.  The 4-year-olds wear mortar boards, march to solemn music, and their parents shed tears.  They hear their names called, walk across a stage, and receive a diploma.  They are headed for kindergarten.  Time to move on, to face “the world.”  Sobering for the parents, a little scary for the kids.

The graduations we pay most attention to come much later, but this month, parents might be sorting through photo albums, retrieving memories of where it all started.  Can you remember the day you took your first child to kindergarten, or put him or her on the school bus for the first time?  Amazing day wasn’t it?  The feelings are really mixed. Here’s your “baby” leaving the security and comfort of home.  Is she ready? Will he be okay?

After the “terrible” twos, the “clingy” threes, and “whiny” fours, you wonder if the day will ever come when they will be in public school.  But then, as you watch them walk into that very first classroom, you are suddenly grabbed by a thought…  “In a heartbeat I’ll be watching the same kind of ceremony in a high school auditorium.”  And it happens.  You see Kate or Ian (there are so many names you could use) coming toward you down the aisle with a high school or college diploma in their hand.  That time turned out to be a blink of the eye.  Ready or not — your child is suddenly, “in the world.”

Now, try to imagine the flip side of this picture.  What’s the 5-year-old thinking, getting on that school bus for the first time, walking into the school building alone for the first time?  Excitement.  A little fear.  Maybe a lot of fear.  “I wanna go home! I want my mommy! I want my daddy!”  To that child, it’s a big deal.  And, I think you know, there’s a little piece of that child in us as adults.  When things get stressful in our lives, that child wants safety and security.  That child needs a parent to hold their hand.

One of the “perks” of my job is that I get to hold babies for brief times as we baptize them.  And I think to myself, “You’re so peaceful (usually).  I hate to disturb you.”  Have you ever watched an infant child sleeping in its mother’s or father’s arms and thought to yourself something along the line of, “Boy, would that be nice!”  No worries, no stress… no wondering about what will happen tomorrow.  It’s a feeling that comes sometimes (or lots of the time!) when we wish we didn’t have to be, “in the world.”

These feelings and thoughts are what we need to think and feel when we hear the gospel reading. The passage is a prayer Jesus says just before he is crucified and just after he’s told his friends what’s going to happen.  The worst part of the story is about to take place and “everything” is about to change.  Within 24 hours, Jesus will be dead. 

Just before he prays, he says to his friends, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”  Jesus knows what happens after the cross. And in the upper room, as they wait, Jesus prays.  The prayer communicates more than just the words Jesus says.

When things look their worst, this prayer is a call for believers to have faith.  God will take care of us.  God will hold our hand.  New life is just around the corner. 

In times past, I’ve written verse 3 of chapter 17 in people’s bibles: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Knowing Jesus is the key, the most important ingredient in who we are as people who belong to God.  Knowing this person who can cast out demons and shut down storms makes all the difference.  When we are in the world, this uncertain, scary world, he is the one you need with you. 

I read a cartoon in the Sunday paper some time ago, I don’t remember which one it was.  All I remember is the last frame, which said, “People make plans, and God laughs.”  God laughs because God loves us.  God laughs because we think we are in control.  It is pretty funny. 

At the end of a funeral service, I always pray, “O God, since we do not know what may happen to any of us, guide us in our walk down life’s path.”  I haven’t found a more creative way to say it; I always pray that because it is so true.  In the world, we need God.  We don’t know what may happen to any of us.

The world Jesus is thinking of is the same place where tornadoes and landslides happen.  Car crashes and shootings. SomaliasandRwandas.  Any form of abuse.  The list is endless and could include things that aren’t public, like bad grades and private disagreements. These things are all in the world Jesus is talking about.  We may not be able to do anything about them, but God can.  Straight from the mouth of Jesus, we have the promise of a kind of life that overcomes the world.  The world may not change, but we can.  It isn’t just Jesus who overcomes the world.  When we stay close to him, when we let the Spirit work in us, we overcome the world too.

Every parent has dropped off their child at the nursery, or left the house with a babysitter in charge, and heard the sound of screams as the door shut.  Maybe you worried in church, or called from the restaurant, but you knew that sooner or later the time had to come.  The experience was part of growing up and being in the world.   You and your child had to trust that things would be okay.  Learning to trust that things will be okay, that God is with us in our world, is something every Christian must do. Hopefully, this is something parents pass along to their children.

Try to imagine how God feels toward us.  God needs us to step out.  God isn’t far off.  We might get a little bruised, but God won’t let us fall so completely that we can’t get back up.  God needs us to use our faith muscles; if we don’t we never grow strong.  God needs us to trust.

In this world, we have some powerful support.  Have you ever had the experience of someone praying for you?  It’s a powerful thing. 

About 20 years ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was receiving an honorary degree in Canada and “gave thanks to everyone who helped the anti-apartheid struggle back in South Africa, his home. He said the help came in many forms, including prayers, and he remembered a nun on the West Coast of the United States who prayed nightly for him.  He said, “Here I am, prayed for at two in the morning, in the woods in California! What chance does the apartheid government stand?”

As Jesus prays, knowing that he is about to leave the world behind, he talks to God about us.  Jesus prays for us, and that’s no small thing.

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (17:11)  “…so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” (v. 13)

God’s work isn’t done.  The prayer of Jesus is a reminder that you don’t face your challenges alone.  With faith in him, we can do remarkable, amazing things.  Embrace your imagination!  There is a mission to complete, a world to reach.  And God needs the believers to join hands and let everyone know that there is hope.  There is life.  And there is joy.

 Prayer

 O God, be present with those whose lives are changing through graduation.   We thank you for them and ask that you bless them with a sense of thankfulness and purpose and the willingness to make the world a better place for your sake.  May their lives reflect a desire to serve you through the new opportunities that now lay before them.  Help us all remember that we never graduate from our need for you.

5/13/2012 Sermon: “The Radical Commandment”

[The Gospel reading for today:] Jesus said…

 John 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.

 This love, flowing from God, permeates the relationships between everyone who believes.

 The second reading for today is a follow-up from Easter Sunday.  The Apostle Peter has found himself preaching to a room-full of Romans – the people who had crucified Jesus not long before.  Amazingly, they believed in the living Christ whom Peter was preaching about and…

 Acts 10:44  While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.  45  And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46  For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47  “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48  And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

 The Radical Commandment.  Throughout history, Christians have been some of the foremost radicals for good causes.  Do you consider yourself a radical?  Probably not, but you know, when Jesus commands us to love one another, it’s really pretty radical.  You may have never thought of love as a radical thing.  And more than that, you have likely never thought of love as a divisive thing.  And most times, love is not radical or divisive.  You love your children, your parents, your brothers and sisters — and that’s a good thing.  A loving person is generally a good person.  Isn’t it true that we would much rather be involved with loving, caring people than un-loving, uncaring people.  So… how can love be radical or divisive?

Some time ago, a clergy friend was telling me about his Jewish doctor whom, he said, loved to talk about religion.  During one visit, he asked, “Do you know what the unforgivable sin is?

“Well,” said the minister, sifting scripture through his mind, “One interpretation of that question is that the unforgivable sin is to reject the work of God’s Spirit.”

“Nope,” said the doctor, “The unforgivable sin is to love everyone.”

“Doesn’t sound like a sin to me,” said the minister.

“Well, it is.  If a Jew loves an Arab, it’s unforgivable to lots of Jews. Or if a Korean loves the Japanese, or a communist loves a capitalist.  Then there are Democrats and Republicans, labor and management, and on it goes. No, in most places it is not acceptable to really love everyone.”

When you and I look around our world, or maybe even in our own town — and dare I say it — even in our own churches, it becomes clear that the Jewish doctor wasn’t too far off the mark.

 Abiding in the Love of Jesus.  Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  What if you pulled that out of a fortune cookie today?  What would that get you thinking about?  Jesus didn’t just say, “love each other,” he said, “love each other as I have loved you.”

The last part of that sentence puts a whole different twist on that commandment to love each other.  The love of Jesus caused him a lot of pain.  The love of Jesus took him to a cross.  So, our concept of love might be a little too superficial to get a good grasp on everything God’s love does and is. 

Why did God send Jesus?  Because of love – because God loves the world (see John 3:16).  God sent Jesus because God loves you and me.   God loves the people sitting next to you, and many more of the people in your world.  There was a cross and a tomb involved in that love. In Jesus, God made the sacrifice that brought us together with God and brought us together with each other.  We would not be in this room without that sacrifice.

God’s love means sacrifice and God’s love means patience. God appointed “you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”  Sometimes, love takes a long time to bear fruit.  What is the fruit?  More people loving God and loving other.  That is why we are here.

That sounds great, doesn’t it?  Who doesn’t want or need more love?  Who doesn’t want to be part of a group where love is in control?  But because we are human and do this imperfectly, love can be complicated.  Love doesn’t necessarily feel good.  Love may take some determination and soul-searching.

This chapter began with Jesus saying, “I am the vine; you are the branches.”  (15:5)  Jesus does some pruning of this vine sometimes because he wants us to bear fruit.  It might hurt, but stay on the vine.  You could leave if you want to, but the vine is where the love of Jesus is.  He’s the one with the roots.  The fruit this vine grows is love: more people who are loving and more love in people.  If you leave the vine, you leave Jesus, and you not only don’t bear fruit, in a spiritual sense, you die.

Each of us can think of a time when God was doing some pruning in our lives.  There was a time when we had to learn something the hard way and it was tempting to say, “God, I’m finished – this is too hard for me.” 

Forgive and Forget.  You know, television in other countries is a really interesting thing to see.  It’s a little window on what the culture thinks is important – or is willing to watch.  Something to think about when visitors from other countries turn on a television here!  In southern Africa, people watch a lot of cricket, rugby, and football (which, of course, is soccer).

During one of our trips to Zimbabwe, we turned on the TV one night to watch a reality show called “Forgive and Forget.”  Someone who knows of a tense situation between two people will call the producers to give them names and addresses.

Ahmed is estranged from his mother because she knows he stole money from his former employer.  She had arranged for him to have this job as an office manager, and it was a good job.  He quit before he was found out.  Ahmed is miserable, full of guilt, and his life is in decline.  He is unemployed and estranged from his mother.

A TV crew in a van pulls up to Ahmed’s shack.  With cameras rolling…  the host with a microphone says, “Ahmed, we know what you’ve done.  Are you sorry?”  Tearfully, he is.  He gets into the van and they take him to his mother.  They embrace.

Now the TV crew goes to the employer.  He gets into the van and watches the apology on video.  Then the host says, “Ahmed is standing outside the van.  You can open the door to forgive him, or knock on the driver’s window and he will take you around the block while Ahmed goes home.”  A tense moment.

The employer thinks for a moment.  Maybe thinking about the past.  Maybe calculating what he lost.  Maybe thinking about his memories of Ahmed.  Maybe thinking about how this situation looks on camera.  He opens the door.  He and Ahmed shake hands.  Ahmed is apologizing profusely, offering to work for nothing until the debt is repaid.  But the employer says, “All is forgiven; you don’t have to pay me back.”  You can feel this wave of relief wash over them.  You can see this burden lift from their lives.  It was a spiritual moment.  I’m sure everybody watching that show is wondering at some level – What if that van pulls up outside my house?

The word “abide” is used 6 times in this chapter.  Stay, remain, abide in the love of Jesus.  Jesus is not saying “keep loving me.”  He is saying stay, remain, abide in my love.  The love we need is his.  We rely on his love, not on our own.  You don’t have the same kind of love he does; you can’t love like he does.  It’s a faith thing.  It’s a relationship thing.  Do you believe in Jesus?  If you believe in Jesus, you experience his love, you know his love.  It’s the love of God’s Spirit that flows through you.  Stay in that love and stay with the people who love Jesus.  Let them influence you.

As much as we like to hear these words and latch on to them in a personal, individual way, these words were written for the church.  Why does the church – a group of Christians gathered somewhere – need words like these?  Because it’s tempting to drop off the vine, away from God and the rest of the branches. It’s tempting to find excuses to cut or limit relationships.  It’s tempting to try to figure out who isn’t living out their faith the way I think they should and say, “I’m part of the vine; why aren’t you?”

When God gives the command to love, God is talking to you; not the person next to you and not the people who disappointed you last week.  It was a command, not a suggestion, for each of us, and this was not a sermon on how everybody else should be.

It’s a good thing to remember that scripture tries to describe God as a parent whose love overcame the worst behavior the human race had to offer. Sometimes we kids give Mom and Dad a pretty rough time.  But God never burns the bridges, ever, and maybe that’s one of the greatest lessons of love God can teach us.  It’s good thing God never looked in our direction and said, “They can have my love as soon as they start living the way I think they should.”  God never said that.

Bill and the Deacon.  The story (maybe a legend) is told of a young man named Bill, a college student with wild hair, torn clothing and rather imperfect personal hygiene. He’s a brilliant, but off-beat guy, who became a Christian while attending college. Across the street from the campus is a well-dressed, very conservative church. They say they want to develop a ministry to the students but are not sure how to go about it.

One day Bill decides to go there. He walks in with jeans, torn T-shirt, no shoes and wild hair. The service has already started, and so Bill starts down the aisle looking for a seat. The church is completely packed, and he can’t find a place to sit. By now the people next to the aisle are looking a bit uncomfortable, but no one says anything. Bill gets closer and closer and closer to the pulpit and, when he realizes there are no seats, he just squats down right on the carpet.

By now the people are really distracted, and the tension in the air is thick. About this time, the minister realizes that from way at the back of the church, a deacon is slowly making his way toward Bill. Now the deacon is in his 80s, has silver-gray hair, wears expensive cologne and a pressed silk suit. A godly man – very elegant, very dignified, very courtly. He walks with a cane and, as he starts walking toward this boy, everyone is saying to themselves that you can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. How can you expect a man of his age and of his background to understand some college kid on the floor?

It takes a long time for the man to reach the boy. The church is utterly silent except for the clicking of the man’s cane. All eyes are focused on him. You can’t even hear anyone breathing. The minister can’t even preach the sermon until the deacon does what he has to do. And now they see this elderly man drop his cane on the floor. With great difficulty he lowers himself and sits down next to Bill and worships with him so he won’t be alone.

We organize ourselves to be the church.  For some it’s religion.  For others, it’s about the love they find among us.  Someone in your life needs a break from you.  Maybe you need to give yourself a break.  One thing is true:  God’s Spirit of love will fill you as you believe – and you may be the only Bible some people will ever read.

 Prayer

 O God, we don’t think often enough about your love for us. You have done more to care for us than we will ever realize.  This is a good day to remember how deeply you love us.  You worry about us.  We do things that bother you – a lot.  We probably keep you up at night.  And in the morning you are there for us, no matter what we’ve done.  But you still have expectations, and your love for us can be tough.  Now help us be loving families and help us be a loving family.  Through your spirit, give us patience and forgiveness.  Deepen our faith and help us teach our community how to love.  Amen.

5/6/2012 Sermon: “Where in the world is Jesus Christ?”

Acts 8:25  Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans. 26  But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert road. 27  And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship 28  and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29  And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.”

30  So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31  And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

32  Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. 33  In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.”

34  And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?”

35  Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. 36  And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?”

­38  And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39  And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.  40  But Philip was found at Azotus, and passing on he preached the gospel to all the towns till he came to Caesarea.

 Have you ever headed out on a trip and after traveling, found yourself in a place you never expected to be, talking with people you never expected to meet?  That’s a scary thing for many people, while others relish that kind of experience.  In 2000, my family and I flew to London with the intention of flying home from Greece about 2 months later, with very few reservations in between.  There were a few rocky moments, but overall, it was one of the best things we ever did.

 At this point in the book of Acts, the Christian faith is spreading and the words of Jesus are coming true: “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”  (Acts 1:8)

 Those first disciples were indeed witnesses in Jerusalem – check.  And Judea, the area around Jerusalem – check.  Most were headed north through Samaria – check.  But what about the rest of the world, “the end of the earth”?  I’m sure some were saying, “God, that’s a little daunting.  Way outside my comfort zone.  What if my cell and credit cards don’t work out there?  Have you thought about passports and visas?”

 So, most of them head north.  But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert road.  (8:26)

 The others are heading north, toward the green, lush hills, the places they know.  But God sends Philip, toward the south, on the paved road where the chariots travel.  The hot road where water and rest stops are hard to find.  Sometimes God needs you to do an inconvenient thing.  When everybody is expecting you to go in a certain direction, God needs you to go a different way.  There’s something only you can do.  There is someone who will only listen to you.

A few years ago, there was a geography game show for kids on PBS:  “Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego?”  Three kids (usually 11 or 12 yrs. old) compete against each other by answering “trivia” questions about world geography.  Some of the questions seem impossible, but they usually go along with a hint.  Who is Carmen San Diego? All I know is that she is a “shadowy” person who is constantly hiding in exotic – and not so-exotic – places all over the world.  Question: In Melbourne, Australia will you find more coin-operated TV sets, soda machines, or barbecue grills?  The answer?  Barbecue grills.

On the Today Show, you may have seen Matt Lauer popping up all over the world helping his audience learn interesting things about people, cultures, and geography in far-away places.  Where in the world is Matt Lauer?

 Where in the world is Jesus Christ?  People have been asking that question for centuries.  If you’re searching, the search can take you to places you never expected to be.  If you’re searching.  I know people who have found Jesus Christ in the woods, while laying awake in bed at night, in the middle of good times or bad times.  Jesus can be found in a crowd, in a small group of friends, or when you’re completely alone.  I remember talking to somebody who found Jesus Christ in a Volkswagen bug (he wasn’t driving; that’s where they met him).  I believe that if you are searching for Jesus Christ, God will help you find him.  Where in the world is Jesus Christ?  That’s no trivia question; I believe that’s the most important question anybody can answer.

 The sermon text today is a story about a man who is searching, who’s asking the right questions.  This is the story of the “Ethiopian Eunuch.”

 What’s an Ethiopian Eunuch?  Now that may be a trivia question for some folks.  The passage we’re looking at today is a story about an encounter between a deacon in the church named Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch.  They didn’t just run into each other; God wanted this man and used Philip to reach him.  And this story is here because God is trying to reach all of us, and trying to show us how the good news of Jesus Christ can turn somebody’s life around.

 Ethiopian.  He is from a land to the south.  He is a dark-skinned African.  Given the purpose of the book of Acts to show how the Holy Spirit spread the church, it’s important to know that this man took the gospel of Jesus back to his African country before the Apostle Paul had been converted or even thought of heading for Europe with the good news!

 Eunuch.  Historically, in ancient times, a eunuch was a castrated male who was in charge of the harem in a king’s palace.  The word “eunochos” means “keeping the bed.”  The idea was that because of their physical limitations, these were people who could be trusted, and they often had other responsibilities in the kingdom.  In some countries, officials in the royal court were called eunuchs even if they weren’t castrated.  This man from Ethiopia was the queen’s treasurer, possibly the most influential person in the government outside of the queen (the Candace is a title – she is actually the queen mother).

 He has enough influence that he can leave his country for a religious pilgrimage, and he’s the only person in the New Testament who rides in a chariot: probably a covered four-wheeled carriage with seating for several people.  And a driver.  Maybe cup-holders.  This is a person with money; he’s got wheels!  He can read and even though he’s not Jewish, he’s got his own copy of the Hebrew scriptures.  He came to Jerusalem to worship.  This is a person who is looking for God, and God was looking for him.  Now he is looking for God in a good place: the Bible. 

 Look at what he was reading.  “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.  In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”  (Isaiah 53:7,8)

 I believe people gravitate toward certain passages.  They remember certain bible verses because they are like a conversation with God at important times.  I’ve heard people say that about the scripture readings they heard in this or that worship service, and I’ve felt that way myself sometimes.  We take these scripture readings from a calendar (lectionary), and I’m always surprised at how they seem to apply to what’s going on for me or for the church.  The Ethiopian was doing some deep thinking about suffering and maybe it had something to do with what was going on in his life at the time.  What might have been on his mind?  Money?  Politics?  His career back home?  Today, the message he’s getting from God is that the Messiah suffered for people like him.  At the time, this is what he needed to hear.

 There might well be somebody here who needs to hear the same thing: that through Christ, God knows all about suffering.  Or maybe somebody here needs to hear about the Ethiopian because you’re on a quest; you’re searching.  He was searching.  Listen closely for what he found.

 One of the reasons we have this story is that it shows how the church was expanding from country to country, just as Jesus said it would, and including people of all kinds.  The other reason is that it shows what happens to people who find a savior who knows what it’s like to be human, who knows what it means to suffer.

 The commentaries I read about this passage all titled it, “The conversion of the Ethiopian.”  But it never actually says he was converted.  We assume he was converted because he was baptized, but we know he was converted because he went on his way rejoicing.  When people come searching for God and find God, they go on their way rejoicing.  The Ethiopian came looking for God and found joy.  Lo and behold, in this dry place there was water – as if God was ready for this to happen (!).

 There’s an old joke about a man who goes in search of wisdom and has to walk to a far-off country, cross rivers, and face all sorts of danger in order to meet the wisest man in the world.  When he climbs the wise man’s mountain and finally meets him face to face, gasping for breath he asks, “O wise one, what is the meaning of life?”

 The old man thought for a minute and said, “Life is like a river without an end.”

 The man said, “During the last few months I traveled thousands of miles, crossed rivers and climbed this mountain to hear you say, “Life is like a river without an end?  That’s all?”

 And the wise man said, “You mean it’s not?”

 It’s a good thing we don’t have to travel that far to find God.  Where in the world is God?  Where in the world is Jesus Christ?  As near as here (bible), here (head), and here (heart).  And those who are on a search for God will find God, because God is already searching for them.  Keep your eyes open for opportunities to help searchers know who they are looking for!  God will give you the words they need to hear.  God has the water of faith ready.

 Prayer

 O God, you are so ready to touch us, to heal us, to live in us and through us, because we are searching.  Fill us up with your presence; help us experience the joy that comes from knowing you.  We are looking for you and we are ready to be found.  There are so many places we’ve looked and tried to find you, and have always ended up with the feeling that there is something more.  Now we know that the something more is you.

 Help us do our part to spread the good news of Christ.  Show us who needs to hear about God’s love and how God loved us all through Christ.  Show us the people who may be suffering and give us the courage to step in and speak hope.  Help us all know the joy that comes from knowing you.  Amen.