1/26/2013 Sermon: Growing Spiritually #4 “Going Fishing”

Sunset - LTP
Photo by Loryn Pinney

This is the last in a series we’ve called “Growing Spiritually,” which started with the clean slate God gives each of us.  When we trust God with ourselves, when we say, God, I can’t do this alone, God says, “No problem.  I’ve got you.  You will never be alone again.  Clean slate.  Let’s go!”

God then starts to give you a new world view, a different way of seeing the world around you.  The barriers and obstacles between you and others start to fall as you see begin to care about people as God cares about people.

The next step is following.  Jesus asks you to follow.  Watch me.  Do what I do.  You begin to see that the job description for a follower of Jesus is get you focus off of yourself and serve the people Jesus loves.

Now that we’re following, Jesus has some things he’d like us to do.  He’s going to give us some “on-the-job training.”  We’re going fishing!

Matthew 4.  12 Now when Jesus* heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 

15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’*

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23 Jesus* went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news* of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

fishing
Photo by Ferrell Jenkins

Jesus found his first followers down at the docks and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  That is the first bullet-point in Jesus’ job description for a follower.  We will fish for people.  The Gospels of Luke and John end with long fishing stories.  That conjures up all sorts of images. Those of us who love to fish should feel a special connection with Jesus!

Maybe you can picture the place where this is happening; it’s a fishing village by a lake-shore.  Small boats, fishing nets, baskets of fish, a fish market where people are selling what they’ve caught.  Have you ever been to a place where lots of freshly-caught fish is being brought to market?  Maybe you know what it looks like, what it smells like, and that might help you know where Jesus was when he said those words.

Fishing 2
Photo by Ferrell Jenkins

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Jesus said that to Peter and Andrew while they were fishing (for fish) with nets.  So Jesus is not talking about pole fishing; catching a single fish at a time.

Believe it or not, the kind of cold weather we’ve been having is normal in some places and some people like it.  Hard to believe, but it’s true.  We used to live near ponds and lakes where right now, somebody is ice fishing.  We would drive by them in our warm car and we were not jealous.

Have you ever been ice fishing?  I’m afraid I haven’t, so I can only imagine what it’s like.  I know that people who like to fish on the ice really like it.  You’d have to.  What do you need for good ice fishing?  You need to be seriously equipped: thick clothing, a pole, bait, and a machine to drill a hole in the ice.  All to catch one fish at a time.

You also need to be equipped when Jesus sends you fishing for people.  Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  He said, “I will equip you for people-fishing.”  This is what Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, two men who knew about fishing.  They probably looked back from a later time and said, “We had no idea what he meant!”

From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus’ intention was to bring people into the “kingdom,” that is, bring them into faith, into relationship with God – and with each other.  He reaches for us, fishes for us, and as each of us says yes to God, he brings us into the net of his love. Then we learn together how to fish for other people.

In the New Testament, when people bring other people into the kingdom, it’s called evangelizing, and that’s a word that makes many old-school American Christians a bit squeamish.  I think we usually associate evangelism with people on TV that might talk a little too loudly, have strange hair, and ask for money.  It’s too bad that evangelism, or at least the word, has gotten such a bad rap, because evangelizing is something God really needs us to do.  It wasn’t an invitation for Peter and Andrew; God is still speaking, still saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  I will equip you for fishing.

Evangelism is an ancient Greek word that has two parts: ev (eu), which means good and angel, which means message.  An angel is a messenger.  So evangelism means good angel, or, good message.  Or good news.  It’s actually a verb.  When you give somebody good news, you are evangelizing.  It’s closer to the original language to say that you are good-newsing them.

In those ancient times, it could mean to give news of a military victory.  A runner would come from the front lines of the battle to evangelize, or to good-news the people.   To evangelize means to give someone news that will cause them to rejoice.

Can you think of really good news?  Good news that people get all excited about sharing?  A gift?  A birth?

That gospel story includes some of the first public words to come out of Jesus’ mouth.  He said, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand…”  God is not locked up in the Temple anymore, God is in the neighborhood.  God is here.  It’s good news, so repent – an old word that means believe and change direction.  God is here; God is in us.  God gives the ability and the desire to connect other people with God – that’s our fishing equipment, so let’s fish!

It’s a constant theme with Jesus, from the beginning of the gospels to the end.  God is here; let everybody know!  Spread the word!  When Jesus said that, whom was he talking to?  The religious professionals?  The gifted, articulate, educated types?  A seminary preaching class maybe?  No, it was a crowd of fishermen and farmers and tax-collectors.  Average people, people with no special abilities.

Spread the word!  Now that you are in the net, now that you are in Jesus’ circle of friends, go fish for people!  Expand the circle.  Good-news them!  Include them in the love God has shown you.  And don’t worry so much about what to say.

I know that sharing faith is a tall order for a lot of us, for people who pride themselves on minding their own business.  That was certainly true for me.  I came to faith because of the influence of small group of Christians who met for bible study in the apartment where I lived during college.  At that time, I never went to church, and it was hard enough to share, or to pray, with this little group of 6 or 8 people.  If anybody else knew that I was a believing Christian, it wasn’t because I told them.  God was so good to me, but I didn’t want to impose myself on anyone else’s faith; I kept “my religion” to myself.

After college, I started teaching junior high art, and if there was ever anything that could burst a bubble, it was teaching in a junior high.  It was there that I learned first-hand that people need hope, and a reason for living.  Not just the kids, but the teachers too.  And not just them, but their families.  And not just in that place, but in so many places and situations.

I needed hope myself.  I kept a bible on my desk, and during study halls, or before school I’d manage to read a page or two each day.  The kids would see that bible and say, “I’d like to talk to you about that.”  I asked the principal if it was okay, and he gave me permission to form a little group before school.  This group never had a name, it was just a group of kids who wanted to talk about God for a few minutes and have a quick prayer before going off to class.  It was very informal.  And it was very effective; it really helped those kids with their faith.  No deep theology involved, no preaching.  No inspirational message.  Just a bible on my desk.  Probably the most important part of all that was that they knew I cared, and that I believed God was in that place, in that moment with us. It made all the difference, this knowledge, this news that “God is here.”  We are not alone.

I can think of all sorts of methods people have used to live out Jesus’ command to catch other people for the kingdom – to good-news them.  The most obvious ones might be preaching, or bringing someone to a gathering like this.  But there are people who don’t respond well to this sort of situation, and that number is growing.  The typical older church on Main Street, these days, is growing less and less relevant to the culture.  So the good-newsing we do has to be creative.

We have the basic equipment: God is here.  Each one of us has a way to fish with that good news.  The best fishing “lure” for me was faith, a bible on my desk, and a private conversation which, most of the time, had nothing to do with God.

It has seemed to me that most of the time, the best evangelism is built around food, from having coffee with a neighbor to a community dinner or breakfast, like the breakfast we’re planning next month.  That opens all sorts of possibilities.

The common thread for each of us who believes is that there was a time, a time when our hearts were open, that God sent us someone who cared, and helped us know that… God is here.  Now it’s your turn.

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

People need what we have and God needs us to share and to care.  It’s up to us.  Nobody else can do it the way we can in this place and at this time.

Everyone has somebody in their lives, at work, or maybe at school, sometimes even in their own house, who needs good news, who needs hope.  Somebody who needs to know that they are not alone and that God cares. Invite them to a meal!  If you are open to the opportunities, God will help you share your good news.  God will help you fish!

 Prayer

God, sometimes our lives seem overwhelming.  We have enough troubles of our own without taking on all the problems we read about or see on TV.  But you care about each of us; you sent your Son to the human race, to heal and to save. We are not alone.  As your church, we can be strong, and through your Spirit, we can reach out.  We can make a difference.

Help it begin at home.  Help us love our families with your love.  Help us know the joy that comes from following you. Help us remember that the end of this story is already written, and through you, we’ve already won.  Help us live with the kind of confidence that points our families and friends toward you.  We give the needs of our families, our church, our community, our country, and our world to you, Lord.  Amen.

No worries – safe and warm in the 18th Century

Winter 3Margaret, in her early 90’s, lived alone in an antique house at the end of a long dirt lane that was one of the oldest roads in our town, dating to the mid-1700’s.  I was told that British troops – redcoats – used to walk that road and on that part of the road, not much has changed over the centuries.  Surrounding Margaret’s house were boundary walls made of field stone, ancient oaks, and an herb garden.

When I knew her, Margaret’s family had lived there for about 100 years; they bought the place from descendants of the family who built it in 1773.  Her house was a dream-come-true for history buffs.  Scarcely anything had changed since colonial days, inside or out.  A couple of interior walls were adjusted to include the only bathroom (without a shower), with care taken to preserve the original pine paneling.  There was electricity, central heat, and plumbing, with working fireplaces in every room and easy access to the lean-to “out-house,” which doubled as a garage for Margaret’s Ford Escort and storage for firewood.

Extreme cold and debilitating snowstorms were not unusual for that part of the world, and some of us in the church used to worry that the Storm of the Century would strand Margaret back there in the 18th century.  Those of us with 4-wheel drive vehicles were an informal “save Margaret” club .  We would be ready when the storm hit.  The town plows always managed to get the lane drive-able in a day or so, but we were still worried.

Then it happened.  The ice covered a couple feet of snow, as I recall, and took out power to most of the town.  Long power outages were common and at our house, we weren’t sure how long we could last before heading to a B&B or hotel with power (we left the next day).  Avoiding downed trees and risking getting stuck in several places, one of her loyal friends, a member of the club,  headed for Margaret’s house.  He won the “save Margaret” race.

Answering the door, she wondered what the fuss was about and why this guy was there.  “A little risky to be driving right now, don’t you think?” She had been sitting by a toasty fire she’d built in the large cooking fireplace.  She’d made some soup or stew in one of the pots on a swing-arm over the fire.  Closed doors and the low ceiling kept much of the heat in that room.  Things in the 18th century were just fine.

This really did embody the lack of anxiety Jesus was talking about when he said,

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”  (Matthew 6:25)

God sees the big picture; God gives us resources.  Sometimes we just need to stop to be grateful to God for what we have, to take advantage of gifts that surround us, right “in front of our noses.”  Worrying is silly.

God doesn’t just see the big picture, God is the big picture. We have an incomprehensibly strong God, moving through us, wrapped around us, connecting us.  We’ve been given so much; let’s stop to thank God for the gifts and share them with our community.

1/19/2014 Sermon: Growing Spiritually #3: “Following Christ”

SA sunsetPsalm 40:1-11.   I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. 

2 He drew me up from the desolate pit,*out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.

4 Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud,
   to those who go astray after false gods.
5 You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts towards us; none can compare with you.  Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.

6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,  but you have given me an open ear.*
Burnt-offering and sin-offering you have not required.
7 Then I said, ‘Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.*
8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’

9 I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord.
10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;  I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.

11 Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me;  let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe for ever.

John 1:35-42.  The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed*). 42He brought Simon* to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter*).

Let me give you just a quick recap of the last few weeks in this series we’ve been calling “Spiritual Growth.”

When we come to God in a moment of surrender, a moment of trust, saying, “God, I’ve tried living on my own long enough; I need you,” God responds with a new kind of life that gets planted in each of us.  It’s a new beginning, a fresh start.  The growth has a starting point.   This is what that growth might look like:

1. There is a scripture that has a new meaning for you.  God told you something you needed to know through the Bible.

2.  There is fellowship, a relationship with another believer, or group of believers, that has influenced your thinking, or challenged you to open up to God in a new way.

3.  There has been a time when God spoke to you in prayer.  As you brought your needs and yourself to God, God got you thinking about something in a new way.  In prayer, God opened your mind.

4.  There were challenging circumstances that had you saying, “You know, God, this is totally out of my control.  I can only trust you.  You know what I need.  The circumstances may or may not have changed, but you changed.  I used to think that the challenging circumstances were arbitrary, but now I believe that our challenges are most often in proportion to our faith, that God allows opportunities for hard things so that our faith grows., so that we rely more strongly on God.

5.  In our spiritual growth, facing up to the challenge, as individuals, but mostly as a church, we were able to make a distinct, tangible difference in someone else’s life for the good.  We gave a message of hope to someone.  We offered healing to someone.  We brought the presence of Jesus to someone.  Faith moves outward and makes a difference in someone else’s life.

6.  For that to happen, God breaks down barriers between us.  The next step in growth is allowing God to remove barriers, like prejudices or hatreds, mistrust or a lack of forgiveness, so that God can work in the lives of others.  God can’t work through us if we won’t talk to each other or strangers, who are the friends we haven’t met yet!

God calls on each of us to break down barriers between us and them whoever them is.  God says get rid of the wall between us and them.  This is not something we do on our own.  The Spirit inside us gives us the ability to forgive, to tolerate, to reach out. We do this as individuals and as a church.  And it is not easy.  We isolate ourselves from those who are not like us.  We fear them.  And God calls us to look deep within ourselves and break down those walls, to find opportunities and times and places to practice openness.

Palestine hiking 2Now, we are ready for God take us on an adventure. God wants us to take our faith “on the road,” so to speak.  Jesus is looking for followers.  So, let’s think about what that means.

What Are You Looking For?  What does God have to do to get your attention?  God has always had trouble getting and keeping people’s attention.  Most often, God lets the events of life get our attention, because God knows that we know we can’t do this alone.  We need help.  We need God.

In the gospel passage, John the Baptist has gotten people’s attention with his preaching out in the countryside near Jerusalem.  He’s dressed strangely and says confrontational things.  He’s about to step aside and shine the spotlight on Jesus.  He calls Jesus the Lamb of God (v.v. 29, 36) and says that he’s even seen the Holy Spirit physically come to Jesus.  John the Baptist says, “…this is the Son of God.”  And he calls him the “Lamb of God,” which should get the Jewish people he’s talking to thinking.  Hmmm… Lamb = Passover = (what happens to a lamb at Passover?) Sacrifice.  The lamb dies.  For us.  That gives a different twist on being a follower of Jesus – or it should!

A couple of John’s people take him at his word and start hanging around Jesus; they start spreading the news: “We have found the Messiah” (the Savior; v. 41), and within what might be a few hours, Jesus has four followers.  And he hasn’t even done anything yet – no miracles or teaching; they’re just taking John the Baptist’s word that this is the Messiah. 

They’re curious.  They find out where he’s staying and they hang around.  If Jesus did or said anything profound just then, this story doesn’t say, but the first words he speaks in this gospel seem to be pretty important to the writer.  John the gospel writer may have been one of those first four followers and he can remember the first thing Jesus said to him.  As these men begin to tag along, Jesus turns and asks, “What are you looking for?”  This is the question Jesus asks anyone who thinks about becoming one of his followers.  What are you looking for?

Well, what are you looking for?  What do you need?   Why are you sitting here this morning?  What possessed you to climb out of your warm bed on a cold Sunday morning and come to church … again?!  Why?  What are you looking for?  When God asks that question, I think most often, the answer is something like, “God, I need help.  I need something.  I’m in a rut; I’m sinking.”  There was that line in Psalm 40 that’s probably on a lot of our minds.  “He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog…”  (v. 2)

swamp

Are there scenes from movies that stick in your mind?  There’s a scene from an old movie that gets replayed in my own head:  Somebody is walking along through the woods, and they stumble into a puddle, only it isn’t a puddle.  It’s quicksand.  I don’t know what’s so quick about it, or how it got that name since it’s more muddy than sandy. And this person starts to slowly sink; they can’t help themselves.  They are powerless.

This is probably one of the most universal nightmares there is.  Being caught by a force of nature, or some situation that seems to be totally out of your control.  I think all of us have had some experience with that.  Maybe this is making you think of physical danger, or an illness, or some situation in your family.  Or maybe work, or school.  You feel yourself sinking into it.  It swirls around you, causes you pain, makes you feel desperate, takes away your hope.  But it doesn’t take away God’s hope, and it doesn’t take away God’s intention to save you.

C2 on a rockPSA 40:1-2  I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.   He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.

When Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” he has the answer to that need.  He lifts you out of the pit – takes you out of the rut you’re in – and gives you a rock to stand on.  God does not change the pit; God changes you.  And then standing at the edge, on the rock, God gives you the responsibility to help pull others out of their pit.  That is what Jesus did with those first disciples and that is why we are here.  This is what it means to be a follower.  There is a world of others sinking in so many ways: spiritually, economically, physically.  And God gives all of us some gift, some skill, some relationship to help someone know that God will hear their cry and set their feet on a rock.  Those who follow look ahead at whom they are following.  We each have to be able to say, “Following Jesus is more important than whatever it is I have going on.”

The next step in spiritual growth is to follow Jesus where he takes you.  We’re going to be helping him pull people out of the pits they are in.

In 1957, at the DexterAvenueBaptistChurch in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was pastor, Martin Luther King Jr. *preached these words:

The other day, I went out to Kilby prison to pray with some of the men on death row. And it’s always a very tragic experience, not so much a tragic experience as a sort of sad experience to look at men who have committed great crimes and now they are standing in a little cell with nothing there much, just in a little cell between four walls. And they can’t see much and they’re just waiting for the day of their death and the day of their ultimate doom. And I went to pray with some of these men. And I never can forget as I walked away from there after praying, and walked out of all of these bars, I couldn’t walk out with arrogance. I couldn’t walk out with the feeling that I’m not like these men. I couldn’t walk out with the attitude of the Pharisee, “I thank Thee God that I’m not like other men.” 

Mandela's cellBut as I walked out of that door, something was ringing in my heart saying, ‘But for the grace of God, you would be here.” As I look at drunkard men walking the streets of Montgomery and of other cities every day, I find myself saying, “But by the grace of God, you too would be a drunkard.”

 As I look at those who have lost balance of themselves and those who are giving their lives to a tragic life of pleasure and throwing away everything they have in riotous living, I find myself saying, “But by the grace of God, I too would be here.” And when you see that point, you cannot be arrogant. But you walk through life with a humility that takes away the self-centeredness that makes you a dis-integrated personality. 

And you begin to sing:  Amazing grace! how sweet the sound That saves a wretch like me!  I once was lost, but now I’m found, Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; `Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.

And when you take this attitude, you go into the room of your life and take down the mirrors because you cannot any longer see yourself. But the mirrors somehow are transformed into windows and you look out into the objective world and see that you are what you are because of somebody else. You are what you are because of the grace of the Almighty God. He who seeks to find his ego will lose it. But he who loses his ego in some great cause, some great purpose, some great ideal, some great loyalty, he who discovers, somehow, that he stands where he stands because of the forces of history and because of other individuals; he who discovers that he stands where he stands because of the grace of God, finds himself. He loses himself in that something, but later finds himself. And this is the way, it seems to me, to the integrated personality. 

And then Dr. King prayed like this:

O God, our gracious Heavenly Father, help us to rise out of our attitude of self-centeredness, out of our egotism. Help us to rise to the point of having faith in Thee and realizing that we are dependent on Thee. And when we realize this, O God, we will live life with a new meaning and with a new understanding and with a new integration. We ask Thee to grant all of these blessings in the name and spirit of Jesus. Amen.

*“Conquering Self-Centeredness,” Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church  [11 August, 1957]

1/12/2014 Sermon: “Growing Spiritually #2 – “Breaking Down Barriers”

Acts 10:34-43.  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.’

DR Hands (2)A group of social scientists asked some children, “What does love mean?” and these are the answers they heard:

“When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis, too. That’s love.”

“Love is that first feeling you feel before all the bad stuff gets in the way.”

“When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You know that your name is safe in their mouth.”

“Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your french fries without making them give you any of theirs.”

I have always loved the fresh creativity that children can bring to any idea.  Children are by nature trusting; they are instinctive with love and friendship and have to be taught mistrust and prejudice.  They are close to the heart of God in this way.  Their openness to God and to each other is refreshing.  To begin the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which is all about healthy relationships, especially the forgiveness requires us to offer each other, Jesus said, “…unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 18:3)

God shows no partiality.  God is an indiscriminate lover of people.  Unlike us, God is fair.  God wants a relationship and does not care where you are from or who you are. One of the major ways God works in the lives of believers is to break down imaginary walls between them.  The good news that we give away each week is that the salvation and redemption God offers through Jesus Christ is there for the taking – for anyone who believes.  God needs us to open our doors and our minds and our hearts to the people of this community – and the world – so that God can love them.

Last week, we heard that the first step in spiritual growth is to embrace the fresh start God gives each of us.  New life is yours when you have faith in the living Christ.  In worship and in prayer, that life is renewed day by day.

The next step in growth is allowing God to remove barriers, like prejudices or hatreds, mistrust or a lack of forgiveness, so that God can work in the lives of others.  God can’t work through us if we won’t talk to each other or strangers, who are the friends we haven’t met yet!

The reading you heard earlier from the Book of Acts is a sermon – by Peter, who, until just before this time was a Jewish fisherman living in northern Israel.  Peter was preaching to a Roman centurion named Cornelius and his friends and relatives.  And his sermon had an effect.  This is what happened next:

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.  The circumcised [Jewish] believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said,  “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”   So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.  (vv. 44-48)

Peter preached and people believed.  But this was not your average church meeting or worship service; it was a Jew preaching to despised Romans (on their turf!).  Apples preaching to oranges. Oil preaching to water.  That great crashing sound was walls falling down – those walls used to be between God and people, and between people.  God knocks down the walls between human beings, and Jesus leads the way.  People with nothing in common, people who despised each other, were suddenly together in Christ.  And that’s how it works.  With God, there is no more “Us and Them.” In God’s mind, “Us and Them” is right up there among the biggest sins of humanity.

The 10th chapter of Acts is about that kind of change.  It’s a story of two men who could not have had less in common culturally or economically and what God did to bring them together.

 

Fishermen on the Sea of Galilee.  CN - 1989.
Fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. CN – 1989.

Most of us know the basics about Peter, who was a poor Jewish lake-fisherman from the northern farm country of Israel called Galilee, where Jesus also lived.  People in Jerusalem, especially the aristocratic religious leaders, knew Peter as an uneducated man with an accent.  He was a problem for them because he refused to stop talking about Jesus, and more and more Jewish people were becoming followers of Jesus, even though Jesus was dead (wasn’t he?).

Centurion
Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Cornelius was a rich Roman centurion, an officer of the enemy army, stationed in Ceasaria, the Roman base of operations for Palestine, which was a busy seaport and a very picturesque place. Shoreline.  Beachfront.  Acts 10:2 says that Cornelius “was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.”

God gave Peter and Cornelius dreams about each other.  Peter dreamt that he should not be afraid to have contact with people who are not Jewish.  Cornelius dreamt that someone named Peter in a nearby town had a message for him.  So Cornelius sent for Peter and called his friends and relatives together to hear what Peter would have to say.

According to Jewish law and custom, Peter was not supposed to have anything to do with these people, and he had kept away from them all his life.  It was a prejudice that Peter had trouble overcoming (read Galatians 2:11-14; Peter was also known as Cephas), but he went anyway.  On the other hand, Cornelius was an officer in the occupying army – a Roman.  He was not supposed to “fraternize with the enemy,” much less one of the lower class of the enemy.  Socially and economically, the coming together of these people was… awkward.  Peter must have been having “flashbacks” of the day he stood in the back of the crowd and watched the Romans crucify Jesus.

When Peter stood in front of this group of Romans, his sermon was about believing in Jesus, a Jesus who rose from the dead, and that God changes people who believe that Jesus is alive. Cornelius and his friends believed, and they were changed.  In order for Peter to do what God called him to do, he had to forgive Romans.

Photo by CN.  Dominican Republic, 2009.
Photo by CN. Dominican Republic, 2009.

The effect of believing in Jesus is the breaking down of barriers between God and us; between “our” people and other people.  Walls come down.  We see Jesus in them; they hear Jesus through us.  We need each other.  Cornelius needed what Peter had to give.  Peter needed to see that God could reach out through him, and that God cares deeply about people who are not like him.

Today’s Barriers.   Think for a moment about the people in this room.  Look around.  Think about somebody who is not the same as you, I mean a person in the room with whom you have not much in common – at all.  On any given Sunday, God has allowed you to worship and have fellowship with each other.  But God wants us to go further.

God calls on each of us to break down barriers between us and them.  Whoever them is.  God says get rid of the wall between us and them.  This is not something we do on our own.  The Spirit inside us gives us the ability to forgive, to tolerate, to reach out. We do this as individuals and as a church.  And it is not easy.  We isolate ourselves from those who are not like us.  We fear them.  And God calls us to look deep within ourselves and break down those walls, to find opportunities and times and places to practice openness.

Billy.  I once heard Tony Campolo tell a story I have not been able to forget.  I’m going to tell it to you as he tells it to others:

“Some time ago, I was invited to be a counselor at a junior high camp.  The Roman Catholics may be right: there is a purgatory.  It is junior high camp – a place between heaven and hell where people go to suffer for their sins.

“Don’t get me wrong.  I love junior high kids, but sometimes something happens to them when they get together.  They get mean.  And the kids at this camp were the meanest I have ever seen.

“They focused their meanness on a kid named Billy.  Billy had been born with multiple birth defects.  He had cerebral palsy and could not control the movements of his body “normally”.  He could not speak without a severe stutter.  The other kids mocked him and called him “spastic”. 

Billy would walk across the grounds of the camp and the other kids would line up behind him, imitating him and mimicking every movement.  They thought this was funny.  They even did it when he was watching.  It was the worst kind of cruelty I had ever seen.

“The level of meanness reached its lowest point on Wednesday morning.  Billy’s cabin had been assigned devotions, and Billy’s cabin-mates had chosen him to be the speaker for the 150 kids in camp.  I knew, and they knew, he couldn’t do it. They just wanted an excuse to laugh at him.  And I was livid.

“I was seething with anger as Billy got up out of his chair and limped toward the platform.  You could hear little giggles and titters throughout the crowd.  I cannot remember ever being so angry.  What was amazing was that none of this stopped Billy.  Billy stood behind the podium and started to speak.  It took him almost ten minutes to say three sentences: ‘Je-sus loves meeee!  Je-Je-Jesus loves meeee! Annnd I-I love Je-Je-Jesus.”

“When he finished, there was dead silence.  I was sitting up front, and when I turned around, there were junior high kids trembling and shaking and crying all over the place.

“The personality of the camp completely changed that day. Today, I wish I had kept count of the ministers I have met who can say they gave themselves to God because of a week they spent with a kid named Billy who had cerebral palsy.  If God can use him with all his limitations, what makes you think God can’t use you?”

 Or our church?  We love this part of Pennsylvania.  Every day, I am more thankful that Kathy and I moved here.  It’s a little corner of the world where “the women are strong, all the men good-looking, and the children above average.”1  It’s nice here; people care for each other here.  It’s not perfect, no place is, but I think we all agree that it’s a great place to live.

But God has so much work to do, not just in our town, but in our world and in us.  I pray that God gives us all the vision to see opportunities reach out, to embrace the diversity, and break down our walls for the sake of Jesus.

 Prayer

Bring us out of our habits, out of the tombs we live in and send us on a mission.  Take away our desire for the things that kill us and bury us, and use us to bring life to the world you love and sent Jesus to die for.  Give us opportunities to show people that Jesus lives in us.  Heal our relationships, give us a greater ability to love and forgive. Make us like him.  Give us eyes that are sensitive to pain and injustice, and hands willing to do something that makes a difference.

 We pray with faith that as we give ourselves to you, you will give us the kind of life that never dies, because of the risen Jesus.  Amen.

1  Garrison Keillor, the traditional closing of his radio program, “The Prairie Home Companion”

1/5/2014 Sermon: “Spiritual Growth – Starting Fresh”

Hiking through Palestine.  CN - 2011
Hiking through Palestine. CN – 2011

Jeremiah 31:7-14.  Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
   and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
   ‘Save, O Lord, your people,
   the remnant of Israel.’ 
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
   and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
   those with child and those in labour, together;
   a great company, they shall return here. 
9 With weeping they shall come,
   and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
   in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
   and Ephraim is my firstborn. 

10 Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
   and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him,
   and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.’ 
11 For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,
   and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. 
12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
   and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
   and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
   and they shall never languish again. 
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
   and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
   I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. 
14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
   and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the Lord.

The Book of Jeremiah is not generally “happy” reading, as we’ve learned over the last few months, but that wasn’t so bad, was it?  Jeremiah speaks these words to give people hope for the future when there doesn’t seem to be much reason for hope.  If that’s how you feel today, let God speak to you through Jeremiah again.  More than 600 years before Christ, God’s people have been almost destroyed by war.  They have been forced to leave their homes and go to a place far away.  God speaks into their hopelessness.  Let your mind form these images as you hear Jeremiah:

Flower - PalestineI will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;

I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

their life shall become like a watered garden,  and they shall never languish again. 

13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.

God’s people are in trouble.  It was the consequences of bad decisions that put them in this place, but  Jeremiah sees a chance for a new start.  They get to come home, and in this parade home, Jeremiah points out the presence of women who are pregnant or who are in labor and are about to give birth. Did you catch that?  This is something Old Testament writers do when they are talking about restoration and healing: they say that new life is born.  These crowds of exiles bring new life back into the land God gave them.

The small picture is that pain and suffering is here.  We have to live in it and walk through it.  Those are “the trees before the forest.” The big picture is that God is bringing us to new life – if we will follow.  If we walk the path of faith.  If we will believe.  It’s hard to believe all the time.  I know that this is true for many of us.

Something happens at work that makes life seem hopeless.  Or something at home.  Or something at church!  Or something that affects your health, or the health of somebody you love.  And you need to know that God has something good for you that might be just out of sight – for the moment.  It might be just around the corner.  Or it might be just on the next page.  This is a good time to talk about starting fresh.

Have you been using your new calendars yet?  I know that most of us who use traditional paper calendars probably started using them some months ago.  Do you like the feel of a new calendar?  So many blanks pages to write on!  A clean slate and a new beginning.  It’s an adventure.  Now what?  We’re starting fresh.  This month, we’re going to looking at growing spiritually.

Spiritual growth is something that happens differently for everybody.  I’m talking about growing stronger in your dependence on God and more confident in your own identity as a Christian, a believer in Christ, a follower of Christ.

Spiritual growth has happened when you can look back over a period of time like a year, or several years, and you can tell that your life is different.  I didn’t say “better.”  Different.  Communication with God evolved.  You experienced spiritual evolution, and you made progress along the path.  It might have worked like this…

1.  There was a scripture that had a new meaning for you.  You were listening, and God told you something you needed to know through the Bible.

2.  There was healthy fellowship, a relationship with another believer, or group of believers, that influenced your thinking, or challenged you to open up to God in a new way.

3.  There was been a time when God spoke to you in prayer.  As you brought your needs and your self to God, God got you thinking about something in a new way.  In prayer, God opened your mind.

4.  Then there was trouble.  There were challenging circumstances that had you saying, “You know, God, this is totally out of my control.  I can only trust you.  You know what I need.”  The circumstances may or may not have changed, even though you obediently prayed, but you changed.  I used to think that the challenging circumstances were arbitrary, but now I believe that our challenges are most often in proportion to our faith.

5.  In our spiritual growth, facing up to the challenge, as individuals, but mostly as a church, we were able to bring a distinct, tangible change in someone else’s life for the good.  We gave a message of hope to someone.  We offered healing to someone.  We brought the presence of Jesus to someone in a real way.

All of this means moving from some point A to a new point B.  It started inwardly, in a hidden way, and became visible, in some outward way.  This is never finished.  We are always starting the process over and over again.

In the church, we like to be able to help with this sort of thing, and we do, but the truth is, it’s a different path for everybody.  In my office, I’ve got shelves of books about spiritual growth, from all kinds of angles. Follow these 8 steps.  Spend 40 days on this discipline.  Go to this yearly conference.  These days there’s a wealth of stuff to guide you, and it can be overwhelming. You know what I’m talking about.

In each and all of these magazine articles, or books, or websites, or workshops, there are nuggets of truth that can be so helpful.  It’s great when you find that little moment of revelation.  But I think it’s just as important to realize that nobody does it completely right.  The key is to identify your own starting point.  Then make an effort to move on.  Don’t go thinking this was only about your own journey.  The people of Israel didn’t go home one at a time.  They helped each other along; spiritual growth is something we can only do together.

One thing I’ll say is, don’t be discouraged if other people are at a different place compared to you.  This is not a contest.  It’s a journey.

Speaking of journeys, if you were to have move right now, if you needed to relocate your household to another place, can you think of something you would have to leave behind?  Something that no longer has a use for you?  Your spiritual journey can be something like that.  There might be some that worked for you 10 years ago that doesn’t work so well now.  Let it go.  Let God open your mind to something else, something new.

So what do we take with us on the new adventure?  We each have to make choices about what stays and what goes.  How do we want things to be for ourselves, for our families and in our church in the year 2015 or 2020?

God has given us many good things in the last year.  And we also had some times that weren’t so good.  I believe all of it has worked together to bring us into a deeper faith.  Among our first prayers of the New Year, let’s give ourselves to God, and make a pledge to let God work in us and through us.  Let’s renew our commitment to make this church – and ourselves – truly a church of Christ, a group of believers experiencing inward change that leads to visible difference in the lives of others.

 Prayer

 God, sometimes we search everywhere for you.  Sometimes, we think you are as far away as the sky.  But you sit right next to us, waiting for us to believe, waiting for us to trust you.  Waiting for us to follow.  We trust in the future you have for us, Lord.  As we walk with you, shape our attitudes and motives.  As you fill us with your Spirit, help us see your world as you see it, hear what you hear, feel what you feel.  Take us beyond the little chores and distractions we create for ourselves.  Help us truly love peace and hate conflict.  We give the New Year to you, and pray that throughout this year, this decade, your church lives a life that truly reflects the presence of Jesus.  Amen.