Monday, May 21, 2018

God's Vision


Acts 2:1-12
May 20, 2018
Pentecost

We’ve been reading the later chapters
in Acts this Easter Season,
but today we flip back to the second chapter
and see how it all began. Pentecost.
Add caption
The first day of the church as we know it.
Now we might think that it was a festive occasion.
But really, the whole thing must have been terrifying.
Wind, flames, speaking and understanding different languages.

Besides the strange occurrence of this day,
the future must have been pretty scary too.
I mean we have 2 thousand years of church
to work with, rebel against, return to later.

But the disciples didn’t have anything to go on,
They had no hymnal to 
refer to no instructions book,
no mission statement or constitution. 
No years of tradition.
This was the first time for the disciples.
And this moment made it obvious that this was
going to be nothing like what they
were used to in the synagogue.
And their confusion was obvious.

Now these disciples had been with Jesus,
heard him talk, spent time with him,
eaten with him, had their feet washed by him.
They had seen him arrested and killed,
and raised from the dead.

Jesus had told them that he would eventually go away
and that he would send the Holy Spirit to them
  
And for 40 days since the resurrection,
Jesus had been roaming around with them
I’m sure, visiting them and encouraging them and
getting them ready for that moment.

But still, even in their last second with Jesus on earth
Right before this day of Pentecost,
they didn’t seem like they
completely understood the arrangement.
In chapter 1, right before he ascends, they say to Jesus:
“Lord, is this the time when YOU
will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Even at this last minute,
they wanted Jesus to continue to do all the work.
How will YOU wow us in these last days, Lord?

No, no, no, Jesus tells them, you’ve got it wrong.
MY job is done. He tells them:

YOU will receive power now
The Holy Spirit will come upon YOU.
YOU will be my witnesses in Jerusalem
and all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”
YOU will be the ones to carry on my church,
YOU will finish the work that I’ve begun.
This is YOUR job now.

And just to make sure that they understood
that it was THEIR work now,
Jesus ascended up, into the clouds
and left them. Alone.

How could Jesus do that?
How could Jesus leave the church in the hands
of these people with no instructions or guide book,
with no leadership seminar, no seminary class?

And these 11 people ?! -
- Their assumed leader was, Peter,
the same one who had denied Jesus in fear.
- James and John the ones who were jockeying
for position arguing over which one was the greatest.
- There was Thomas who wouldn’t believe that Christ had risen.
- And Paul who started as a persecutor of Christians.
- Jesus left the church in the hands of the 
same ones who didn’t believe that Jesus could feed the people in the field,
- The ones who tried to push the children away from Jesus.
- The ones who accused Mary after she anointed Jesus.

On that day, God gave Jesus ministry to people like that.
To people like us.
People who are confused, egotistical, insecure, cynical, tired,
burnt out, who tried too hard, and didn’t try hard enough

God gave the church to regular people like us
and for better or worse,
they made something that we are still part of today.
It would be impressive enough if you just noticed the
length of time that it’s lasted.
But we are still reading scripture, praying, 
being moved and inspired by the same stories. 
We are still surprised, lit on fire,
motivated to baptize and make disciples
help strangers and to work for justice in our communities.
Still after all this time.

On that day, God declares,
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your 
sons and daughters will prophesy, 
and your young men will see visions, 
and your old men will dream dreams

Maybe on that day of Pentecost, on that
wonderful and scary day when they were wearing
the tongues of fire over their heads, maybe one of those
disciples had us in mind that day.

Maybe they envisioned us:
a group of people that follows, teaches about, and worships Jesus
in a big city, but not too big, behind a Tim Horton’s.
A place that welcomes everyone, that cares for children,
that has a ministry in Swahili and a food pantry.
And does all sorts of other things in Jesus name.

That dream would seem impossible then.
Where would we get the energy, the motivation,
the people, the money, who is Tim Horton? But here we are.
That’s how dreams are. One day they’re just in
your head, then someone else can see it, then it’s a reality.

So what dreams are we dreaming?
What visions are we envisioning.
What can we see the church being and doing and becoming?
Whatever our dreams for the future of the church is
We just pray just like those first disciples,
for God to fill us with the Spirit, to convert and transform us,
and to give us the courage to press on through adversity
and make those dreams a reality.

God still expects great things out of us.
God has chosen this church, in this time and place
God has chosen us to get that job done that Jesus started.

This is not just Jesus’s work anymore. This is our work too.
And we can have confidence in the Spirit 
that has brought us to this place. 
We can be sure that God is working through us.

Look at us.
This is the church that Jesus imagined and is still imagining.
This is the church that the Peter and Paul and all the Mary’s
and Phillip and Silas and Priscilla and Lydia and all the rest
struggled, and suffered, and worked to create.
This is God’s vision, still in progress and not yet done.
It is good to be this church.
It is good to be the risen body of Christ.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Paul and Idols: Distressed or Excited?


Acts 17: 22-31
May 13, 2018

 Pr. Wiese and Gethsemane people share a devotion
at the Aeropagus around 1997,
in Athens, Greece
where Paul's speech was delivered
 .
You can’t be around church much without
hearing how much things have changed.
Even the casual church goer can see that
there are fewer people attending
to church than there 
was even 15 years ago.
Even to someone who’s 
never set foot in a church
can see that church going 
isn’t as prevalent as it was 50 years ago.

In this climate of a changing church
we often hear about the Nones –  the  ones who claim “none” or no denomination or religion on forms or the “spiritual  but not religious” who who have a spiritual center, but don’t find the answer in a particular practice.

And the biggest change across our lifetime,
is probably the fact that we all have many people
in our lives who don’t worship regularly or at all,
some in our immediate families.
We certainly have many people in this category
among our friends, acquaintances, in the work place
and in our community.

And a common response to this reality for Christians
is to see all of these people with a combination of pity and angst, 
we wring our hands and clutch our pearls.
We are annoyed and offended, and we
wonder what has gone wrong with them,
and why can’t they be more like us.
In short we feel distressed at the thought that everyone isn’t
going to church like they did in the old days.

The result of this is that Christians have, in a way, set up a
confrontational relationship between Christians and non-Christians,
or Non practices or Spiritual but not religious.
Them  and us. There’s an animosity that can be
felt by outsiders whether its overt or covert.
And I wonder if this is 1.) useful, and
2.) if it’s in line with what we find in scripture.

It may seem obvious, but it’s good to remind ourselves
that In the time of Acts, there was 
no “old days” of the church to go back to.
They had no old times to reminisce about and
feel defeated that they’re not living up to yet.
The world had not yet met Jesus.
Christianity was not the norm in society,
Everyone they met was doing something else.
Maybe we should model ourselves more like them
than we were just a few decades ago.

In this part of Acts,
Paul and Silas are making their way around the coast of Greece from
Philippi where they were imprisoned in the
chapter before this to Thessalonica, Beroea and now to Athens.

While in Athens, at the beginning of chapter 17,
in our translation, it says that Paul was “distressed”
to see that the city was full of idols.
Other more liberal translations say that he was
 “angry”  at the prevalence of the idols.

Lots of Christians have used this line of scripture
to justify their “distress” and anger and condemnation of “Idol” worship,
lumping everything into that category from Buddhism
and paganism, and other religions, to those who have no religion,
to the Nones and the spiritual but not religious
even to calling other Christians idol worshippers.
(I know this because I found lots of this when I looked this up this week)
They use this line to further deepen
that confrontational relationship between Them and Us.

I rarely use Greek, so if you enjoy it, soak it in now:
The phrase that is translated as “distressed” in the NRSV
is parōx-y-neto to pneuma en auto
which literally translated means,
“his spirit was stirred in him”
pneuma is spirit and paroxyneto is stirred,
or sharpened or heightened.

Now I think “distressed” seems a far stretch from
“a stirred or heightened spirit”
I think the translators took some liberties here
that they didn’t need to take.
(and sure enough, the King James Version
translates it as “his spirit was stirred within him”)

So I’m thinking, at seeing all these idols around Athens,
maybe Paul was not so much distressed or angry
as much as excited and motivated.
Maybe Paul didn’t see a place that he needed to condemn
for their choice of religious practices,
as much as a fertile ground of spiritual activity.
A place where people are tuned into the divine
and are searching for something larger than themselves.
Maybe Paul didn’t see Athens as a bunch of “them”
as much as more of “us”.

And when I read the speech Paul gives today,
I don’t think I’m on shaky ground with this.

It says that the people of Athens were into debating
others and always looking for a new theory or philosophy.
As Paul was going around in the synagogues and
in the market places and preaching and teaching about
Jesus resurrection, they were intrigued and so they
bring him to the Areopagus, or literally, Mars Hill,
it also referred to the council that would meet there.
So this speech was kind of a public hearing of sorts.

And he starts his speech like this,
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way”
He sees that their minds and hearts are focused
on the spiritual and the divine. He doesn’t say he’s distressed.
He mentions that he saw an altar
with the inscription “to an unknown god”.
And he tells them that they might not know who this God is,
but he knows who this God is . It is the creator of everything,
He goes on to this, what I think is a beautiful and inclusive speech:

“From one ancestor (or blood) he made us all nations
to inhabit the whole earth, and he limited their time
on earth and set them in certain places
so that they would search for him,
even grope for him, because he is not far from any of us.”

“God is not far from any of us.

And then he quotes their own poetry
which he probably read while touring around:
“In him we live and move and have our being,
for we too are his offspring
This could have been lifted from the gospel of John.
The poetry of these pagan idol worshippers
says that we all are “children of God”.

Paul admires the similarities between
the search for truth between the
worshippers of Athens and his own
search for spiritual truth.

As Paul goes onto say, that the truth has been revealed
to him in the form of Christ Jesus who was raised from the dead.
And he invites them to join him in that truth.

The truth has been revealed to us in Jesus,
who was crucified by those who held the
survival of their religious institution above
 the presence of God that was right in front of them.

The truth has been revealed to us in Jesus
who broke down the barriers between sacred and unsacred.
Who removed the line between them and us.
So that we can look past our religious labels and see
that we all “live and move and have our being in the same spirit,
and that we are all offspring of the same God too.”

Because of Jesus,
Paul saw these people as spiritual equals.
He appealed to their understanding
he respected their poets and words,
he found common ground and was stirred in his spirit
to share the truth that he knew.

Instead us being distressed and mourning
the changes that have happened in our institution
and being hung up on how we miss the way things
used to be, what if we take a moment and,
like I said last week,
see what God is doing here with this situation.

Maybe the shrinking of our churches
is a sign of God’s presence, not absence.
Maybe God is shaking us up, forcing us to think a different way,
or doing something even more creative here
that we’ll only find out later.

Maybe God is using the seeker, the Nones,
the spiritual but not religious,
the agnostic, atheist, the secular humanist,
and all of the above, to further the kingdom of God.

God created and loves everything
And the Spirit will go and do what it wants when it wants.
God is already at work in the world,
in so many different and new ways,
and we are just here to look for those places,
and join in when we can.
  
I hope we can see the world as Paul saw it,
not a place to be threatened and distressed by,
but a place that stirs our spirit.
A place where we see spiritual longing everywhere
a world full of people who are groping for God,
because God is not far from any of us.

As the Church, we are called to see beyond our
own boundaries and prejudices and hang ups
and learn deep spiritual truths from everyone around us,
religious or not religious
and rejoice in the Spirit that doesn’t know
any boundaries and goes where it will.

We are the Church.
God’s vision of the kingdom is our agenda.
The grace of Christ feeds us.
The Spirit  is our enabler.
We are called to reach out and invite in.

We are the Church.
It is as faulty as the people who make it,
and yet God has entrusted us with the
vision of the kingdom in this world.

We are the Church.
It is good to be the Church.
It is good to be the risen body of Christ.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Reaching Out, Inviting In and Getting Arrested


Acts 16
May 6, 2018

This is a great story and I could have picked up on bunches
of different themes, but I wanted to get you
out of here before Bob Evans runs out of biscuits,
so I had to narrow it down to a few.

So just to remind everyone,
our theme is Reaching Out and Inviting In.
We’re looking at these stories and talking
about how we’re called to the same things
that the first Church was called to.

Now, usually, when we think of reaching out
as a church, or evangelism, most of the time we think of
people knocking on doors and asking strangers,
“Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior”
and having the door slammed in our face not an inviting prospect.
And I think that Lutherans are very uncomfortable
with this prospect because it doesn’t seem genuine,
and I have to agree. But then we opt for not doing anything
which isn’t a good answer either.

But as far as ringing doorbells, Paul and Silas and the others in Acts
don’t do that kind of reaching out,
nary a door was knocked on,
what they do much different than  that.
There’s a lot more to it. (You might want to knock on doors after this)

First thing I noticed is that in the process of
their work, Paul and Silas get arrested.
Not that I’m suggesting that,
but it’s not out of the question either.

Now, if you look at it, they don’t get
arrested for being Christian or for preaching –
those things weren’t against the law.
They were arrested because the
message of Jesus itself was disruptive
to the narrative of the world.

The message of Jesus, just by
its very nature, rocked the boat of society,
challenged unjust systems –
like the enslavement of this girl.
And it made people uncomfortable and angry.
Paul and Silas had basically shut off the
income stream of the people
who had enslaved her,
that makes people mad and they had them arrested.

So when some people say that Christians
should just be praying and worshipping
and doing acts of mercy and kindness ,
and not be involved in issues of justice, or politics,
or shouldn’t be rocking  boats in the real world,
or confronting the powers of the world,
I give you this story, and many others from Acts,
and other places.

Now that’s a plug for the Nehemiah Action
tomorrow, but it’s certainly true.
Just by sharing Jesus message of equality
and liberation and justice  were doing
something radical and controversial.

Paul and Peter and a lot of the other
characters in Acts spend a lot of time
on the wrong side of the law,
on the wrong side of political power,
and a lot of time in prison
for much of this whole book.
Again, not because preaching was against
the law, but because the content of their
message was disruptive.

And this boat rocking doesn’t end
for Paul and Silas after they’re in jail.
It just keeps on going.

So Paul and Silas have made the wrong people angry
and now they’re in prison
and while they’re there, they prayed and sang -
I could go off on a tangent on how
they prayed and sang and comforted
the prisoners they were being held with,
how that in itself is reaching out,
but there’s more impressive stuff to come
and I want to get to it.

As they prayed and sang,
the very unexpected happened:
There was an earthquake and shook
everything and all the prison doors were opened.

Now they could have just taken this opportunity
and ran away and left the jailer
and the other prisoners there, but they did not.

For them every situation is a
an opportunity to reach out.
Paul and Silas put their freedom
and their comforts second and
saw that the most important part was
their connection with the people
that God has put in front of them.
They reached out with God’s love.

The jailer was ready to off himself,
because he knew he would probably
have been jailed himself for letting
everyone leave, but Paul and Silas
and the rest of the prisoners, they stayed.
They told him not to kill himself because
they were all going to stay with him.

This was impressive, the jailer was touched
and knew that this was not just some smart
idea, there was a larger work at hand here,
and when the jailer asked them how to
get in on this whole thing, they told him: Jesus.
Paul and Silas didn’t make this situation happen,
God was already at work in the world,
and they were just looking for where
God was at work and where they could
live out the way that Jesus had shown them.

Many of us will not find ourselves in this kind of
situation in our lives -- we will not be held as political prisoners
and have an earthquake jar our cell doors open.
But God is still at work in our world every day.
Jesus is  doing great things right before our eyes
our job of evangelism is to recognize
Jesus’s work in this world,
be a part of it if we can and let people know its Jesus.

Here’s an example just this week in the news

You heard about the two men who
were arrested in Philadelphia because
they were in a Starbucks meeting someone
for a business deal and they hadn’t bought anything
and the worker got suspicious and the manager called the cops
and oh yeah, they were black.

They spent 8 hours in jail.
Just for waiting in a Starbucks which we all have done.
This was terrible and unjust and infuriating
and everyone could have doubled down on this
and been defensive and outraged and gotten a piece for themselves
out of this outrageous injustice.

Now, even though this was terrible and outrageous,
right from the beginning, lots of good things were happening:

It was great to see the 
other white people in the store
standing up for these 
men who were being arrested.
It was great that someone else videotaped,
and released the video for all to see.

It was great that Starbucks 
didn’t just blame the manager,
And fire her and think 
that they solved the problem,
but they have taken some great action,
even to the point of promising to close all their stores
for one day to have training on unconscious racial bias by their workers.
Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson:
Jesus Way at Work in the World

But the best thing happened this week,
the two men who were the targets of Starbucks
and the Philadelphia police, who could have rightfully leveraged
this event into a personal windfall for themselves,
This week decided to settle with the City of Philadelphia
for $1 for themselves, plus a $200 thousand dollar grant
for high school entrepreneurs, a grant that they will help manage.

And I say to you, this is has got Jesus written all over it.
Were all these people Christian? I don’t know
But like Paul and Silas, they took Jesus way and path.
They took the door that was opened for them
and they used it for other people,
they didn’t just run out, they didn’t just forget about the others.
They got  justice, not just for them but for more.
They reached out with the freak opportunity that came their way.
That is God working through them.
Jesus Way working in this world.

Now If I was in Philadelphia, I would give money to that fund.
I would support it, I would want to get involved in what they were doing, right?
Well, we have our own stuff here where God is working every day.
We have food pantries, Justice Actions, children’s programs, school programs,
Juvenile Justice Circles, care packages, houses being built,
there’s an endless list that doesn’t ever make the news.
God is working all around us, sometimes it’s clearer when its far away.

We live in world of captives literally and figuratively.
A world where doors are being shut all the time.
And most of us here have freedoms –
freedoms created by our privilege, our incomes, our status in society,
Our citizenship in this country, we have freedoms,
and as Christians we have  freedom that we have gained from Christ,
from knowing we’re loved and that death doesn’t have a hold on us.
  
Those prison doors have been opened for us,
not by our own doing, but by some crazy occurrence,
and the question that we have as Christians,
As followers of Jesus and the body of Christ
is what do we do with these freedoms?

Do we just run out of the prison and just claim our own freedom?
Do we escape with whatever we can get for ourselves?

Or do we wonder what God is doing here?
What project is Jesus working on? How can I get involved?
How can I reach out with God’s love , share our freedom
with others, and invite them in to what Jesus is doing?

Christian freedom is not about taking it for yourself
and making laws that give you more privileges and protections,
it’s about giving it away for others.
Being part of God’s plan for the world.
This is the way of the cross, the way of Paul
and Silas, the way of Peter, this is the Way of Jesus.
That is real power. Being a part of the project which is the Kingdom of God

The short story is that Evangelism is this:
Jesus is at work in the world, and we want to be a part of it:
We welcome the outcast, love our enemies,
talk to strangers , we stay awake to the world around us.

We join in God’s work  and we follow the teachings of Jesus in
all the disruptiveness that comes
that comes naturally in Jesus message and Way,
and when we get the opportunity
have the courage to tell people, “That was Jesus.”

Not ringing door bells not just saying Jesus, but doing Jesus.
Being a part of God’s grand project.
Opening doors in a world that has them closing everywhere,
Disrupting the narrative of the world
disrupting politics as usual in Christ’s name, and giving God the glory.
This is what the Church is called to do.
It’s not easy work, but it is great work, the best work, it is blessed work.
It is good to be the Church,
It is good to be the risen body of Christ.