5/31/2015 Sermon: God on the Road #5 – “Holy Spirit Flashback”

God on the RoadOver the last month, if you’ve been reading the Book of Acts and following the A.D. series on Sunday nights, you’re getting a little picture of how God, in the form of the Holy Spirit, came to a frightened little group of people who had been followers of Jesus.  After he was crucified, they were hiding in the shadows.   Then, the most amazing thing happened – he came to them, and after they found out he was alive, everything changed for them.

Everything can change for you, too – and for us, in powerful ways.  What we’re learning is how faith in Christ spreads among people, in groups and from person to person.

So, this morning, we’re going to do a prequel.  You know, like Star Wars.  A movie series might start with episodes 4, 5, and 6, then episodes 1, 2, and 3 after those.  Like the Lord of the Rngs / Hobbit series.  Doing a prequel can help the whole story make more sense.  Let’s go back to the beginning on the adventure in the Book of Acts…

DSCN0235Acts 2.  When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All 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. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But 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. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, 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.”

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  Everyone.  I wonder what got your attention as you heard that scripture.  Was it the fire over their heads?  I wonder what that felt like.  The whoosh of the wind?  Everybody speaking and hearing different languages?  Have you ever been in a situation where there was a language barrier?  If you could speak a different language, if that flame was over your head and you had a choice, what language would you want to speak?  Why that one?

2000 - Nichols family in LondonBack in 2,000, I was on a sabbatical trip in Europe with my family and about a week into it, we found that our younger son Jamie had developed a case of poison ivy (it started at home).  It was getting worse by the hour and we needed to deal with it.  At that point, we were in Paris, and managed to find a pharmacy, but nobody there spoke English.  We spoke no French.  It was an interesting moment of charades as we stood in front of the counter scratching ourselves and pointing at pictures of plants.

You know, you can get a computer program called “Rosetta Stone” and learn a new language in a few weeks.  But God worked much more quickly than that.  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 Lancaster County dairy farmers on vacation in New York City or Philadelphia.  It would take a miracle, and that’s what happened, a miracle.  But there’s more to know about that miracle of speaking in other languages.  We need to understand why God would do such a thing.

There are three things to know about God from hearing that scripture:

1.)  God loves the world.  … loves people, no matter what language they speak.  God wants to live in them and change them, everyone, whether they live in Manheim or Mongolia. It’s not an accident that the story took the focus off those first believers (once the fire had gone out over their heads!) and put a spotlight on people from a bunch of different places who didn’t speak their language.  That crowd was from the world, they were foreigners, and they did not believe in Jesus – yet.

gissucc2.) God uses believers to reach the world. Having been with Jesus gave those first believers 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!  It would be so convenient if God would just speak to people himself, in some amazing, booming God-voice, but instead, God uses us.  God equips believers in Jesus to speak to the world.  In the UCC, we like to say “God is still speaking.” God has a voice; God uses words.  Your faith came to you, the Holy Spirit came to you, because you heard a message in a language you understood and believed it.  You heard a message about “God’s deeds of power” and believed for yourself.  God literally spoke your language.  Or, God is speaking your language and calling you to faith right now.

Standing in that crowd, listening to God speak through those first believers, there were people from 15 different countries. If you looked at a map with push-pins that represented where they were from, you’d see it looks like a big wheel extending out hundreds, even thousands of miles.  Faith was about to travel to those places, God was going on the road (God needed to come to you in Manheim) and God is still traveling.

Shanghai, 2007 - CN.
Shanghai, 2007 – CN.

But here’s another awesome thing about that moment.  In those days, Greek was a “universal” language, like English is today – a language of commerce.  You can get off of a plane almost anywhere in the world and find an English-speaker in about two seconds.  It wasn’t as if all those travelers couldn’t communicate.  They probably could speak Greek with each other, but the awesome part was that they each heard “God’s deeds of power” spoken in their own personal language from home.

Another thing to know from that story is that…

3.) God sends believers to the world.  It’s one of God’s policies.  “God so loved the world…”  Well, if God loves the world and wants to touch the world with healing and good news, that can’t happen if believers don’t go.  God can’t use us to love the world if we have no connection to the world.  In every church, there needs to be a kind of a doorway with a sign on it that says, “The World.”  People need to come and go through that doorway.  God gave the first believers marching orders right from the start and gave a picture of how a healthy church works.  Faith travels.  Even the first churches had relationships with believers who were very far away.  They were all reaching the world together with the Gospel and supporting each other to do that.

Faith, and the good works that come from faith, need to travel to the places where they are not.  People are thirsty for what we have, they need Christ, whether they live next to us or very far away.  It is our mission to send those who are called to go, and it is spiritually fulfilling for us to send them.  This “travel” happens two ways:

First, we work at opening our doors to strangers.  We don’t have to travel far to find need.  The community is always changing and the population of strangers outside our walls is growing.  The “world” of folks who don’t know Christ, or the love of Christ, is just out there.  So we work at our invitation.  We practice inviting.

We look for faith-sharing people to send.  We create opportunities to go to the strangers, and we make those opportunities available as much as we’re able.  We sent Melissa Shumaker to Spain – can you believe it was almost two years ago?  (see August 25, 2013 sermon)  We will send our Mission Team to Tennessee in three weeks.  They’ve been to Philadelphia and Maryland and Mississippi and the streets of our own town.  We’ve sent teams to the Dominican Republic, and for next year, there seems to be an opportunity worth exploring in Peru.

In the Bible, people always got in trouble when they stayed in one place for too long.  The Christian faith is always about moving from one place to another with a purpose.  Part of it is about growth – your own personal movement from some point A to point B, reading scripture, praying, absorbing the things God teaches you, listening to what God has to say through other believers, learning the hard way sometimes.  The other part of growth is sharing.  Somebody somewhere needs your faith, and you grow from the sharing.  Read Romans 10:8-14.

When we believe in Christ, God speaks our personal language.  God goes straight to the heart of the relationship and says, “Did you know that my son Jesus is alive and would love to talk to you?  You know, I could help you a lot right now. ”  When you believe Jesus is alive and give yourself to him, God gives you a new kind of life and power that you never had before.  Faith brings hope and confidence; for a lot of people, just that is huge.  The God may need you to tell your story when the opportunity comes.

The last thing Jesus told his people 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” (Acts 1:8). 

He also told them to…

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”  (Matthew 28:19)

Next month, we’ll look more closely at what happens when we go to all nations to make disciples, and the series will be called “To All Nations.”

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.  God is still on the road and will take us to places we never expected.

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 violence.  Use your Spirit in us to bring forgiveness and healing to a world you love.  We believe; help our unbelief.  Amen.

5/24/2015 Sermon – God on the Road #4 – “Spiritual Warfare”

God on the RoadJust to refresh how we got here, it all began when a small group of people discovered that after Jesus had been crucified, he was alive.  God began to change them in powerful ways when they worshipped him.  This is still true: you can pray to the living Jesus and begin a relationship that changes you. You can show the way to Jesus to the people around you. As God lives in people who believe, this is how God travels. From one person who believes to another; God is on the road.

Over the last few weeks, if you’ve been following how this adventure started, you’ve seen how a small, frightened group of people became fearless when faith in Christ took hold.  The most obvious side-effect of their faith was their love and care for each other.  Thousands of people wanted some of what they had.  A lot of people were looking for God and looking for someone to care.  I think that’s still true, don’t you?

And a Christian bubble forms.  Some of you know what I’m talking about.  The support is great.  The relationships… nobody could have better friends than this.  There’s usually food.  Maybe you learn to read scripture in a different way, the praying is powerful.  God might even do a few miracles.

In Jerusalem, almost 2,000 years ago, the fellowship was amazing and the love was strong. God was clearly at work.  But just as Jesus couldn’t stay in a tomb, God can’t stay in one place.  Every healthy fellowship sends people out to give God away; someone needs to leave the Christian bubble.  Someone needs to be willing to go, and as you follow the story, it was as if God prepared Paul (yes, the guy whose name is in the stained glass over our front door) to travel.  If he had not gone, you may not have heard how much God loves you.  You might not have known the power of the resurrection of Jesus if believers had not traveled.  In the United Church of Christ, we like to say “God is still speaking.”  God has truth to say to every generation.  I’d like to add to that – God is still speaking and God is still traveling.  After the resurrection story of Jesus, a lot of the New Testament is a travel story.

Wild things happen when you take God out on the road and you leave the Christian bubble.  And the story you’ll hear today doesn’t get much wilder.  Paul and a couple of his friends have gone to a town called Philippi about 2,500 miles from Jerusalem. They are strangers in this place – “fish out of water.” Luke, the Gospel writer, says…

Acts 16:11-34.  11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely.  24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’31They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

And that was the start of the church in Philippi!  If you read the letter Paul wrote to the Philippians about a generation later, it sounds like God created a loving, powerful group of believers there. But it started with a single believer, then a public confrontation that turned violent, some damage to the local jail (God did that), then the jailer and his family came to faith.  Pretty amazing.  You can’t forget that Paul and Silas were asked to leave, so Lydia and the jailer were on their own after that – with God.  This is another example of how some of God’s best work comes after suffering.  Watch how God created relationships and linked people together…

photo by Ferrell Jenkins.
photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Just outside of Philippi is a river (above), and anybody who didn’t follow the local religions would go there to pray. It all began innocently enough.  This is where Paul and Silas, minding their own business, coming to pray, met Lydia.

We don’t know much about Lydia except that she ran a business (she was a dealer in purple cloth) and became a believer.  I picture her not being very different from one of us.  She’s searching, looking for answers, maybe looking for a friend.

Looking for God, she hears about Jesus from Paul and Silas and believes.  To us, there’s not much remarkable about Lydia, except that she’s going against the mainstream of her culture by believing in Jesus, and making herself a target for the next person Paul meets….

…The slave girl fortune-teller.  The word for what she is actually means “snake woman.”  This heckler had “a spirit of divination,” but literally, she has the “spirit of pythoness” — that is, she a priestess of the Oracle at Delphi, about 300k away (the Greek god Apollo was known as the great python-slayer, and was served by a priestess who was called a “pythoness.”  Through the spirit of the Oracle, she told fortunes, and made money for her owners.  She is physically bound and financially bound.  She’s a kind of a spiritual prostitute, and that’s normal for this place.  Because what she does is normal the people in this town, Paul and Silas avoid taking her on right away.

Why does she pick on Paul and Silas?  Because Lydia believes. Jesus is real, and God is making a difference in the life of Lydia and if there are any more believers, this will be a problem.   Maybe Lydia was one of one of the python girl’s friends – or clients.

Sometimes, in spite of your best intentions, trouble comes looking for you.  And this kind of trouble is spiritual warfare.  Sometimes, you can walk away; sometimes, you have to simply stand up and stand against, in spite of what might happen.

Paul uses the name of Jesus and suddenly, python-girl can no-longer tell fortunes, but she tell who her Savior is.  She is suddenly a different person, she has a different master and in this case, it took somebody from outside her life to bring Jesus in.  Lydia made a conscious choice to believe, but not this girl.  For her change to happen, it took God winning a battle with evil.  It took an intervention.  The story says no more about her and I’d love to know what happened to her after this.

Now the consequences.  The fortune-telling snake-girl is now worthless to her owners, who incite a crowd to attack Paul and Silas, these outsiders who threaten the status quo, these guys who go messing around with what’s normal.  The main thing is that Paul and Silas have disrupted their cash flow.  Revolution – major changes to any system – never gets noticed until it affects the economy.  After they are beaten, they are thrown in the local prison, where they meet…

Nelson Mandela's prison cell - Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa.  CN - 2008
Nelson Mandela’s prison cell – Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. CN – 2008

The Jailer.  Here’s a guy just doing his job – then and now, probably one of the most unpopular jobs there could be.  In the Roman army, any failure of duty was reason enough to commit one final “honorable” act, suicide.  But if he hadn’t killed himself, the Roman authorities would have killed him (see Acts 12:19).  He was a dead man walking.  He listens because he has nothing left to lose, and he asks the question on the mind of anyone who is searching: “What must I do to be saved?  (Acts 16:30)

‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ (16:31)

And his faith has a ripple effect.    “…then he and his entire family were baptized without delay.” (v. 33)  So there was a contagious faith in that house.  They wanted what he had.

So, in the space of a very short time, you’ve seen God work in three different ways in the lives of three different people.  First, with a…

 Conversation,

and God comes to Lydia in the peace of a riverside.

Then with a

Confrontation,

and God comes to the enslaved fortune teller with a kind of a blast of the Spirit.

Then in a moment of

Desperation.

God used Paul and Silas to save the suicidal jailer and give him a contagious faith.  No crowds like you heard about in the stories from the last couple of weeks.  Just unique people with their own individual stories, and God came to them just as they were.  God comes to people living their lives in so many different ways, just as has come into your life, or wants to come into your life.

Maybe you can relate to one of those people and their situations; or maybe God came to you in a completely different way.  Did you see how they were all connected?  The jailer might not have been saved if the fortune-teller had not been part of the story.  And she might not have been exorcised if Lydia had not come to faith in her “backyard.”  This is how God travels through the people in a neighborhood.  A generation later, when Paul is writing to the Philippian church, it’s clear that faith in Christ kept spreading and a strong church grew out of those few people.  One needed the other.  This is still how it works.

Number-wise, at first, it might have looked like a failure, but it’s obvious that the Spirit only wanted Paul and Silas to plant a seed there, and let the seed grow.  After they had been beaten and thrown in jail, then asked to leave (read to the end of chapter 16), I think they might have left town limping a little because of the beating, muttering to themselves, “Well, that was fun; Thanks, God!”

Seriously, they knew God was working.  They knew that most miracles come after suffering.

The church grows one soul at a time.  The church grows when one person prays for another, or shares a meal and a story with someone.  You might think people come to faith through an amazing sermon or worship service they’ve heard.  But the truth is that, at the point when a sermon or a worship service makes a difference, God has been planting seeds one person at a time, through people like you.

The church in Philippi did not grow while Paul and Silas were there.  But they planted seeds, and that’s all most of us do.  And that’s all God needs you to do.

The Christian faith – the power of Christ – is not some dusty relic you dig up or take down off a shelf.  It works.  It happens one person at a time.  It can change us – and we need to be changed.  We need to say yes to God.  If we’re looking for a mission field, we need look no farther than our own houses.  Or the streets of our own town.  And God may call on some of us to go farther.

 Prayer

God give us the vision to know how to plant seeds and where to plant them.  There are so many in our lives that need to healing and forgiveness that you offer through your son Jesus.  They need hope and confidence.  May our faith be the tool you use to create new life in someone else.

We think of that person.  In silence, we pray for the one you will reach through us.  And we pray for our enemies.  We lift up to you those who seek to harm us and ask that you give us the wisdom to know whether our own attitudes need to change, so that you can use us to reach the lost.

5/17/2015 Sermon – God on the Road #3 – “Re-tooling”

God on the RoadThe resurrection of Jesus was this explosive, force that changed history and it continues to cause change, even now.  If you believe in the living Jesus, God is changing you; God is changing all of us together.  The Book of Acts is the story of how God began to do this amazing change in us, starting in Jerusalem and spreading from person to person and place to place until the power of faith came here – and to you!  God went “on the road,” and is still traveling.  God cannot be contained.  Today’s scripture is one more story of God coming to the people you would least expect.

Acts 10:44-48.  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.

Let’s say you’ve been invited by a friend to a party, a get-together, a barbecue.  Maybe a graduation party.  Maybe you have some idea of where it is, but you don’t know who will be there.  A sort of a group blind date – a little unusual, I know.  But you trust this friend, so you go.

When you get there, you find out that the people at the bash are the last people on the planet you were thinking you would ever spend time with.  Ever.  But there you are.  Everybody here has a different image of what I’m talking about, but for everybody, it’s the same; it’s just… awkward.  But your ride left and you can’t escape.

That is the situation we’ve got in the story you just heard from Acts.  I know it sounded kind of spiritually wonderful, and it was, but the moment was a lot more explosive than you might think.

For the past couple of weeks, you’ve been hearing how God began to use those first believers in Jesus to do positive, helpful things in the lives of people who were not like them.  God was saying, “I love… the world, and you are going to love the world on my behalf.  I will love the world through you.  So, I’m going to need you to break out of these social boxes you’ve made for yourselves.”  First, it was people who spoke other languages (Acts 6:1-7 – the Hellenists), then it was people of other colors (Acts 8:26-40 – the Ethiopian).  This next step is really a stretch, but it shows the power of God in the lives of people who believe.

Going back a few weeks, do you remember who it was that killed Jesus?  Do you remember who crucified him?  Romans.  And whom did God send Peter to share Christ with?  You got it.  The tenth chapter of Acts is the story of how Peter had to get past his own personal traditions, his prejudices, and maybe his own hatred of Romans to go to the house of a Roman soldier when God told him to.  Basic rule – Jews were not supposed to have anything to do with non-Jews, especially Romans.

But as you read the gospels, and then on into the story of the early Christians in the Book of Acts, you see that God was re-tooling these mostly Jewish new believers, that God was doing a new thing.  And when God is doing a new thing, you’ve got to let go of your old thing, whatever that is.  Peter had to retool his mind.  It was a shocking idea. Check the reaction:

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. (Acts 10:45)

Even… them.  Sometimes a single word makes the biggest difference:  Even.  Nobody saw it coming.  God loves even the Gentiles.  Even the Romans.  And they were astounded.  God was making a special effort to reach out to the killers of his own son.  These Romans believed, then they invited Peter to stay for a few days.  I would love to have known how that went: Peter the faithful Jewish disciple of Jesus hanging out with a Roman centurion (from the Italian Cohort – 10:1) .

One thing we know from that story is that God had no expectation that this Roman soldier would have to change to become a believer.  God took him just as he was.  Peter was the one who had to adjust, who had to change, in order to communicate God’s love to this man.

Even the Gentiles.  Even… them.  I wonder who that might be for us? Or for you?  How flexible are you?  How can we change or adjust to reach outsiders?

There are so many people in Manheim (or wherever you live) who don’t know God loves them and sent Christ to save them.  What can we do as believers to reach out and include them?  How can we re-tool?  The times are changing.  Our basic message will always be the same, but the ways we communicate, the ways we operate, and the ways we think about ourselves as God’s people always need to be open to change.

The Pew Research Center published a report last week that got the attention of many church folks (do a search; you’ll find it).  Since 7 years ago, the percentage of people in the United States who describe themselves as Christians fell about 8 points — from 78.4% to 70.6%.  In Manheim (PA), both those numbers are lower.  The people who describe themselves as Christians dropped from 66.1% to 60.7% in about the same time (Quaddrenium report of MissionInsite.com).  There are so many churches here, You would think it’s different, right?

In spite of all that, two things are true.  Jesus is alive.  The power that comes from knowing him transcends how any one group of people processes their faith or does church, including us.  He is the core of life, not any of our traditions.

Then, like Peter, all of us have come to a time when we literally have to find ways to think outside of our boxes.  It’s a mistake to think that people will come to us and become like us.  We must find ways to reach out to them, to meet their needs, on their turf, on behalf of the God who loves them.  Even them.

We’ve found that the people in our neighborhood will come to a free breakfast or a dinner if we invite them.  What other ministries can we be doing?  Might God call us to change something we already do?  God has called on faithful people to change ever since Jesus came out of the tomb.  God sends the Spirit to do that work with us and in us.Model T - Newcomb Rd. - sunnyIt’s not a secret that in my spare time I enjoy old cars and I have a 1916 Model T Ford at home.  It’s the last Ford with brass and the first with electric headlights.  What I enjoy about it is that it’s such a part of history. I live the history a little bit whenever I’m behind the wheel.

*Henry Ford sold the first Model T in 1908 for $825. By 1914, six years later, because of the efficiency of Ford’s assembly line, the price dropped to $206. Single-handedly, he made it possible for the average person in America to have a car.  Some historians think that Henry Ford has had more influence on our culture than any other person.  He made it possible to leave town and commute to work.  He sold 15 million Model T’s in almost 20 years of production, there are companies that still make parts for Model Ts, and it’s still possible to get any part you might need for a Model T on the Internet.

Ford Model T, c. 1910, from a glass negative owned by CN.
Ford Model T, c. 1910, from a glass negative owned by CN.

Henry Ford was a great businessman, but he was not an especially creative guy; not exactly a visionary, especially as he got older.   In the 1920s, the car market changed. General Motors started selling new cars at competitive prices with conveniences that the Model T lacked — like an electric starter. On my car, there’s no dashboard and headlights were an accessory you had to ask for.  1920s drivers demanded conveniences.

But Ford didn’t get it and he wouldn’t let go. Once when he came back from a vacation he found his engineers had updated a Tin Lizzie. Ford stomped in its roof and kicked out the windshield.

Finally, sales stalled to the point that Ford had to face reality.  In1927, after almost 20 years of making only one basic type of car, Ford stopped making Model T’s completely. He closed his factories for six months, retooled and then produced: the Model A.

The Model A saved the Ford Motor Company. But for that to happen, Henry Ford, and the whole company, had to stop – completely, look around at where they were, and be willing to start out again in an almost completely different direction.  (*story found in www.homiletics.com, May 25, 2003 – “Logos and Logos”)

This is true for the church, and it’s true for us as individuals also.  Sometimes you have to stop, let God speak to you, re-tool, and head out in a different direction.  This is impossible without faith, without recognizing you cannot do this on your own.  You need that same power in your life that raised Christ from the dead and changed Peter’s way of looking at Gentiles and Romans.  If Peter had not changed and convinced the rest of the believers to change with him, we might not be here worshipping Jesus today.

Now, could it be that God’s asking us for a little more change, for the sake of the people who share Main Street with us?  I believe God has a part for each of us to play in loving the world to Jesus.  A little story to frame the question in a different way…

*During the Balkan war in the early 1990’s, this story was on the radio:  A reporter was covering the fighting in the middle of Sarajevo, and he saw a little girl shot by a sniper.  The reporter threw down his pad and pencil, and stopped being a reporter for a few minutes.  He rushed to the man who was holding the child, and helped them both into his car.

As the reporter stepped on the accelerator, racing to the hospital, the man holding the bleeding child said, “Hurry, my friend, my child is still alive.”

A moment or two later, “Hurry, my friend, my child is still breathing.”

A moment later, “Hurry, my friend, my child is still warm.”

Finally, “Hurry. Oh, God, my child is getting cold.”

When they got to the hospital, the little girl was dead.

As the two men were in the lavatory, washing the blood off their hands and their clothes, the man turned to the reporter and said, “This is a terrible task for me.  I must go tell her father that his child is dead.  He will be heartbroken.”

The reporter was amazed.  He looked at the grieving man and said, “I thought she was your child.”

The man looked back and said, “No, but aren’t they all our children?”

They all are.  That’s how God sees us, and how God hopes we can learn to see each other, and all the people in our community.  They are all worth the re-tooling it might take.  And God will give us the wisdom and vision we need.

*as told by Jim Wallis in A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers by William A. Bausch (Columbia Press, 1998) p. 306.

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.  Through your Spirit, give us patience and forgiveness.  Keep us willing to explore new directions.  Deepen our faith use your Spirit to teach us all how to love.  Amen.

5/10/2015 Sermon – God on the Road #2 – “You Mean Him?”

DSC_0112The Book of Acts is a kind of wild, dangerous adventure story that’s being played out on TV on Sunday nights.  It seems that there are countless Jesus movies, and even a series or two about Jesus, but this is the first major attempt that I know of to show what the first followers of Jesus were all about.  If you’ve been watching the A.D. series on Sunday nights and reading the Book of Acts, you might be surprised by some of what you’re seeing.  Okay, some of it isn’t in scripture – but you have to realize that these were flesh-and-blood people with relationships beyond words on a page.  How did that play out?  We don’t really know, but here’s some basic stuff about the lives of these early Christians as the series – and the Book of Acts – goes along.

God is with them.  They learned to trust God day by day.  They knew God was with them. They had come out of the shadows and God was changing them – never a shadow of doubt.  They believed and God made them strong. This is still true for people who believe.

The times are dangerous.  They lived in a violent, ruthless, dangerous time (as if we don’t, right?).  I’ve wondered if the producers included some violent scenes just to pander to our tastes, but even if that’s the case, the times were violent.  I think that’s true now also, even if it doesn’t happen in the same way on the street where you live.

Joy and suffering come together.  In the midst of that, they were already out of their comfort zone and being put in situations they weren’t prepared for.  Sometimes God saves them out of a bad situation, sometimes God lets them suffer.  From moment to moment, they don’t know which it will be.  One day, God does some jaw-dropping miracle; the next day somebody is getting beaten by Romans.  It’s different for everyone – if you believe in the risen Jesus, get ready for amazing joy.  But God also gives the privilege of suffering to make faith deeper.

God doesn’t let life stay comfortable.  God needs them to break out of their comfort zones.  God will never be able to change the world, if they stay stuck in one place.  This is true both physically and spiritually.  They have to go to places God needs them to go.  As they step out, God begins to develop spiritual muscles they never knew they had.  This is also true for us.

Today, we’ve got a story about how that works.  You might remember that last week, we talked about how the number of believers grew explosively in those first days.  Suddenly there were thousands believing and loving each other, and the core group of original believers needed help.  Philip was one of those new leaders…

Acts 8:26-40.  Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.29Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ 31He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
   and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
     so he does not open his mouth. 
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
   Who can describe his generation?
     For his life is taken away from the earth.’ 
34The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. 

The Judean hills near Jerusalem - the "wilderness."  CN - 2011.
The Judean hills near Jerusalem – the “wilderness.” CN – 2011.

At this point in the adventure story, 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)

So, those first disciples were witnesses in Jerusalem – check.  And Judea, the area around Jerusalem – check.  Most were headed north through Samaria – check (that’s the way back home to Galilee).  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 phone 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 Roman road where the chariots travel.  The hot road where water and the villages are more spread apart.   And he is apparently on foot, with whatever provisions he can carry.  He is probably hoping he runs into somebody with water out there.  Philip is about to be stretched beyond his thirst.

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, and it may not be someone you expect.  You may find yourself asking God, “You mean him?”

Last week, after there were suddenly thousands of new believers, you heard the story of how the first disciples in leadership, who were ethnically and geographically Jewish had to learn to embrace Greek-speaking Jews (Hellenists – Acts 6:1-7).  One of the disciples chosen for this expanded ministry was Philip.  But it’s not long before Philip finds himself out of his own comfort zone and maybe you will too.  Out in the desert, God sends him to…

An Ethiopian.  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!  There were Africans who came to faith in the risen Jesus before us.  Did that Ethiopian start a church and baptize people himself?  Maybe.  Why not?

A Eunuch.  Historically, in ancient times, a eunuch was a castrated man 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, GPS, and a satellite radio.  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 (there were and are Ethiopian Jews).  This is a person who is looking for God, and God was looking for him – somebody different.

You have to understand how different he is.  He is economically different – he is rich. In that place, he is racially different.  He is physically different.  Is he gay?  Is he transgender?  Not really.  But he is sexually different.  And God wants him.

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.  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?  Maybe just the way people think about him?  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.  Maybe you need to hear that too.

Or maybe somebody here needs to hear about the Ethiopian because you’re on a quest; you’re searching.  Or maybe until this moment, you’ve thought you were too different for God.  O,r maybe you just needed to hear that if God used Philip to reach out to people who are different, we can too.  Maybe God needs St. Paul’s United Church of Christ to do that.

The Ethiopian came looking for God, thinking about suffering, Philip found the courage to baptize him (he had never baptized anybody before) and this different African man “went on his way rejoicing.”

We are in the business of lifting suffering and bringing joy. Actually, it’s God who does that as we say yes and let ourselves be used.  God is with us in dangerous times.  Together, we know joy and suffering. There is much to do, and I pray that God will not let us get too comfortable.

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.

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 find ways to give away the joy that comes from knowing you.  Amen.

5/3/2015 Sermon: God on the Road #1 – “The Magnificent Seven”

Cusco churchHave you ever visited a church that was different from this one?  Silly question; I know you have.  Last week, Kathy and I were exploring the possibility of an international mission project in Peru (at some point, I’ll have much more to say about that!) and last Sunday, we attended worship in a Peruvian church, in a mountain city called Cusco.  It was in a very small, storefront building; worship downstairs, Sunday School upstairs.  There were maybe 40 people, including kids.  And I found myself thinking about Jesus speaking to his followers and saying, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (Acts 1:8)  And here we were in one of “the ends of the earth.”

The spreading of this faith in the living Jesus had its beginning in Palestine and eventually reached Europe, and Peru, and Asia, and Africa, and Manheim, Pennsylvania…  and you!

If you’ve been following the A.D. series on Sunday nights, you’ve been watching this play out (at least in the minds of some filmmakers), and I’d recommend watching it.  In the form of the Holy Spirit, God comes to the core group of Jesus-followers, and you see this amazing transformation taking place.  Day by day they are getting stronger spiritually; they are even doing some of the same miracles Jesus was doing.  But more than that, they are becoming more confident and courageous – quite a makeover from what they were a few weeks ago when they were hiding in the shadows.

They are ready to let everybody know whom they believe in; they can’t keep this good thing they’ve found to themselves.  The power of the resurrection of Jesus is about to explode out of this place, and they are going start giving faith away.  Faith in Jesus cannot be contained in a single place.  It must spread, especially today, so we’re calling this series “God on the Road.”

God on the Road

The Book of Acts is an adventure story that describes how the early church grew explosively in a very short time, and the number of believers kept increasing.  God came in the form of the Holy Spirit to anyone who believed in the resurrection of Jesus (this is still how it works!)  Suddenly there were 3,000 (v. 2:41), then 5,000 more (4:4); all in the space of a few weeks. And you begin to see the most basic way God wants to work in people’s lives; God wants use believers to change the world, and this is still true today.

First, belief in the resurrection of Jesus.  “Jesus, I believe in you.”  This opens the door for God to work in us.  Then, the first impulse of faith in Jesus is to show love for others by making sure everyone is okay, to establish equality.  When this first began to happen, it was a miracle.  All these new believers felt compelled to share their property and their finances out of their love for others.  People who were very different from each other were sharing – with each other.  Faith created an impulse to give.

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”  (Acts 2:44-45)

But all this giving created a situation that these new believers weren’t prepared for, and we can learn a lot from this…

Acts 6:1-7.  Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. 3Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ 5What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

7 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

DSC_5338Let’s do a little Bible Study.  Ever wonder why there are so many different kinds of churches?  It’s a logical question: “Why can’t we just be one church?”

My quick answer is, “How would you like it if the only restaurants in town were Italian?  I know some folks who wouldn’t mind that at all, but I think you get my point.

From the very beginning, believers gathered in clumps that seemed most helpful to them, maybe because of their ethnic background or because of languages.  The original disciples were all Jewish.  But in those first thousands of believers, there were those who had a more European background and spoke Greek, the language of the Roman Empire, and they were called Hellenists (means Greek).  Those folks were pointing out, rightly, that there was some discrimination going on, and those first Christian leaders moved right away to fix that.  They picked disciples with mostly Greek-sounding names to help serve. They said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” (Acts 6:2)

But the Greek phrase for “wait on tables” is closer to “keep accounts” or “watch over the details.”

You know, I have never heard anyone else use this passage in preaching, and I’m not sure I understand why, because there is a major way God is working here.  And I believe that God can do powerful things with us if we only pay attention.  These first Christians made themselves more effective because they began to delegate and allow other believers to use their gifts to serve.

In the Old Testament, you see this happen with Moses. God uses him to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery and for a while, he thinks he is the only one who can make good decisions for thousands of people.  He is burning out, so God sends Jethro, his father-in-law, to have a little chat.  And Jethro says…

‘What you are doing is not good. 1You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Exodus 18:17-18)

So Moses finds people he can trust, lets them use their gifts, the people were able to move on, and Moses was a more effective leader.

20140920_092242So many people, so much to do!  In the adventure story from Acts, the apostles, the first leaders of the church, were blue-collar working types with no experience at leading a group.  They were preaching this powerful faith in Jesus and quickly came to find that people’s personal needs were so overwhelming that they couldn’t both preach and do serving ministry with all these new Christians at the same time. There were so many people and so much to do, they were burning out.

So God sent them help.  God sent the Spirit to 7 people who stepped up to serve.  It was simple – the leaders of the church had two functions: you have people doing preaching and people doing serving, faith and works, but as you read on, it’s clear that all of them were doing preaching and serving.

By the way, most times you read the words ministry, or serving, or doing work, or performing a task in the New Testament, the word used is usually diakonoi, or deacon.  If you do work in the church, you are deaconing! You are a deacon!

If you have said yes to God, if you have trusted Christ with your life, God has given you something fun to do in the church.  Why is it fun?  Because it’s fulfilling.  It makes other people’s lives richer.  It brings them to God!  There is nothing more fulfilling than to make someone else’s life richer with the presence of God, or making their lives better because of some gift you’ve got to give.  We all have gifts that we bring into the mix, and it takes a lot of help to be a healthy church.  If the congregation gets accustomed to relying on one person or any small group of individuals  to carry the load of ministry in the church, it’s unhealthy.  Besides, too many people would miss out on the fun.  That’s right; I said fun. And fulfilling.  Otherwise, why are we here?

There is very little of the work in any church that one person could or should do alone.  Obviously, this does not fit with what our culture teaches us: pay money and be served.  Be a consumer.  But if you believe, God has given you something to do, and you won’t be satisfied until you do it.  And there is much need.  My prescription?  Pick part of the ministry that seems like fun to you and offer to help out!

CHKENDRWI once saw a drawing of a church with a flock of geese flying over the steeple.  Not a bad symbol.  I think most people understand that geese fly in a V formation for a reason.  I used to think it had to do with drafting (like bike riders making it easier for each other), but it’s an aerodynamic thing.  The whole formation acts like a single wing.  The wind drag is distributed across all the birds.  Twenty-five geese flying together in a V can travel seventy percent farther than they can by flying by themselves.  Even the lead goose gets some benefit by staying slightly behind the perfect point position of the V.  The airflow of the geese behind helps the leader.  They are a single wing.  How does God help them know to do that?  I have to believe that God puts something inside them to know to do that.

God does the same thing with us.  By ourselves, we wouldn’t have a clue how to be a church.  But if we trust God individually, we can do it together.  It’s awesome work being the church, this force that’s changing the world, beginning with Manheim, and we each have an important part to play.  God needs you!  Actually, God doesn’t just need you; God needs all of us.

Prayer

Set us free from our limitations to serve you, God.  We thank you for all the people and all the circumstances you used to bring us here.  Only your touch, God, can create new life. Only you can put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Your Spirit can change our lives from weakness to boldness, fear to faith, mistrust to trust, self-love to your kind of sacrificial agape love.  God, help us take the risk to be yours.  Amen.