Sunday, May 26, 2019

Open for Witness: Acts 16:9-15 - Sixth Sunday after Easter

9During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
11We 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 worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 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. (NRSV)
OPEN by Tracy Lee Carroll on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I was on my way out of what used to be HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital. I stopped in the lobby to bundle up before going out into the bitter cold—when I heard a man’s voice from behind me:

“You lie for a living”

I turn around to see an older gentleman seated on a chair. “How many people do you lie to on Sunday morning?”

I pause, speechless—then I ask: “why do you say that? If you want to tell me, I’ll listen.”

So I sit down, and he tells me that he was an infantryman in the United States Army during World War 2. His unit was waiting to ambush hundreds of Nazi soldiers as they crossed a river in boats in which the front end lowers down and the troops run out. He was behind a large-caliber machine gun and commanded to open fire. “I can’t tell you how many people I killed. Dozens. Maybe hundreds. I wake up three, four times a night and I’m still in that war. So, you can’t tell me there’s a God.”

At that point, there was nothing I could say in my defense—or God’s. All I could do was thank him for his service and the sacrifice he was still making for his country, almost 75 years later.

I’m thankful that he was open to me—and that I could be open to him. And I pray that, somehow, he got a glimpse of Christ’s compassion for him in his trauma and agony.

In our first reading for today, we witness the Holy Spirit opening persons to each other.

The apostles Paul, Timothy, and Silas have been led by the Spirit to the city of Philippi, in what is part of modern-day Greece. On the Sabbath day, they go to a place they assume is a place of prayer. There, a group of women are gathered. Among them is a woman named Lydia, whom we are told is “a worshipper of God” and “a dealer in purple cloth.” Lydia listens on, presumably as they pray.

The bible doesn’t give us any details about their conversation. Perhaps Lydia became curious when she heard them praying to the same God she did—given that most of her neighbors were pagan… We can only speculate. But the Spirit makes an opening—an opening to the Gospel; an opening to each other; an opening for Christ to draw near..

Ultimately, Lydia and her entire household are all baptized—and her home becomes the home base of the Church at Philippi. Many more of God’s children will be baptized—because these persons were open to the Spirit and open to each other.

So how open are you to the Holy Spirit—and what the Spirit is up to?  How open are you to the people you’ll encounter along the way?

I ask this because this kind of openness is far and away the exception rather than the norm. You’re a human being. Your time, energy, resources, and attention span can only be open to so much. When the pressure’s on and the anxiety’s high, the Holy Spirit is not going to be at the forefront of your attention. Can you honestly say that you are more open to God’s desires than your own? And how open can you be to the people around you when you have your own affairs to worry about?

Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth. Whether or not this would’ve made her wealthy is up for debate. But the vocation would’ve been demanding, especially since she had a household to run and a family to look after. People in Jesus’ day would’ve been every bit as busy as us; with none of the comforts and conveniences we rely upon. But our hectic lives, limited attention spans, and fleshly appetites are no match for Holy Spirit—to make an opening.

Your challenge is to stop closing off the Spirit and start paying attention to what the Spirit is doing.

I’m going to hold up last Sunday as an example. The attendance figure suggests the day was a disappointment. Yet, the chancel choir gave us its most uplifting anthem in years. Our Sunday School children learned about how we worship and why we do the things we do. They asked great questions. They even called me “Vice Jesus,” since I speak his Word.

Later that day, we had our confirmation class out on the front porch. And we did, passersby stopped and asked us what we were doing. And we told them. So, the Spirit’s working—only question is, are we open—or are we too frantic, anxious, or bitter to notice?

How open are you to other people: that new neighbor you’ve never met; that fellow church-member who hasn’t been around in a while; the waitress who didn’t serve you what you ordered; or even the panhandler begging at the red light? You find yourselves feeling sorry for them; wishing you could do something; but do you? Or do you keep yourselves closed; for fear of the outcome or because you’re not comfortable getting involved? What about people who make you uncomfortable—because of their race, social class, or orientation? Do you close yourself off, in judgment against them?

Christian witness isn’t about opening people to you. It’s you opening yourself to them. Just open your heart; open your hands. Open your ears. Open your mouth. Open your arms. Your openness is the gift. It’s an opening to Jesus. And it’s still a gift, even if that person isn’t open to you.

And I wonder how we can exercise openness like Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Lydia?

Is there any reason why we can’t do what they do—walk out into the open spaces of our community, pray, and see who or what the Spirit opens to us?

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Fear Factor: Easter Edition: Acts 11:1-18 - Fifth Sunday after Easter

1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (NRSV)

pate by stu_spivack on Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

What is the craziest, most extreme food you’ve ever eaten?

For me, it would have to be the time I was served pâté de foie gras—pureed goose liver. I put on my best poker face and ate it, while others raved at how delicious it was. I, however, did not ask for seconds. I’m a picky eater—and I know that my aversion to certain foods is what makes them taste bad. And there are probably plenty of people in the world who’d be absolutely disgusted by what I eat—especially hot dogs

Our first reading from the book of Acts sounds like an episode of Fear Factor: Peter falls into a trance while he’s praying, and a large sheet comes down from heaven—and on that sheet are all kinds of four-footed animals, beasts of pray, reptiles, and ravenous birds. And a voice says to him, “get up, kill, and eat.”

Make no mistake: this was a nightmare for anyone who’d been raised in Judaism—because all these animals were unclean. Not only did the Torah prohibit you from eating them, you were also prohibited from touching them. And if you did happen to touch one, you became unclean.

Peter was right to object to breaking God’s own law. That is, until the voice said, “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

God wasn’t content for Peter to eat just one serving. God imposed three full helpings on Peter before the picnic cloth was lifted back up to heaven.

Then immediately, three men from Caesarea arrived at the house where Peter was staying. They had been sent there by an angel God—to escort Peter back to the home of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. Peter is commanded by the Spirit not to make any distinction between them and himself—because these persons were not Jewish. They were not part of Israel or from the bloodline of Abraham and Sarah. And yet, Cornelius, his household, and many others were to be baptized by Peter.

The boundary line that separated Jew from Gentile was hereby eradicated. God’s kingdom was breaking out of boundaries and norms that had defined it for millennia. This was the Gospel truth that Peter was forced to eat—but don’t think that this truth will prove easy for the early Christians to swallow. I can only imagine the disapproving looks and murmurings as Peter tells them that the Church will now include the very people they’ve spent their lifetimes avoiding!

Then Peter says, “who am I to hinder God?

This passage shows that God wants to be in relationship with everyone. The cross reveals how far God is willing to go to make it happen. But sometimes, WE get in the way.

For all the times you ask, “why am I not close to Jesus?” or “why is the church not growing?” do you ever ask, “am I hindering God?” We ask, “where is Jesus?” without ever asking, “am I locking him out?”

There are certain things about us—what we do, what we believe, how we act—that make us us. Whether we realize it or not, there are boundaries that separate who’s in and who’s out—when it comes to who belongs to this church (versus who’s not); who’s a Christian (versus who’s not), and who’s heaven-bound (versus who’s not).

We build up walls and boundary lines to make our Christianity fit comfortably and conveniently into our habits and ambitions. We build up walls and boundary lines to make the Church into a sanctuary for our own preferences and ideals. Within these walls, we seek a Jesus who makes sanctuary in what we ourselves desire. We seek a Jesus who’s made in our image and upholds our own values. We strive to minimize anxiety, stifle change, and prevent loss. And when the Gospel challenges those boundary lines and ideals, the Gospel suddenly becomes hard to swallow—and we spit it out.

Jesus, of course, came in love for the world and we crucified him. Nevertheless, God’s love cannot be contained within the boundaries we erect of who’s in and who’s out. God’s love will not be imprisoned within our preferences and ideals, prejudices and fears. Life-giving relationships with God lead to life-giving relationships among people.

When it comes to God’s kingdom, Jesus leads on—and you either follow, or get out of the way.

Somehow, some way, the Holy Spirit is putting pressure on you. Do you embrace the truth of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness? Is the Spirit breaking down your hard heart? Are your priorities God’s priorities? Is there something important in your life that needs to be let go? Is there someone for you to love and serve instead of rejecting or ignoring? With everything you crave and desire; everything you prefer—do you believe Jesus has a better life in store?

The resurrected life is not always easy to swallow—because it won’t conform to your comforts and preferences. You’re dying and rising with Christ, every single day. Nearly every change or challenge from the Lord will be bitter—but ultimately better.

New life awaits you like a food you’ve never tasted. Sure, you know what you love to eat—but you haven’t tasted life quite like this. It may be hard to swallow at first. But ultimately, when you trust, you will taste, and you will see that the Lord is good!

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Clothed in Resurrection: Acts 9:36-43 - Fourth Sunday of Easter

36Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner. (NRSV)
Sewing by Marc Rusines on flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0

The Easter season is supposed to be a time of life and rebirth—but there’s been an awful lot of death and loss happening over the last three weeks or so. We lost June Klingensmith, our oldest member, the day before Easter; yesterday, we laid Mike Shaffer to rest—a dear brother gone far too soon.

Longtime members who never miss church are suffering bitter declines in health and mobility; unable to do what once was done so easily; some unable even to live at home.

Many of your lives have been disrupted by the need to care for aging parents and make difficult decisions about their long-term care. You are moving them into nursing homes and selling the homes you grew up in (and all the furnishings that filled them). You’ve also spoken of relationships between parents and children or between siblings being strained and broken.

Any way you slice it, there is so much loss happening all around us that it’s easy NOT to see Christ’s life-giving works, happening all around us.

In today’s first reading from Acts, we are introduced to a disciple named Tabitha—whom we’re told was “devoted to good works and acts of charity.”

Suddenly, she became ill and died—and among those mourning her death were widows who had brought with them the garments Tabitha had made for them. And in those days, no one knew the pain of loss like widows. Not only had they lost their husbands, they had lost their means of economic survival. To be a widow meant that you were dependent on either your children (if they were old enough) or the charity of others for your survival. Yet one big way God provided for these widows was through Tabitha.

We live in a time where clothing is extremely cheap and plentiful. Our clothing closet volunteers know this better than anybody. But in those days, clothing was extremely expensive and inaccessible. Most persons owned little more than the clothes on their back—and these would’ve been some of your most valuable possessions. Imagine, then, what a blessing it was to know someone like Tabitha—who made clothing and gave it to you, free of charge. It’s highly probable that she was teaching these widows her trade, so that they could in turn support themselves!

While Tabitha clothed widows in tunics and other garments, Jesus clothed them in love and new life.

That promise has given me some comfort amid the dreadful losses we’ve been experiencing. I think of all these saints, these disciples—both living and dead—and I realize that my life has been made better because of their good works. Their love and faithfulness make Jesus more visible to me—because it was Jesus, living through them, all along.

The beauty of the Body of Christ is that everyone has been given some special talent; some special skill that clothes all of us in resurrection—even if you can’t sew or make stuff with your hands. Even babies and little children bring something valuable that enriches our walk with Jesus. People who don’t come to church have something that will bless us—far beyond their plate offerings or filling empty pews. Being the Body of Christ is nothing less than clothing one another with the love and new life.

Our challenge isn’t finding more people like Tabitha. Instead, the challenge is to nurture the Christ that is waiting to come alive inside each and every one of you.

Here’s a question: if you were given the chance to do something in this church to glorify Christ, share your faith, and build up your neighbor, what would that be? Imagine yourself free to do that work or share that gift, without anyone criticizing or second-guessing you, calling you crazy, or saying “I don’t want that in my church.” Instead, they’re saying, “how can I help?” Imagine what it would be like to try something, FAIL, and not be made to feel like a FAILURE? Jesus intends for you to live in that freedom.

Living in a time of so much loss, one of the biggest PREVENTABLE losses is forsaking the opportunities to build each other up by the good works we love to do. It’s seeing the other and saying, “I have no need of you” or “you’re not worth my time.” Underestimating the amount of lasting good you can do to a person. Or how blessed you could be by being in relationship with someone.

If you have any faith or closeness with God, it’s because of the good works of others! And even if the people who did those good works to you have aged or died, their good works will bless you forever. Just the same, your good works will last forever and bring God’s kingdom nearer—even if you don’t see tangible results. You are a gift because you bring Christ—and no one should ever leave this house of worship without being clothed, somehow, some way—in the new life of Christ.